Crater Lake National Park, Or What To Do When Wally World Is Closed

Stop number 2 of our August drive up the West Coast was at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. Crater Lake was formed nearly 8,000 years ago when the volcano Mount Mazama literally blew its top off, leaving a perfectly formed caldera. The eruption of Mazama, to put it in perspective, was about 150 times more powerful than the eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980.

For the ensuing 7 or 8 centuries, Mazama’s caldera filled with rainwater and snowmelt. The result was a perfectly isolated lake of some of the purest water on the planet, so pure that its blue color is renowned.

It’s easy to wax poetic on the tremendous violence of that eruption leading, eventually, to uncommon natural beauty. Some people, upon laying eyes on the blue waters of Crater Lake perfectly mirroring the sky, report a near-religious experience. The closest we got was declaring, “Good Lord, look at the smoke!”

A Smoky Crater Lake


The summer of 2015 will go down in the history books for the forest fires that have plagued the western states. As we visited Crater Lake National Park, a natural fire (ignited by a lightning strike) raged in the wilderness to the north of the crater. We noticed the smell of smoke the night before when we arrived in nearby Klamath Falls, but the hotel clerk assured us we had nothing to worry about. He obviously was citing our safety, not our sightseeing plans.

Had we known the crater would literally fill with smoke, we might have set the alarm to get up earlier the next morning and made a beeline to the crater’s rim. Instead, we slept in, enjoyed breakfast, moseyed into the park with photo opportunities along the way, and lingered in the welcome lodge to watch the movie. By the time we actually headed to the crater, visibility was decreasing and the smoke was thick enough to make our eyes itchy. We could barely see the famous blue water unless we looked straight down at it from the edge.

Still, it was an oddly beautiful sight to behold, just as a fog-obscured coast can be beautiful. We hung around for a while, enjoyed a picnic lunch, hoping the smoke would blow on through. It didn’t. So we packed up and headed out, but even that was with challenge: the fire had caused the National Park Service to shut down the northerly exit of the park, the one we had planned to take.

These things happen when you travel, and you always have to assume that you’ll have another chance to visit one day. Crater Lake will remain on our wish list for another day. So we shrugged at the smoke, and we shrugged at the road closure and the extra ninety minutes of travel it was going to add to our day. And then something pretty cool happened.

On the way out of the park, we stopped to see the Rogue River Gorge. It’s a gorge formed by collapsed lava tubes from Mazama’s eruption, not by the erosion of the flowing water. The result is a gorge of abrupt vertical walls, not the typical smooth and soft valley you’d expect to see. It was a splendid sight to see, and we wouldn’t have seen it had Crater Lake not been filled with smoke.

The lesson? When you arrive at Wally World to find the gates closed, go find something else to do. You might just find something pretty cool that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Rogue River Gorge


Lava Tubes at Rogue River Gorge

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