We love national parks.
So it was only a matter of time after we moved to Bend last winter that my wife, Meryl Ibis, and I would try to visit Crater Lake National Park, which is located about 90 miles southwest of Bend.
But we just kept running into one problem: snow.
“We get a lot of snow," said Marsha McCabe, a ranger at Crater Lake National Park. “It takes a lot of time for us to get that moved."
Formed when the 12,000-foot-high Mount Mazama collapsed after erupting 7,700 years ago, Crater Lake is a crystal-blue gem about six miles wide with a maximum depth of 1,943 feet, which makes it the deepest lake in the United States. The lake's rock rim towers between 500 to 1,978 feet and can be traversed on the 33-mile loop road known as East Rim Drive and West Rim Drive.
What I found most interesting about the lake is that most of its water, an estimated 5 trillion gallons, comes from snow. Because of its elevation and location in the Cascade Mountain Range, the park gets on average of 522 inches of snow a year. This much snowfall makes visiting the park during any time except midsummer quite a challenge.
Up until July 17 — two days after the Bend Summer Festival and more than three weeks after the summer solstice marked the season's official start — it was impossible to drive the entire loop around Crater Lake without encountering a snowbank or a snowplow.
Even today, most visitors can't make it up one of the national park's most popular hikes, the Garfield Peak Trail, because there's too much white stuff in the way.
“That was a pretty normal opening," McCabe said. “There's still a couple patches of snow around in August."
Anyplace that's high and cool enough to have snow in the middle of July is going to be high and cool enough to give Central Oregonians a reprieve from summertime heat.
Meryl and I passed by Crater Lake's north entrance in late May when we cut across the Umpqua National Forest on our way to Medford. The gate was up and there was still at least a foot and a half of snow on the road.
McCabe said this was typical because the park's crews don't start clearing North Entrance Road and West Rim Drive — the two roads that allow visitors from the north into the park — until June. It is possible to get to Crater Lake via its southern entrance in the spring, but keep in mind the park doesn't start digging out the area around Mazama Village, an area that has a campground, general store and gas station, until April.
“Our visitation usually doubles overnight (once the north entrance is opened)," McCabe said, adding that the park usually sees about 455,000 visitors each year. July and August are its busiest months, she said, even though there's still snow on the ground and you might not be able to do every hike.
But the north entrance was an entirely different situation when we went there after the park fully opened in mid-July. The roads were clear, the high temperature was about 10 to 15 degrees cooler that it was back in Bend and there wasn't a cloud in the sky.
There were, though, still some patches of snow, most of which were on the park's north-facing slopes.
We kept this in mind when we got to Rim Village, a guest services area on the lake's southern shore, and asked a ranger at the visitors center to recommend a good hike with a nice view of the lake. He recommended Garfield Peak, a 1.7-mile hike that climbs a peak right outside the Crater Lake Lodge and the Rim Village. But he also said we'd only be able to do about three-fourths of the climb because of snow.
There are two things that made Crater Lake stand out: First, because its water is mostly snowmelt, it is clearer than any other lake I've seen; there are no tributaries to muddy the lake with sediment. Second, the waters of the lake are so deep and clear, according to the National Parks Service, that they absorb almost all of the red, yellow, orange and green hues of sunlight, which have the longest wavelengths, and reflect back only blue and purple colors of light that have short wavelengths and give its surface an unmistakable deep, deep blue color.
You can see both of these phenomena in full effect from the Sinnott Memorial Overlook, a landmark between the visitor's center and the Garfield Peak trailhead. You'll also see them through many breaks in the fir trees while walking toward the 8,060-foot-high summit of Garfield Peak.
Meryl and I stopped to check out the lake whenever we got a chance. But we were also blown away by the views we got from the rim's southern edge, which gazed out on nearby mountains, dark green with pine and fir trees. The dirt trail up the mountain also had many deeply colored rocks and a multitude of wildflowers, which McCabe said start popping up out of the ground once the snow melts.
The trail ends at an overlook at Garfield Peak's summit, where you're supposed to get a panoramic view of both sides of the rim. But Meryl and I had to cut our hike short before we got to this point because of the snow blocking the trail. We ended up sitting down by the side of the trail to enjoy a view of the lake at an elevation of not quite 8,060 feet.
To be honest, it wasn't so bad.