Sapphire Sea

“The sight of it fills one with more conflicting emotions than any other scene with which I am familiar. It is at once weird, fascinating, enchanting, repellent, of exquisite beauty and at times terrifying in its austere-dignity and oppressing stillness. In the sparkling sunlight, its iridescent hues are dazzling and bewildering. When a storm is on, it throws terror into the heart of the observer and carries the mind back through the eons when it was born in Titan throes of nature. There are a few other crater lakes in the world…. but there is none known to man that can remotely approximate the transcendent beauty of Crater Lake in Crater Lake National Park.”

Mark Daniels

After our day trip to Mount St. Helens, Amy and Andrew had to go back to work and Bonnie had to fly home, so Vince and I were officially on our own for the next few days. We headed south, with the eventual destination of Redwood National Park, but we had a couple of planned stops along the way. I didn’t want to go to Oregon without visiting Crater Lake, so that was our first stop.

I’d heard lackluster reviews of Crater Lake from friends. Many people have told me that while it’s pretty, there’s not a ton to do there other than look at the lake, so I figured one day would be the perfect amount of time in the famous park. That turned out to be correct since half of the park road was still closed because of debris leftover after this year’s snow melt. What I didn’t expect was how captivating Crater Lake would actually be.

It took a few hours of driving to get to the park from Portland. We arrived in late morning and went through the standard ritual of taking a picture with the park sign, and grabbing a brochure from the entrance station. I immediately opened the brochure and started directing Vince to scenic overlooks while also reading about some of the features that make Crater Lake unique. I was particularly interested in information about the old white bark pine trees that line the crater rim. The oldest of these trees is over 500 years old, and I got excited as I anticipated seeing their scraggly, twisted branches in front of the lake.

We found our first overlook in practically no time and pulled over, eager to get our first look at the lake. The parking lot we chose was downhill from the actual viewpoint, so we couldn’t see anything but trees and sky until we crested the hill and came face to face with the dazzling sight of Crater Lake.

My first thought was, “Wow people really undersold this place.”

The water that sprawled out below us was incomprehensibly blue; I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything in nature quite that color before. I had to blink a few times to truly accept that I was seeing what I was seeing. It was a windy day with the kind of fluffy clouds that look inviting, but bring harsh weather 7,000 feet above sea level. Although we’d spent the morning in summer heat, the crater rim was much more wintery and I quickly decided I’d be changing into long pants back at the car. It would be difficult to pry myself away from the view to move on, but an increasing need of a bathroom break, along with my discomfort in the cold eventually drove us back to our rental where I rummaged through my luggage to find my deeply-buried insulated hiking pants.

Vince drove further south as I wiggled into my soft flannel pants, instantly feeling much warmer. Soon we found The Watchman overlook and we pulling into the parking lot, this time donning jackets before braving the cold.

The Watchman overlook was even more beautiful than our last stop. From here we could see variations in the beautiful color of the water, including a bright green pool along the shore of Wizard Island.

Wizard Island is a cinder that formed after the eruption of Mount Mazama about 7,700 years ago. A volcanic crater is visible at the summit of the island, which is accessible by boat in the summer for people willing to hike in and out of the steep Cleetwood Cove trail. Normally I would have been game, but the park’s boat tours were cancelled for the 2021 season because of Covid, so that wasn’t an option for us.

Instead, we struck out north from the overlook on the Rim Trail, planning to turn around when whenever we felt like it. The weather had taken a turn for the worse, and crunchy snow pellets fell from low hanging clouds that had moved in overhead. We tromped along through dirt and snow, stopping to look at white bark pines along the way.

An uphill push brought us back to the rim of the crater where there was still a lot of snow pack. To my Michigander self, it feels novel to stand on snow in June, even though I’m well aware that it’s nothing special in the mountains. Either way, I excitedly took off my jacket to get a goofy, short-sleeved summer snow picture.

Our vantage point from the snow pack was incredibly beautiful and there was no one else in sight, so we lingered for a long time just taking in our surroundings (including many more white bark pines).

When we did finally hike back down to our car, we drove to the nearby Rim Visitor Center-another must for me when visiting a national park. There was a strict capacity inside the visitor center because of Covid so we had to wait in line before entering, but eventually I got my chance to buy some postcards and a sticker.

There was still plenty of day left to fill when we finally emerged from the visitor center, so we decided to follow the Rim Drive until we reached the road closure and then backtrack and visit whatever was open. The road ended being shut down right after the trailhead for the Phantom Ship Overlook so we stopped and hiked up to see the jagged rock formation in the water far below. Somehow, the water seemed even more blue from this vantage point, and the Phantom Ship was framed by gorgeous, tall trees.

We also stopped to look at Vidae Falls which were right along the side of the road.

Then we took a short hike on Castle Crest Wildflower trail, which didn’t have any wildflowers yet, before calling it a day and driving further south to our Airbnb for the night. As we drove, my mind was reeling, already planning to do a painting of Crater Lake when we got home, but half of our trip was still ahead of us, and it was no time to be thinking about home. The next morning we’d be leaving Oregon and crossing into California.

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