Crater Lake, Oregon’s blue beauty, faces unclear future

The prime tourist season at Crater Lake National Park is a short one; July and August account for about 40 percent of annual visitors. Wizard Island, in the lake’s southwest portion, is a popular place on which to hike. The most intimate way to experience the lake is by taking a ranger-led boat tour.
The prime tourist season at Crater Lake National Park is a short one; July and August account for about 40 percent of annual visitors. Wizard Island, in the lake’s southwest portion, is a popular place on which to hike. The most intimate way to experience the lake is by taking a ranger-led boat tour. National Park Service

We had just begun floating at 6,173 feet above sea level when park ranger Dave Grimes told us to look up at the cliffs surrounding Crater Lake. They top out at 8,159 feet.

Look up higher, Grimes said, at the gathering clouds. They were creeping over the cliffs, and darkening.

Now look up even higher, and higher still, Grimes said. Straight up, he exhorted, instructing us to imagine a point a mile high in the sky. That, he explained, is where massive Mount Mazama peaked before it literally blew its top around 7,700 years ago.

An eruption of great disruption, the volcanic event formed a 6-mile-long, 5-mile-wide, 2,148-foot-deep caldera that rain, snow and runoff, over the centuries, have partially filled to create what is the country’s deepest lake, at 1,943 feet.

Call it the original “super bowl.”

My two friends and I tend to spend a few days every August in a national park within reasonable driving distance from Sacramento. Last summer, after years of opting for closer gems such as Sequoia, Yosemite and Lassen, we took the plunge and drove the 350-mile (one way) route to Crater Lake, where none of us had been. It turned out to be one of our best adventures.

Crater Lake is quite the spectacle, a strikingly blue and clear sight from almost any point along its 33-mile Rim Drive, but its future health is murky. That is because things other than tour boat passengers’ gazes are on the rise there, namely air and water temperatures, a rabbit-related furball known as the American pika, and ravenous, pine tree-killing beetles.

Climatic concerns

Since monitoring began in 1965, the National Park Service has found that Crater Lake’s average air and surface water temperatures during the summer have both increased about 1 degree Fahrenheit per decade. That has spurred speculation among some researchers, according to the NPS website, that more algae might grow in the lake, which would reduce its clarity.

Scott Girdner, who works at Crater Lake for the NPS, says no such thing has happened.

“It is safe to say that warming surface water temperature is not having a direct impact on the famous water clarity of Crater Lake,” the aquatic biologist said via email two weeks ago. “The lake appears to be just as clear now as when the park was formed in the early 1900s. But, increasing air temperature in the spring and summer has the greatest potential to impact the timing of plant and animal growth in the lake and reduces the thickness of the warm-water habitat near the lake surface.”

He added, however, that “the impact of increasing winter air temperature may potentially have a larger impact on the lake,” as it will influence deep-water mixing processes that move nutrients around. That could affect clarity in the summer, something NPS scientists and the U.S. Geological Survey staff in Portland, along with a researcher from Italy, are analyzing for a soon-to-be-released report.

More measurable at the moment is the warming trend’s effect on the pika, a brownish herbivore up to 8 inches long that inhabits rocky slopes in the Western United States and Canada. Pikas live at high elevations because heat is their enemy: A pika that is exposed to 78-degree temperatures can die within 6 hours. The NPS reports that three pika communities southeast of the lake have disappeared already.

They have “become one of the poster children for impacts due to global warming,” said Mac Brock, chief of resource preservation and research at the park, earlier this month in a phone interview.

“The problem is that if you’re a pika, if the climate warms, then the way you adapt to that is you go someplace cooler, and in mountainous terrains, generally that means that you go higher,” he explained. Migration isn’t always possible for the little wildflower-chomping creatures, and once pikas are pushed to the top of the mountain, they’re doomed.

“Once you get there, as some people have said, you tend to pop off the top and there’s no place left to go,” Brock said. The NPS is part of an ongoing federal study to monitor pika populations and establish a baseline census for comparisons in the future.

Scientists are tracking another unsettling development within the park and at other high elevations in the West: the steep decline of whitebark pines. About half the scraggly trees, which surround Crater Lake on its rim, are dead or dying. Part of the problem is a slow-acting disease called pine blister rust, but of greater worry is the mountain pine beetle, whose destructive presence is abetted by global warming.

“We haven’t been getting those cold temperatures in the wintertime that would, necessarily, kind of halt the spread of bark beetles,” Brock said. “So the whitebark pine are being affected by kind of a one-two punch. White pine blister rust takes awhile to kill a tree, but before it succumbs to that the beetles are attracted to it because it’s a stressed tree, and the beetles take it out.”

