Go to Crater Lake

By diderot

January 12, 2018

Alissa Rosenbaum

ne day 77 centuries ago, Mt. Mazama blew its top.  For miles around, the Oregon plain was showered with rock flows and ash that covered what are now eight states and three Canadian provinces.  The top of the mountain—measuring four Empire State Buildings high—entirely disappeared.  What was left was a nearly perfectly level caldera, six miles wide and nearly five miles across. 

The only humans to witness this explosion were ancient members of the Klamath tribe. They described that day as an epic battle between the sky god and the underworld god.  It was an event beyond natural explanation.  In effect, it was magic.

While we (hopefully) may never see what the ancient Klamaths did, you should go to Crater Lake. 

Because there is still magic there.


hat you probably know about Crater Lake is what’s most mentioned.  By mean measurement, it is the deepest lake in the western hemisphere.  It contains the cleanest water of any lake in the world.  A simple scientific instrument called a Secchi disc is lowered into the water until it’s no longer visible.  Typically, it can still be seen 100 feet below the surface.  Some days, that depth reaches 175 feet.  And that makes it incredibly blue.  (The deeper the water, the more the longer red-light waves of the spectrum are absorbed; and the more shorter blue and violet rays are reflected.) Depending on the breezes, the surface may be proverbial glass…or ever-so-slightly brushed by a seeming celestial master. But the blue is always striking.

However, science doesn’t explain everything.    

From top: Palisades lakeside; surface water; tree stump

From top: Palisades lakeside; surface water; tree stump

The lake is high enough so that no water feeds into it…and none visibly flows out.  Thus, only rain and snowfall fill the caldera.  It took 750 years to reach its current level—but since record keeping began, that level has deviated less than one percent at any time.  The simple explanation is that evaporation balances whatever precipitation falls from the sky; but scientists know more falls than is evaporated.  So how does Crater Lake become a self-leveling bathtub?  The presumed answer is seepage somewhere beneath the surface.  But no one has yet found where this begins.  And more improbably, no one has found an exit point for all that water anywhere on the surrounding flanks or plains.  Where does it go?  To date, there is no more provable explanation than magic.

Around the peak are wonderful natural areas of grasslands and old-growth ponderosa pine forests.  But there is one 5 square mile area that refutes all that.  It’s known as the Pumice Desert.  This is a barren plain all but inhospitable to plant life. Other similar stretches of porous earth in the Cascades show no such profile.  In a natural park that features some 600 forms of vegetation, only 14 have ever been identified in the Pumice Desert. And they appear only very sparsely—plant life covers less than 5% of its surface.  Trees that were photographed here fully healthy in 1965 had turned to dying skeletons by 2000.  And while this mystery has endured for over 7,000 years, now there is a new one.  Over the last two decades, suddenly meaningful new growth has occurred.  Why?  Why now?  There are no answers yet.

And exasperatingly, like a magician’s mean-spirited trick, an eager visitor may not find the lake at all.  This is because a body of water that’s stunningly beautiful on one day…may decide to pull down a blanket of fog and hide under it until it decides to arise.  This can be incredibly frustrating.  But that’s nature. 

Or maybe, magic.

or good reasons, Crater Lake is far less visited than places like the Grand Canyon.  For one, the season lasts only from July to October.  After that, the 33-mile Rim Drive is buried under 40 feet of snow.  Even in the high season, there are only 110 rooms available, combining the beautifully refurbished Crater Lake Lodge sitting on the very rim of the volcano, and the more spartan Mazama Cabins seven miles down the road.  The closest thing resembling a small town is 60 miles away. Snowstorms have arrived in August.  Veteran campers know that even in the middle of summer, overnight temperatures plummet to 40 degrees or below.  But despite all this, the allure is legendary.  And as a result, in the summer the crowds grow thick. 



Which may lead you to decide that simply looking at pictures could capture the experience.  But it doesn’t.  The beauty of the lake is stunning to the point of starkness.  Standing on the rim, you could be convinced the vista belongs on a similar yet different planet.  When the winds gust, this is hardly a place of comfort.  To me, it’s almost foreboding.  But also, entirely irresistible. You are alive. 


he Klamath tribes decreed that men able to race on foot at full speed all the way down the steep path to the water’s edge without falling down were superhuman.  Others would plunge deep into the frigid waters in the dead of night, and dive to depths where they said they found their shamans. 

The Klamath knew this place was different.  And it still is.

Do you believe in magic? 

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