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EclipseTrip Day 5: Crater Lake

I woke up first in the morning at Broken Arrow campground in Oregon. I had been trying out a highly rated Thermarest mattress and I just wasn’t sleeping well on it, partly because it was too narrow.* So I left my sleeping beauties in the tent and crawled out to explore.

It was sunny but felt pretty cold. I put on a coat and strolled around the empty campground, happy to see a few squirrels and chipmunks around, carrying nuts. So all the animals hadn’t gotten burned up or fled to safer territory. When the kids got up and we started loading the car, some chipmunks got so bold that they went right into the Highlander, and we had to assign Toth the job of chipmunk patrol. We didn’t have much on hand to eat for breakfast, so we didn’t take long to get going.

We were only a few miles from the northern entrance of Crater Lake National Park, where we showed our Every Kid in a Park card and saved another $15. What I didn’t realize when I chose the campground was that, yes, it’s close to the northern entrance of the park, but the only place to buy food, and the visitor center, are near the south entrance. The road along the northwest side of the lake was under construction, so we started our park day with a slow, dusty drive. We had only driven a few miles, though, when we saw a sign for a scenic view point, so we parked the car and walked up a slope, hoping to catch sight of the bluest, deepest lake in America.

I literally sucked in air when it came into view, and that is apparently such a common reaction that it was mentioned in the film we watched later at the visitor center. This is where my words are gonna just fail all over the place. I mean, it’s not expressing what we saw to say that Crater Lake is really blue. Like, Caribbean lagoon blue, but fresher, framed by lovely evergreen trees, with an adorable little island in it. Staring at it rested our eyes as if we could drink up that water by looking, and we looked and looked and looked. Then we had to go back to the car because the kids were being jerks and bothering other people who were trying to gape in peace.

We drove more slow, dusty miles, until we finally arrived at the visitor center, where all the parking was taken. We had just illegally parked in an RV-only spot when a couple got into their car to pull out, so the kids and I stood in the empty spot while Erik walked back to the car to move it. Then we went into the cafe and spent one billion dollars on crappy sandwiches for breakfast. I think the lesson here is, if you’re driving from Ashland to Crater Lake, stock up on food in Ashland. Bring a cooler. (We had brought a couple insulated grocery bags and ice packs, which held up OK for keeping our milk cool, but we didn’t want to buy too much food without a cooler on hand.)

After our brunch, we walked over to the lake and gaped some more, then the girls did a Junior Ranger activity, which was drawing postcards of the lake, in exchange for some pretty badges which they’ll put on the back of their Girl Scout vests. There was a path descending down the deep lake bank there, and we walked down, drinking up more blue blue blue lake as we walked, until we reached a cool shelter built into the rocky bank, where there was a big relief model of the lake, lots of windows for framing the beautiful view, and an indoor area full of displays explaining the geology and history of the lake.

One thing about our family is that we can look at museums all day. We read about how the lake was formed: A volcano erupted not just from the top but mainly bursting out the sides, causing the cone to collapse and forming the massive crater where a lake of lava once had been. Subsequent eruptions sealed the bottom of the crater with lava, and then rain filled the crater up. Boom. It’s an unusual lake not just because of its massive depth and its beauty, but because it has no rivers leading in or out of it. It has some leaks, so it doesn’t overflow when it rains. It didn’t naturally have fish in it, just tiny organisms, although there have been fish introduced to it over the years, which people are allowed to fish since the NPS doesn’t want to preserve these non-native species. The unusual blueness is caused by the effect of the depth on the sun’s rays.

After spending about an hour learning, we walked back up the stairs in the bank, and realized that we would have to drive to see anything else. There was a lakeside path, but it didn’t go all the way to the main visitor center, which we wanted to see because that’s where the movie was. The kids really like to watch the movie at every national park.

We drove a few minutes to the main visitor center, which was a lovely old stone building, watched the movie, in which many people talked about how amazed they were when they first saw how blue Crater Lake is. We shopped some more, and, as the day was warming up, we asked how we could go swimming in Crater Lake. We got directions and learned that the only place where you can actually go down to the lake is on the north side, not far from where we entered the park. We got back in the car.

The road doesn’t closely hug the rim of Crater Lake, which is good. Why spoil the view by putting a bunch of cars in the background? The lake peeked in and out of view, while on our right the land dropped away into deep, wooded canyons that had me feeling serious vertigo looking down from the passenger seat. We stopped at several viewpoints, where we got out of the car and stared at the lake. At one, we saw some rocks that look like a medieval castle. At another, we had a better view of the little island, which was the cone of a mini volcano that erupted years after the original massive eruption formed the crater.

Notice how the lake is a different shade of blue in every picture? And how sometimes it’s misty, sometimes reflecting the clouds? This is why we couldn’t stop looking. It changed throughout the day.

Finally we arrived at the place where you can go swimming. There was a big construction project going on (I think they were repaving the parking lot), so we had to park alongside the road. The only bathrooms were stinky port-a-potties, but not knowing if there were any facilities down at the lake shore, we held our noses and used them. This area is also where the sightseeing boats launch from, but we did not know that you can only book those boats in advance. Sometimes they have room for walkups, but on this day, one of their boats was out of service, so walkups were out of the question.

The view from the hike down.

