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Thunderation – Hiking to Lightning Springs

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Name origins of National Park feature are unknown, but area’s appeal is clear
Plaikni Falls, a classic waterfall, is an easy one-mile hike in Crater Lake National Park. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]
Water from Lightning Springs flows gently from its source in Crater Lake National Park. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]
The Pinnacles overlook and trail offer views of dramatic volcanicactivity in Crater Lake National Park. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]

Sometimes the timing is right.

Our timing for a hike to Lightning Springs, a relatively little visited area below Crater Lake National Park’s West Rim Drive, was fortunate. That’s because the day friends and I chose for hiking brought skies cloudless and bright blue.

But two days later, the park was peppered with several hours of rain, thunder and, of course, lightning.

Since then, newer lightning strikes are blamed for triggering a series of blazes along the Cascades between Crater Lake and Bend that have closed sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT runs north-south through the park — the equestrian section below Rim Drive, the hiking section mostly along the rim. As of earlier this week, the Pacific Crest Trail Association had asked PCTers to stay off the trail between the park’s northern boundary and Willamette Pass.

The area is historically prone to lightning, but it’s not known if that’s how Lightning Springs got its name.

Research by Steve Mark, Crater Lake’s longtime historian, has uncovered some interesting clues. “There isn’t much about the name’s origin, and I checked the various compilations in my place name file,” reported Mark, who’s spent the past 35 years at the park and checked a variety of sources “all to no avail.”

According to Mark, Frederick Lyle Wynd’s compilation of 1928-29 says the name’s origin is unknown. Wynd should know — he was a head park naturalist on a seasonal basis nearly a century ago. Mark’s research indicates the United States Geographic Names Board made the name Lightning Spring official in 1933, although “it appeared on park maps from what I could find as early as 1911.”

Mark also read the field notes of J.D. Diller, who was a member of the first geological survey of Crater Lake’s caldera in 1883. In notes from August 1896, Diller “described the spring at least once but did not name it, whereas he used other names for various park locales.”

Mark also found a text reference in George Goodwin’s recap of the 1914 construction season, when Goodwin was working as project engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Road System. In writing about the 1914 construction season, Goodwin reported a temporary road had been constructed between the “hotel” (Crater Lake Lodge) and Lightning Spring to establish Camp No. 6 and Corral No. 6 for the following 1915 season.

“This was a tent camp less than a quarter-mile from the spring — actually springs, one of the few times where the plural is accurate for a name at the park,” Mark reports. He also learned that Goodwin wrote, “It is now possible to get a team and wagon through to Lightning Spring” on Page 9 of his Crater Lake National Park, Improvement of Roads and Bridges, November 1914.

Similarly, the Crater Lake Institute website says the trail was previously a fire control road.

On other visits to Lightning Springs, I recall a lusher, more flower-abundant area, obviously watered by the springs. Instead, this time around, the water flowing from its small, 3-foot-diameter rock opening was not gushing but more like an open faucet.

Friends and I followed one trail to a nearby area with designated campsites, then hiked cross-country to find and rejoin the trail. From the springs, it reaches the PCT in about four miles, but we weren’t going that far. A usually reliable guidebook says a waterfall is less than a mile down the trail from the springs. There is a 15-foot “waterfall,” but it’s not the classic type and, instead, dribbles through a narrow, bush-lined drop.

Later that day, after stops that included the Watchman and Pumice Castle overlooks and the craggy Pinnacles, we hiked to Plaikni Falls. The mostly flat, milelong trail is among the park’s most used trails for good reason. Plaikni is a classic 20-foot, cascading waterfall.

Until 2011, when a trail was built, the little-known area was known as Anderson Falls. After consulting with the Klamath Tribes, park managers renamed it Plaikni, a Klamath word for “from the high country.”

The name for Plaikni is known, but based on current weather trends, the name Lightning Springs is strikingly appropriate.

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