San Benito Lifestyle

Crater Lake: The Most Improbable Tourist Attraction

A ramble through Oregon reveals geological marvels

Earlier this month, we had occasion and the opportunity to take a ramble home from Forest Grove, Ore.  We were there to celebrate the marriage of our oldest daughter and one of the finest young men I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.

The wedding, set next to a small lake in a forest, was grand in every way. As they exchanged vows, a Bald Eagle even made a pretty darn spectacular guest appearance.

But with all the parents-of-the-bride stuff done, we were free to ramble. Most trips through Oregon are fast – along Interstate 5 – or not so fast – along Highway 101 on the coast.  Given the number of trips we’ve done on both routes, we elected to do neither. After an overnight jaunt to Astoria, we drove east of the Cascades, the better to wander through the high desert country that Oregon is less known for.

First, a word about Astoria. If you have not been, put it on your list. This small town of about 10,000 souls is near the mouth of the Columbia River, and the freighters that ply the world’s seas pass through daily. The hilly town is dotted with beautiful Victorian homes, and the downtown district offers a host of distractions. In a bit of historical legerdemain, it is billed as the oldest American city in the West. Although a host of California towns are older, including San Juan Bautista, they were founded when our home patch was a colony of Spain.

Once we left Astoria, we crossed the Cascades, marveling at Mount Hood. The string of volcanoes through the Cascade Range is hard to adjust to. We’d circled the west flank of Mt. Shasta, and gazed at Mts. Adams and St. Helens as well, but this trip put us on the flanks of a peak that still wore a spotted cloak of snow.  As we trended south, we stopped at Newberry Volcanic National Monument, and climbed a cinder cone for a view of the surrounding area. The entire view was bounded by the rim of an enormous caldera, a volcano that still simmers beneath the city of Bend. Lava flows interrupted the lush forests and meadows, and invited further exploration. We left to hike along the Deschutes River. Lava flows centuries ago had diverted the river, so its course took improbable turns.  At one spot, a lava flow caused the river to take an abrupt right turn before breaching the black rock in a tumultuous cascade.

As fascinating as this all was, it was all a prelude to the Main Event. We paid a visit to Crater Lake. I’d been only once before, for a too-brief visit. My traveling companion had not been before. In my view, the only way to approach the lake is from the south. A two-lane highway travels through lush meadows crisscrossed with spring creeks. Old farmhouses and fat cattle offer diversion. On an earlier visit, Mt. Shasta loomed to the south.

The road keeps its secret until visitors arrive at the rim of the caldera that holds Crater Lake. Then, there it is.

The almost impossible combination of circumstances that created the lake eclipse my understanding.

About 7,000 years ago, Mt. Mazama, a 12,000-foot peak, began to smoke and rumble. When it blew, nearly a vertical mile of the volcano disappeared in the span of a few hours, and the rest of the peak collapsed in upon itself.

There’s ample evidence to show that there were witnesses to the explosion. Artifacts have been uncovered in caves in the area, overlain with a thick mantle of ash.

Crater Lake is a place of “mosts.”  It’s the purest, clearest lake in North America. It’s one of the deepest in the world.

In addition to its cataclysmic and improbable birth, the lake’s source is just as improbable. No streams or rivers feed the lake. Instead, more than 500 inches of precipitation – most of it arriving as snow – fill the basin, and keep up with the water that seeps out or evaporates under the summer sun.

For most visitors, Crater Lake National Park is a postcard experience. People drive up, take a look, or a brief cruise around the lake, and depart. But there’s hiking to be done. We walked to the lake, and my traveling companion took a swim while I waded. That’s not surprising at all. She will resolutely swim in anything short of a boiling teapot.

After our stop, we ventured west, back over the Cascade Range. A small sign invited us to visit Natural Bridge deep in the forest east of Medford. With no expectations, we were thrilled to watch as the Rogue River thundered into a lava tube before emerging down river to the surface again.

As ignorant as we are, geology has always fascinated us both, and this trip allowed us both to revel in the power and majesty around us.

As we traveled through the forest, flashing red lights arrested us, and we stopped – very near a Smokey the Bear sign, to watch a single tree crackle and blaze.  The tree was randomly selected from the thousands of others around it for a lightning strike, and firefighters stood by to watch it play itself out while ensuring it did not spread.

Our ramble home was the best kind, one that teased us with small discoveries and stunning landscapes. There’s too much more to see in one lifetime, but we’ll keep trying.




Mark Paxton

I've been at this most of my life, and it still fascinates and challenges me. San Benito County can be a cruel mistress at times, but we can share in our love for her, even with all her quirks.