By Dan Shryock
Here’s the thing about a boat tour on Crater Lake. You’re not taking a high-speed thrill ride. Instead, it’s a slow-paced discovery. This is about touching the astonishingly clear, blue water, gazing at the stark, rocky shore, marveling at the reflections on the water.
This is a peaceful cruise despite the rumble of a motorboat engine. This is all about the experience, seeing this natural wonder from the water line up.
“I often compare Crater Lake to the Grand Canyon. There’s one perspective from the rim and another from the bottom,” says Crater Lake National Park Superintendent Craig Ackerman. “It looks completely different from the bottom looking up.”
Crater Lake was formed more than 7,000 years ago when the volcanic Mt. Mazama erupted and sent its rock and ash across the Pacific Northwest. Only the caldera that would become the lake basin was left behind. Superintendent Ackerman considers a seat on a tour boat as a good place to consider that eruption.
“You really get an appreciation of the scope and the scale of the forces of geological processes,” he says of the eruption. “You see it from the rim but when you’re sitting on the water and realize the mountain as a mile higher than you are, it gives you a unique perspective.”
The boat tour season is short, typically mid-June through late September. Seasonal weather conditions require new schedules to be set each year. In addition, there are only three boats in the tour fleet. It’s recommended you make reservations in advance to confirm your seats.
Once at Crater Lake National Park, the experience starts at the top where you park your car at the Cleetwood Trailhead and hike 1.1 miles downhill – about 700 feet in altitude change - to the boat dock. Everyone taking the boat tour must make the hike down and back, and park officials caution that both journeys are strenuous and not recommended for those with medical conditions that may limit their ability.
With that knowledge, take the 30-45 minute walk down to the water. Once there, a crystal clear, almost glassy sheet of very blue water appears before you. In order to protect the water quality and guard against invasive species, the National Park Service does not allow private boats on the lake. As a result, you get to experience perhaps the most pristine waterfront in the country, if not the world.
You may see someone casting a fishing line from shore or jumping in for a swim. Fishing is encouraged and no license is required. There’s no limit, either. Park officials only require that you only use artificial bait. Fish are not native to the lake but several species were stocked decades ago. Only Rainbow Trout and Kokanee Salmon survive.
The swimmers must be a brave lot; that water is cold. Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States and it only gets its water from rainfall and snow melt.
Once on board a tour boat, sit back and take in the sights. The tour will take you from one end of the lake to the other, alongside the rock formation called the Phantom Ship and around Wizard Island, a cinder cone protruding from the lake. You can’t help but notice the mirror reflections of the shore’s steep banks in the water. Park rangers will explain throughout the tour the geologic and natural features that make Crater Lake such a special place.
“It is quite amazing,” Superintendent Ackerman says. “From up on the rim, you think it’s the optics of being up high and looking down that makes the water look so blue. It’s just as blue and even more intense at the water level. The (boat) wake is even blue. That’s the part that always astounds me.”
The typical standard tour takes three hours. If you have time and want to do some exploring on your own, an early tour boat will drop you off on Wizard Island and pick you up later. You can hike, fish and swim on your own. There are 3-hour and 6-hour options for Wizard Island. Make your plans well in advance as Wizard Island seats are limited.
Dan Shryock is an Oregon-based journalist and travel writer. When he's not visiting Southern Oregon or sampling local wines, he can be found cycling throughout the state.