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Seeing Crater Lake from lots of angles

In the way a prophet is not without honor except in his own land, a lot of world-class destinations aren't taken for granted except in their own neighborhood. Just as Parisians don't gawk at the Eiffel Tower, many Southern Oregonians probably haven't seen Crater Lake in years. Or maybe they've driven to Rim Village and called it good after visiting the lodge and getting a quick look at the lake.

Our plan was to hike five or six short trails in the park to see as much of it as we could in a day. We got a late start, and it still worked out.

We began with the path from Rim Drive to Sun Notch, an easy stroll of half a mile or so. If you've driven up Highway 62, take Rim Drive East (it's maybe a couple hundred yards south of the park headquarters and the visitor information center) 4.3 miles to the trailhead on your left. Walk from there up the volcano's flank to the rim, where the view will knock your hiking socks off.

Spread before you is America's deepest and purest lake, and probably the bluest. It's six miles across and 1,943 feet deep. The shocking blue color is one of nature's tricks. The water isn't really blue, of course. It absorbs different wavelengths of light (which our eyes see as color), long-wavelength red first, then orange, yellow, green and finally blue. It's the deepest blue that's reflected back to the top of the lake.

The path meanders around the rim a little, with observation points here and there, and it's worth moving around a bit. The weird little island nearby is Phantom Ship, the remains of a volcanic plug from eruptions of 12,000-foot Mount Mazama that began about 400,000 years ago. Sun Notch itself is a glacial trough created when Mazama blew about 7,700 years ago.

In its climactic eruptions, the mountain blew about 150 times as much material as the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. When so much stuff had blown out that the mountain had no support, it collapsed on itself, creating the caldera that filled over time with rain and snow and springs. To the west, Wizard Island was created after the collapse of the mountain.

If you visit in later summer, you'll likely see long-distance backpackers, as the Pacific Crest Trail passes through the park west of the caldera. We gave a young woman with the trail name of Micro a lift from the Annie Creek Restaurant to park headquarters, where she met fellow hikers. Micro had set out from the Mexican border in April and hoped to reach the Canadian border before the weather turns bad.

A few cautions are in order. Many of these trails have spots from which a fall could be serious or fatal. Be careful, and watch the kids. As always, carry water and layers of clothing. The weather can change quickly this high up.

Our next trail of the day was another shorty to see the Castle Crest wildflowers. About half a mile south of park headquarters on Rim Drive East, park at a "congested area" sign. The path quickly crosses a creek and lands visitors on a hillside dotted with little springs that have made the area an oasis of flowers. Monkeyflowers and shooting stars are easy to spot, as well as lupines and other wildflowers. It's a good idea to stick to the stepping stones in this gentle spot, and you can dip your toes in the water without leaving the path, which dumps you back on the road in less than a half-mile.

We drove back to the intersection near park headquarters, then south toward Highway 62 for 2.1 miles to the mile-long Godfrey Glen Nature Loop. Take the left fork and quickly come to the edge of a box canyon lined by strange spires that may make you think more of the American Southwest than the Northwest. The canyon, now 100 yards deep, was once filled with Mazama's ash and pumice. Hot gas from the volcano solidified the ash, and countless little streams and rivulets cut the canyon, leaving the spires you see today.

All these trails may be thought of as getting up-close and personal with the crater, seeing the caldera and the lake and something of its geology and its botany. We picked our final two trails, Mount Scott and the Watchman Overlook, for the overview.

To get to the trail up 8,926-foot Mount Scott, drive around Rim Drive 11 miles to a parking area on your right. Those handsome gray birds with the black and white wings are Clark's nutcrackers, relatives of crows and jays that rely heavily on pine nuts for a living. One bird may bury more than 30,000 seeds and somehow manage to find most of them later, allowing for those eaten by pilfering ground squirrels. The birds move up and down the mountain with the seasons in an example of "vertical migration."

The trail's second mile moves via switchbacks through pumice fields to the summit, two miles plus a bit from the trailhead. That's Upper Klamath Lake to the south and snowy Mount Shasta in the distance. Mount McLoughlin is to the right, and blue Crater Lake before you. To the north is the lightning-rod spire of Mount Thielsen, and in the far distance, the Three Sisters west of Bend.

Almost directly across the lake from Mount Scott is The Watchman, an 8,013-foot crest on the west side of the lake. Drive four miles north of Rim Village to a parking lot and viewpoint on your right. The Watchman is closer to Rim Village and a shorter trail (less than 2 miles round trip) than Mount Scott, so it gets a lot of visitors.

The wide, lower path is actually the remains of the rim road from circa 1917. The trees here are mountain hemlock, the most common species in the park. Near the top, you'll see whitebark pine, gnarled little trees that are under heavy snow most of the year.

As you follow the switchbacks to the summit, the views get better. We counted nine ridges in the distance along one line of sight, each bluer than the last. The rustic lookout at the summit was closed to visitors on the day or our visit, but that didn't detract from the views.

It's easy to plan a series of hikes using the map you'll get when you enter the park. Our hikes covered a bit less than 8 miles total and gave us a new appreciation of Oregon's only national park. With an earlier start, we could have thrown in a hike to, say, Discovery Point south of The Watchman, or maybe Garfield Peak with its marmots and pikas. We'd like to have hiked down to Cleetwood Cove to catch the boat to Wizard Island, too. But that will have to wait for another day.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.