To counter that habitat threat, the NPS and U.S. Forest Service have teamed up to identify which individual trees are in peril, to in some way discourage the beetles, and to plant seedlings that are generated from whitebark pines that have shown resistance to pine blister rust.

Visiting, just for fun

I gave weighty science issues little if any thought when we visited Crater Lake National Park in August. Our timing, at least according to “Ranger Dave” Grimes, was perfect.

“My favorite time of year is July and August,” Grimes said over the phone earlier this month. “That’s when everything is open. All the flowers are blooming.”

Grimes, who has worked there full time for nine years, and for three partial years before that, elaborated.

“We get a lot of people asking if they should come in September or October to avoid the summer crowds. I suggest that they don’t do that, because, you know, if you come in September or October, you start to take chances as far as the weather goes. You might luck out and have a nice, warm, sunny day, but it could be raining or snowing.

“And this park, we don’t get that crowded even in July and August. So it’s not like visiting Yellowstone or Yosemite, where the number of people can have an impact on your ability to enjoy yourself.”

Grimes said that about 500,000 people stop by the park annually, 40 percent of them in those two summer months.

He also advocates visiting there this time of year, when he helps lead two-hour snowshoe hikes on weekends through April. If you are interested in those free outings along the rim, which include free snowshoe rental, Grimes recommends you make reservations.

“We spend about half the time walking and half the time talking,” he said. “Our main focus is winter ecology, how winter affects the lake and plants and animals. … We talk a lot about climate change on the snowshoe hikes, actually.”

Be sure to check weather forecasts before coming in the winter, Grimes said, because “one thing a lot of visitors don’t realize is that about half the time in winter, the lake is completely invisible (from the rim) due to clouds.” He also cautioned against visiting between April and July.

“It’s probably the most frustrating time to come here because people assume that in May and June they’ll be able to hike and camp and take a boat tour, but, you know, in May we usually have 5 to 10 feet of snow on the ground, and in June it’s zero to 5 feet of snow.

“The hiking trails don’t usually open up until late June or July. The summer doesn’t usually kick off here until the Fourth of July.”

Hiking represented a big part of my time at Crater Lake, which I spent with longtime pals Dave D’Antonio of Castro Valley and Dave Williams of Rancho Palos Verdes. We first sampled the 3.6-mile, 1,010-foot-elevation-gain Garfield Peak trail directly east of Rim Village, on the lake’s south side and the park’s main hub of food and lodging options.

“You get a great view of the Phantom Ship from there,” said Grimes, referring to one of the lake’s two islands. “I think Garfield Peak has the most variety of any trail in the park as far as variety of views, variety of flowers, variety of plants, and often animals. For me, that’s the most interesting trail in the park.”

He also trumpeted the scenic virtues, especially at sunrise and sunset, of the Watchman Peak trail on the lake’s western rim.

We ran out of time to try that one, but were thankful we ventured a few miles east of Crater Lake to stroll the 4.4-mile, 1,250-foot-elevation-gain Mount Scott trail. From its top, we soaked in a sweeping vista of one of the West’s most beautiful natural attractions (the lake), which made me think of a similarly awe-inspiring site (Half Dome) encountered intimately on Yosemite National Park’s North Rim hike.

In all, Crater Lake National Park has 90 miles of hiking trails. The Pacific Crest Trail, as those who have seen the Reese Witherspoon movie “Wild” know, runs through the park.

Scratching the surface

One of the other highlights of our August visit was taking the boat tour, which is where we first encountered Grimes. It started off something like a nod to a Bob Newhart sitcom: “Glad to meet you, Ranger Dave. This is my college friend Dave, and my other college friend Dave.”

The tours last year ran from late June to mid-September and, for the standard two-hour excursion, cost $37. Proceeding clockwise from Cleetwood Cove, the only shore access for visitors, the boats go by such geological gems as cliffside veins through which liquid rock used to flow. Grimes described Devil’s Backbone as a volcanic dike that runs up the western rim.

“It’s a crack through which magma traveled to the surface during an eruption some 50,000 years ago,” he explained. “What we see today is the magma that ‘froze’ in the crack and didn’t quite make it to the surface.”

Cleetwood Cove, by the way, is a popular swimming spot, too. And whether you intend to swim or take a tour boat, you must walk down to the cove via a steep, 1.1-mile-long trail. Allow at least 30 minutes for the descent.

Our boat didn’t stop at Wizard Island, although sometimes, for an extra $15, people can be deposited and retrieved three hours later.

“That’s really a magical place,” Grimes said. “When you get dropped off there, the boat takes off and it’s just incredibly peaceful and calm. The serenity is just amazing. It’s a really fun island just to hike around. You can hike to the top, and get spectacular views. Really interesting geology.”

