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Hiking: Oregon

Explosion, Collapse and a Lake

June 30, 1996|JOHN McKINNEY

If old Mt. Manzama had oozed instead of erupted, there would be no Crater Lake. But 7,000 years ago, the big mountain (Oregon's largest, some geologists believe) blew up big time, resulting in a crater, a lake and a national park.

The cataclysm was a long time coming. Volcanic material had been building up in Mt. Manzama for half a million years before exploding with a force estimated to be 50 times that of its more recently active Cascade cousin, Mt. St. Helens. After a hellacious firestorm, the volcano's walls collapsed. The resultant six-mile wide caldera gathered rain and snowmelt, and eventually filled to a depth of 1,932 feet. Today, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in America and the seventh-deepest lake in the world.

Because the huge, mesmerizingly blue oval has no inlets or outlets, and because not much vegetation grows along its shores, little organic material enters it. The lake has a clarity that amazes. Sun rays can actually penetrate 400 feet below the water's surface, causing algae to grow.

Crater Lake's depth is one reason why it is such a resplendent blue. Another reason has to do with the physics of light waves: Longer light waves in the red, green and yellow part of the spectrum are more readily absorbed near the lake's surface than are the shorter blue-hued light waves, which penetrate farther into the lake to color the water molecules. Pick your blue--azure, aquamarine or cobalt--or simply conclude that Crater Lake has a blueness beyond words.

For more than half a century, the biggest disappointment to Pacific Crest Trail hikers was that the famed path (33 miles through the park) offered no views of the big, blue lake. (Here was the rare national park where driving was a better way to see it than hiking.) In 1994, a new length of the PCT was built on the crater's rim, and it delivers the long-sought lake views. As more hikers discover it, this new beautiful stretch of trail will probably become the park's premier footpath.

If you can't spare the time to walk all of the new stretch of the PCT or just can't wait to get to those lake views, I recommend beginning your walk at Rim Village. The PCT leads through a forest of white bark pine and mountain hemlock while serving up glorious panoramas of the water-filled caldera. Two must-see attractions on the lake rim are visited by the trail--Discovery Point and Watchman Peak.

From Rim Village, PCT uses an old roadbed constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1916; this road was the park's first Rim Drive until the present road was relocated farther away from the rim in the 1930s. At Discovery Point, a plaque honors prospector John Hillman, first explorer to see Crater Lake in 1853.

PCT follows the rim to the shoulder of Watchman Peak. Join switchbacking Watchman Lookout Trail for the steep ascent to the summit. (Watchman is in the snow belt, and sometimes snow keeps this trail closed until late July or until the park trail crew can clear a route to the top.)

The old fire lookout, built in 1932, offers great views of the lake and surrounding back country. Interpretive panels help to identify park landmarks.

Access: Begin from the trail head at the west edge of Rim Village.

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An equally memorable walk in the park is the one on Wizard Island, a small volcano dome thrusting up in the western corner of the lake. To take this walk, you must endure two more pleasures--a hike from the crater's rim down to the Cleetwood Cove boat landing and a fun boat tour of the lake that drops off hikers on Wizard Island.

Cleetwood Trail, even if it didn't lead to the tour boat dock, would be a popular trail because it's the only one that leads to the lake. Expect company: About 500 people a day descend the mile-long trail to Cleetwood Cove.

While the path begins on one of the lowest routes on the crater rim, it's nevertheless quite steep. The path drops down slopes forested in Shasta red fir and mountain hemlock, offering lake vistas from occasional openings in the forest. At the trail's end is the boat dock and a lakeside picnic area.

During the summer months, two-hour guided boat tours embark from Cleetwood Cove. The concessionaire-operated tours depart on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from early July to early September, weather permitting. Tour boats circle the water-filled caldera and stop at Wizard Island, where you can disembark. Remain on the island until the next tour boat or the last tour boat of the day.

Wizard Island may have been named for its resemblance to a sorcerer's cap, but Crater Island would be a more appropriate name. The isle is a true crater (a small opening through which lava erupts); Crater Lake, in contrast, is a collapse-caused depression known as a caldera.

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