The Rim Drive you've never taken
It’s definitely the road less traveled.
Before there was a Rim Drive circling Crater Lake, there was a rim road, a crude, unpaved route that was built over a six-year period from 1913 to 1918 by the Army Corps of Engineers.
It was eventually abandoned when a surfaced and paved two-lane road, now known as Rim Drive, replaced it in the 1930s. Ongoing upgrades, including work being done on West Rim Drive this summer, allow park visitors to loop around the lake.
Steve Mark, Crater Lake National Park’s historian for the past 30 years, is among the few who have walked the old road, which was intentionally hidden from view by recontouring when the newer road was built. Through landscaping, areas where the old highway meets the new were years ago redesigned to keep the old road out of sight of motorists.
According to Mark, the original 16-foot-wide road, including a spur to the Pinnacles and the park’s former east entrance, measured 38.6 miles. Of that total, about two-thirds, or 27.2 miles, remains. In some sections, once far enough away from Rim Drive, the old road is obvious and easy to follow. In others, trees and shrubs, what Mark calls “dog hair,” have mostly obscured the original route.
A group of hikers recently saw the obvious and obscure on a Klamath County Museum-sponsored outing led by Mark, a living library of information about the park.
“It’s a snapshot in time on the evolution of highway engineering,” Mark said of seeing and appreciating the original road, noting a purpose of the hike was “to show what early roads were like when people’s references were horse and plows and steam shovels.”
Referring to an era when motorists traveled at slower speeds, he noted, “You see the landscape differently driving 15 or 20 miles an hour.”
“Wow! That old road was something,” marveled one hiker while walking the original road from near the Cloudcap Overlook to Skell Head.
Wow, indeed. Two viewpoints along the Cloudcap to Skell Head route, estimated at less than two miles, offer dazzling panoramas of the lake that on this trip, unfortunately, were partially obscured by smoke from regional forest fires. While the views are dramatic, so is the road, which curled a short distance alongside the steep-edged rim. Mark noted the historic route stays closer to the rim than Rim Drive.
”They did provide lake views whenever possible,” he said.
Along with offering views, the original route was built as economically as possible. Then, as now, funding was a challenge. And because snowfall typically begins early and remains until early summer, the construction season is brief.
A century ago road building, especially in an area as remote at Crater Lake, was primitive. Crews worked with teams of horses and plows and steam shovels. Mark estimates crew sizes ranged from 100 to 200 men, depending on work being done. Finding workers was often difficult because of the isolation, relatively low wages and living conditions he described as “a lot like logging camps” of that time. Men lived in tents at camps near where they worked.
Several sections of the historic road are evident along the Cloupcap to Skell Head route, which is mostly easy to walk, with only a few areas where trees, usually mountain hemlock, have taken root in the old roadbed. There’s evidence that early surveyors were well schooled, with banked curves and the intentional overlooks. Another scenic segment goes alongside a rock retaining wall and overlooks a meadow.
The historic road is less obvious on the segment from Reflection Point to Kerr Notch, a distance of about two miles. From the parking area at Reflection Point, evidence of the original route has been neatly obliterated. While Rim Drive sweeps away from the lake, the old road stays higher, at one point above the only section of Rim Drive, Anderson Point, where wire mesh is anchored above the road to prevent rock and dirt slides. Mark said the wire mesh was allowed because it’s not visible to motorists. Anderson is the biggest cut on Rim Drive, which the Army Corps of Engineers avoided by taking the original road along the top of the ridge.
Unlike the Cloudcap to Skell Head segment, the route to Kerr Notch is often choked with small hemlocks and other trees and bushes that make the going difficult. The reward is a close-up view of a retaining wall and Crater Lake beyond it.
Prior to his preparation for the guided walk, Mark said, he was aware of only two other park employees who had taken the trek over the entire 27.2 miles. Others had traveled the route during a weeklong reconnaissance in 2009 to survey and search for historic work camps from 2016.
When the original rim road was built, Crater Lake was a place few visited, although many wished they could.
“People thought of it as a wonderful fantasy,” Mark said.
A hundred years later, driving around Crater Lake is a fantasy come true.
Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-880-4139.