Despite our excitement about visiting Crater Lake National Park — which many people throughout the year had told us was their favorite park — we somewhat dreaded our arrival there in early October. The forecast had called for rain, snow and freezing temperatures for all three of the nights we had eagerly booked months before for a campsite in the Mazama Campground. And it turned out to be rainier (and snowier) than Mount Rainier!
Coming in from the north entrance, we hit snow just before reaching the lake and found the West Rim Road closed to car travel at the North Junction. So we had to double back and take the long way around to the southern entrance. Apparently everyone else gave up on the park due to bad weather, because we passed no other cars on the road as we drove through the evergreen forest outside the park. A flocking of snow made the trees even prettier, dressed in their winter clothing. We thought we could tough it out in our own winter clothing, but this park stay was one of our most cold and miserable, topping even our time in Cape Cod National Seashore.
The campground was nearly deserted as we set up the tent on the waterlogged ground in the freezing rain. We were so chilled that we decided to pitch the small tent inside the big tent to create a cozier sleeping space. We ate our cold, sad dinner of granola bars and apples in the car and knew we’d eventually have to turn in for the night. Once we did so, feeling a bit like turduckens in our tent-within-a-tent, we tried to get some sleep. The dripping sound of the all-night rain, combined with my frozen nose, left me tossing and turning.
Despite the continued rain the next morning, we forced ourselves to get out of the tent and go for a drive. We at least wanted to stop in at the Visitor Center to watch the film about the crater’s formation. About 7,700 years ago the Mount Mazama volcano blew its top, and when the magma chamber below emptied, a circle of vents formed around the center that caused the mountain to collapse into itself in a deep caldera. Over the next several centuries, rain and melting snow collected in this caldera to create the deepest lake in the country at 1,943 feet. Because no streams or rivers flow into the Crater Lake, the lack of runoff and pollutants means that the deep blue water is exceptionally pure and clear, with visibility extending down nearly 140 feet below the water’s surface!
On such a cloudy day we did not expect to see the lake at all, especially from a viewpoint called the Cloudcap Overlook on East Rim Drive. However, to our delight, there was a brief break in that cloud cap and we could see the entire lake in all its glory. It was beautiful but smaller than we’d expected; at its widest it is a mere six miles across. The Cleetwood Cove Trail on the north side of the lake is the only path leading down from the caldera rim to the water. From late June until mid-August, visitors who hike down the one-mile trail can then opt for a boat ride on the lake, but both the boat tour season and the trail were closed when we visited. The West Rim Road completing the loop around Crater Lake was also closed, so we returned to the south side of the lake.
We had wanted to do some other hikes in the park. However, without snowshoes at our disposal we could only hike the short Sun Notch Trail out to a viewpoint overlooking the Phantom Ship, an island near the south side shore. Lovely as the views were, snow on the evergreens grew thicker as the day wore on and we returned to the campground and our cold, wet tent.
We awoke the next day to more snow and freezing temperatures and once again figured the only way to stay warm was to leave the tent for nearby Mazama Village. We lingered as long as we could over lunch at the Annie Creek restaurant, then did laundry, reveling in the heat from the dryer. It was the only time on the trip (or in our lives, for that matter) that we preferred to be indoors huddling next to a clothes dryer instead of outside in the fresh air.
We wanted to attend the afternoon ranger talk at Crater Lake Lodge in the Rim Village up the road, but the slush on the road soon turned to ice as we climbed and the blizzard had completely snowed in the lodge parking lot. We had no choice but to turn around and head back downhill to camp. For the third night in a row, we had dinner in the car and braced ourselves for a long, cold night in the tent.
The forecast for our final morning had predicted an end to the blizzard, and at least when we awoke much of the snow had melted. But we remained chilled to the bone and could hardly straighten out from the frigid fetal positions we had slept in all night. Not willing to wait for the sun to appear and dry out the soaked campground, we packed up our sad, sodden tent and headed out of the park in shivering disappointment.
Of course, as luck would have it, as we approached the park boundary, the sky cleared and the sun began to warm the forest. Oh, if only we could have returned to camp to try the whole experience over. But we had to a schedule to keep and needed to move on to our next destination. At least the tale had a happy ending.