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Seeing the sights from Crater Lake’s rim

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Photo by Lee Juillerat Bill Van Moorhem makes his way toward a section of Devils Backbone.
Photo by Lee Juillerat Wizard Island from the trail near the North Junction.
Photo by Lee Juillerat Imposing Llao Rock

Sometimes a hike seems so obvious that it’s not taken.

That’s what others and I experienced during a hike earlier this week at Crater Lake National Park. We were all Crater Lake veterans, having trekked up to Garfield Peak, stopped at overlooks along portions of Rim Drive and most of us had hiked up Mount Scott, The Watchman, Crater Peak or Union Peak.

But with two exceptions, eight of us had never followed the Rim Trail from Rim Village to the North Junction. It was time, past time, to remedy that.

It’s only about 6.5 miles along the Rim Trail, which offers seldom-seen views of Crater Lake and its dramatic, steep-sloped caldera. It’s a hike to be taken slowly, partly because of the trail’s high elevation, generally above 7,100-feet, and partly because there are several huff-n-puff ups and downs.

But the biggest reason for going slow are the sights.

The primary sight is, of course, Crater Lake, with its cerulean blue waters. Hiking the trail also offers little-seen vantages, not those from the usual overlooks. Sometimes the lake and Wizard Island are framed by gnarly whitebark pines. Other times sections of its forbidding walls rise vertically from the lake’s caldera. There are distant sightings of formidable Union Peak and the massive cliffs of Llao Rock. Some views peer intimately over Wizard Island and Fumarole Bay, while others reveal the raggedly serrated topography of the aptly named Devils Backbone.

It wasn’t until about 20 years ago that the Rim Trail officially became part of the Pacific Crest Trail. Illogically, the “official” PCT skirts well away from the lake, passing through a relatively uninspiring landscape, a route that, despite the “Pacific Crest” moniker, follows no crest. Instead, it sweeps a mile and more west of the lake.

Because the Rim Trail lacks status as the “official” PCT, its 7,745-foot high-point is not considered the official high-elevation mark on Oregon’s PCT. Instead, that distinction is at 7,560-foot Tipsoo Pass, located about 30 miles north. “Official” PCT or not, most thru hikers hike the Rim Trail.

From Rim Village the Rim Trail heads northwest, paralleling Rim Drive. After a very brief section of Rim Drive, the dirt trail begins a series of climbs and dips. But the focus of any hiker is on the lake that looks, and sometimes is, very directly below. On some especially precarious sections, the lake is just a misstep away, so be attentive.

In a little more than a mile the trail zigzags down to Discovery Point, a gawk-photo stop for the majority of almost all park visitors. Continuing north, the trail climbs away from the crowds, again featuring rim-edge views of the lake and its surroundings. At one of many panoramic openings, two Clark’s nutcrackers displayed aerial dips-and-dos, occasionally stopping to perch on tree branches.

Near the Lightning Spring picnic area, as the foreboding morning clouds gave way to take-off-your-jackets warm sunshine and skies almost as blue as the lake, fallen trees provided a wind-shaded lunch stop. After refueling and a short rest, a steady uphill followed under the shoulder of The Watchman before reaching the Watchman Overlook, a deservedly popular West Rim Drive stop with the “Corrals,” a rail-fenced parking area just a short walk away from dazzling lake viewpoints.

Continuing north up a sandy slope, the trail veers away from the lake and around the west side of Hillman Peak while following a section of the original 1917 rim road. The lake can’t be seen, but sights feature the Pumice Desert, pointy Union Peak and pyramid-shaped Mount McLoughlin. Just north of The Watchman the trail reaches its 7,740-foot high-point, but no signs mark the spot.

Because the Rim Trail mostly follows the old rim road, it’s easy going on a wide, nicely graded path. Views of the ragged blades of the Devils Backbone, a volcanic dike created when magma shimmied into a vertical crack of the former Mount Mazama, appear as the trail drops toward Merriam Point and the North Junction. Imposing Llao Rock dominates, but for a time the lake remains hidden.

Hidden until — Wham! — the trail descends toward the North Junction parking lot and the lake majestically explodes into view.

The lake and its surroundings are magical as the trail returns back along the lake’s knife-sharp edge. The multi-spectacular views are magnified — Wizard Island, Llao Rock, Devils Backbone, Mount Scott, Dutton Cliff and, of course, Crater Lake.

For our group it proved a perfect ending for the too-long not-taken hike. With snow possible any day — we passed brief sections of mostly melted snow that fell a week earlier — it’s something to be done soon or placed on the next year’s “must-do” calendar.

Or, for some of us, a hike to do again.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

Planning the Hike

Hiking the Rim Trail at Crater Lake National Park is best done by shuttling a vehicle to the North Junction parking lot and then returning to Rim Village to begin the trek.

The Rim Trail is not listed on park maps or brochures or in hiking guidebooks, although sections are mentioned. Hiking the trail is not recommended if the trail, especially the section from Rim Village to Discovery Point, is snow-covered or, worse, icy. In all conditions, hiking poles are helpful. There are no water sources along the trail.