During the boat tour, my friends and I were treated to a demonstration of Crater Lake’s clarity as Grimes lowered a Secchi disk into the water. As it sank, its quadrants, painted in alternating colors, remained clearly visible even on the increasingly cloudy day. (The tour actually was cut short by an hour due to weather.)

An entertaining, 40-minute lecture by ranger Brian Ettling from 2012, “Crater Lake and Climate Change: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” is available free online. In it, the good-natured Ettling dispenses dire climatic developments with a spoonful of sugar.

He pointed out that Secchi disks remain distinguishable in Crater Lake at a world-leading average depth of 100 feet. Lake Tahoe, he said by comparison, checks in with a 70-foot average, while in nearby Klamath Lake, “you can’t even see your feet.”

Ettling also offered an explanation for why the lake looks so intensely, so soothingly, blue. How blue? Well, if Paul Newman himself had stared down Crater Lake, he would have been forced to concede, “You win.”

The lake’s appearance starts with the sun.

“All that white light goes into Crater Lake,” Ettling said. “The reds, oranges and yellows get absorbed immediately, the greens penetrate a little bit deeper. The blues penetrate it the deepest, and the blue part of the sun ray vibrates about the same frequency that water molecules vibrate, and that’s what gives it that amazing, blue color.

“The true color of Crater Lake is actually ultraviolet, but our eyes can’t detect that. So we have ultraviolet that really penetrates deeper really than anywhere else. What amazes scientists about Crater Lake is that Crater Lake actually set a new benchmark standard of how deep UV light can penetrate a body of water.”

Within the lake, which is not fed by any rivers or streams, but exclusively by what emerges from clouds, are what Ettling estimated to be “hundreds of thousands” of rainbow trout and Kokanee salmon that with other species were introduced to the lake from 1881 to 1941. Which begs the question: Why?

“People had to really, really, really want to come to Crater Lake, and it was a train ride, then it was a wagon ride, and multiple days just to get up here,” said Brock, the NPS researcher. “So back in those days, people were trying to promote the parks … to make it more of a sporting paradise.

“And so stocking lakes with sport fish was a real common thing to do back then, all throughout the West. And so Crater Lake was no exception. We finally figured out that wasn’t such a good idea and stopped doing that.”

Because the fish aren’t native, and perhaps due to concerns about maintaining lake clarity, fishing is allowed, with no license needed and no limits imposed.

Past, present, future

The Daves and I are not into fishing, but we do enjoy reminiscing about our glory days in the 1970s and ’80s, and sometimes try to tie those memories in with our annual national park excursions. I was all but certain, for example, that Crater Lake was used as a backdrop in director Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror film “The Shining.” The Dave who’s a schoolteacher agreed, but the Dave who works in the film industry said we should Google the film’s opening credits to find out for sure.

We did, and I was proved wrong. Which is the thing about history. There often is an easy way to find out what did happen. Predicting what will happen, such as what effects global warming will have on Crater Lake and environs, is by comparison an inexact science.

“Because we’re at the crest of the Cascades and we’re not downstream of any cities, I think the changes will be fairly, as far as human impact, minimal,” Grimes said. “Climate change will be the main impact. But that could be significant impact. But compared to some other national parks, I think we’re in pretty good shape. …

“We’re not really under the threat of development along the park’s boundary. We are still pretty remote up here, and that does a lot to protect the plants and animals. So I’m definitely more optimist about this park than I am of other parks I’ve worked at, like Everglades.”

All of which gently suggests that if you are contemplating making the substantial effort to visit Crater Lake, try not to wait too long. What you will encounter there might not be changing all that quickly, over the coming years, but you may find that it is such a lovely, activity-packed park that you will want to return.

While you are there, look up and imagine the past. Look around and admire the present. Enjoy the view.

Look down, and really enjoy the blue.

Call The Bee’s Reed Parsell, (916) 321-1163.


Getting there: About 350 miles north of Sacramento, it is really only reachable by automobile, six hours via Interstate 5 and highways 197 (veer right off I-5 at Weed, 230 miles north of Sacramento) and 62 (veer left 27 miles north of Klamath Falls, Ore.).

Lodging in the park: Reserve as soon as you can, especially for Fridays and Saturdays. Crater Lake Lodge, perched on the south rim of the lake, is open seasonally; $150-$300. The motel-room-like Cabins at Mazama Village, a 7-mile drive south of the lake and Rim Village, will be available this year May 22- Sept. 30; $144 a night. A neighboring 214-site campground often fills up by early evening; 2014 rates started at $21. Lodging reservations and information: (888) 774-2728;

Lodging outside the park: Klamath Falls, population about 21,000, offers a variety of motel options.

Restaurants: There are a handful in the park, ranging from very informal to lightly formal;

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