By Dan Shryock
First impressions of Crater Lake National Park: there’s the overwhelming natural beauty, the water’s vast blue glimmer.
But take some time to explore and you will discover there’s much more to see than water.
“Jaws drop when people first see the lake but that’s just the beginning,” says Marsha McCabe, the park’s chief of interpretation and cultural resources.
“There’s so much more to this park than the lake. There are the pathways through the forest, the wildflowers in the summer time and the number of stars you see at night.”
It’s McCabe’s job to help visitors discover both the natural and cultural significance of Crater Lake National Park. She and her team do it with guided tours, interpretative signs and even a movie. The goal is to let visitors “make their own connections with the park.”
“Some may prefer a boat tour, a trolley tour (around the caldera rim) or see a film,” she says. “Our goal is to provide some variety.”
The opportunities are there for most everyone, no matter your energy level or ability to get around. The boat tour sounds easy, but be aware there’s a steep one-mile hike each way.
“The boat tour is two hours long and you have to hike down to the lake and back out,” McCabe says. “But it’s such a different perspective on the lake. It looks different at the surface. You don’t feel the lake’s size as much as you do when you’re down on the water.”
There are two boat tours. One allows you to get off and explore Wizard Island by foot. After three hours there, the boat will come back to pick you up. Consider this your chance to hike to the top of a cinder cone. “It’s an amazing view from there,” she says.
The trolley tour, on the other hand, is a two-hour drive around the 33-mile Rim Drive. A park ranger on board explains what you see, and the trolley makes stops at vista points along the way. McCabe also points out that the trolleys run on compressed natural gas making it “a greener way to see the park.”
If self-exploration is your preference, there are plenty of places to go.
“You can hike up to Crater Peak,” McCabe says. “It’s interesting because it’s an old cinder cone like Wizard Island, only much older. It’s not as rocky and there’s more grass. It’s a gentler crater.”
You may forget where you are. “You can’t see the lake from there,” she says. “You can imagine people being in these mountains and not realizing there’s even a lake nearby.”
Another of McCabe’s favorite hikes is Plaikni Falls Trail. Plaikni, she says, is a native Klamath Tribe word for “high country.”
“This is a new trail, only 2 years old, and it’s accessible for people of all ages, even folks with wheel chairs who have some help.”
Then there’s Sun Notch. “That’s off the east rim. We are making major improvements to the trail, making it more of a loop trail with interpretative panels,” McCabe says. “It’s a glacier valley and a flowering meadow. You can see Applegate Peak and Dunton Cliff on the other side. It’s a neat place for folks to go.”
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.