The hiking path down to the shore zig zags, so it’s not too steep. We were in sun most of the time as we descended, and it had become a warm day, so it was a little tiring but not too strenuous — getting us just sweaty enough to make us look forward to plunging into that icy lake. However, the people coming up the path — some of them carrying babies or heavy preschoolers — looked hot and, in some cases, miserable. I heard someone mention how nice it would be if they had another lake up at the top that you could jump in after the climb.

We stopped about a thousand times to take photos of the lake, which looked different from every angle. With the afternoon sun starting to shine at an angle, the surface was covered with shimmers and glints. Sometimes the surface reminded me of when you are making soap and it is just beginning to trace: The wind or a boat would leave just the slightest track in the glassy blue surface to show where it had been. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was a bit frustrating that my iPhone 7 camera couldn’t capture most of the detail I was seeing on the water. Erik had plugged in his DSLR to charge at home, then forgot to put it in the car.

When we finally arrived at the lake shore, there were probably over 100 people down there already, but there was plenty of room so it didn’t feel too crowded. People were sitting with towels on the boulders rimming the shore. There was in fact a bathroom down there, but refreshments to buy. Fortunately we had bottles of water with us.

Most of us changed into our bathing suits (poor Toth’s had been forgotten in his suitcase, and for some reason Erik decided not to swim). The boulders framing the lake extended below the surface, making a shallow area for wading right at the edge of the crater. After that, we understood, there was just the steep sides of the crater and the lake bottom, 2,000 feet below.







There is a large boulder that people were taking turns jumping off of. This is the only accessible jumping spot at Crater Lake, so if you have seen photos of people jumping in, it was right here. I had recently seen it on the cover of Sunset Magazine. Whenever I see people jumping off a boulder into a lake or river, I always want to do it — but I also always worry that if I do, I’ll hit a rock and become paralyzed. So I decided to first wade in with Nutmeg, and then once my body got used to the chilly water — it was cold, but not unbearable to swim in — I swam over to the area where I would land if I jumped.

In between jumpers, I swam right around the outcropping, feeling a frisson down my spine when the knowledge sank in that I was swimming over a 2,000-foot drop. But I didn’t feel really afraid, because I am a decent swimmer, and I was only a few feet from the rocks at any time, and there were lots of people around. I knew I wouldn’t sink down to the bottom so it didn’t really matter how deep it was.

The waves lapped only gently, so despite the depth, it felt like a very safe place to swim. Looking over the surface of the lake from inside it was a revelation, because I had expected it to be not as pretty from the surface level, but it was. It was nearly as blue as it had been from above, stretching out to the bases of the opposite banks which from here looked like steep walls.

I found Erik and Toth and Pebbles on the other side of the outcropping, where they had climbed down onto the rocks. Nutmeg walked around and jumped back into the lake with me. We then proceeded to urge the others to get in, because it felt wonderful. Pebbles wanted to swim but was afraid of the crayfish which lived in the cracks of the boulders. Toth wanted to swim but he was too self-conscious to strip down to his underwear, and didn’t want to get his clothes wet. Erik, well, I don’t know what his deal was.

We finally bribed the littles into the water. For Toth, it took the promise of his very own gallon of ice cream. He waded in wearing all his clothes, and we weren’t satisfied until he crouched down on the boulders, submerging himself to his chin. Pebbles held out for much more in bribes: ice cream, a dress, high heels, a leather jacket and getting her ears pierced when we got to Portland. (So far, more than a month later, she has only gotten the ice cream and the jacket, but we’re working on it. And the jacket was a hand-me-down that happened to be given to us last week — good timing!

We had promised Pebbles that she would love it once she was in, but she insisted that she was freezing and hated it, so she scrambled out pretty quickly.

All this time, I was enjoying the water. I still wanted to jump off that big boulder, but by now, of course, I didn’t feel hot anymore, and once I got out I wanted to dry off and not get wet again. So yes: I chickened out.

After awhile Erik retrieved our clothes from a rock we had hung them on near the restrooms, and we all put ourselves back together somewhat — I just put on a coverup so I could preserve the coolness of my wet bathing suit as we climbed — and tackled the hike back up the bank.

Fortunately, the sun was now low in the sky, as it was about 5 p.m., so most of the path was in shadow now. It was still a hike, but we took it slow and we were not miserable. We made it back to the car and headed out of the park. I realized, as I wiggled into my clothes Girl-Scout-camp-style in the passenger seat, that my new bra must have been left, hanging from a rock, on the shores of Crater Lake.

Our next destination was Bend, and again we found ourselves driving through the National Forest, looking for somewhere to eat. We passed several buildings that looked like convenience store/gas stations, but they were boarded up with NO TRESPASSING scrawled on their fronts. Finally, we rolled into a tiny town called Crescent, and saw a the Mohawk Restaurant, with a big (mostly empty) parking lot. The restaurant sign announced that they buy bottles and taxidermy, which made us feel like we were in deep country, indeed. I actually left everyone in the car while I ran in to look around, nervous that the place would be scary or unwelcoming.

Instead, I walked into a large room lined with an amazing display of taxidermied animals of all kinds, from deer to elk to eagles in flight, and collector whiskey bottles, some of which my dad has in his own small collection at home. I brought the kids in and we took our seats, and were soon greeted by a friendly but low-key older woman who took our orders from a menu of hamburgers and the like. I found that, instead of feeling like an outsider, I knew this kind of place well: It was just like a lot of bar/restaurants in rural Wisconsin where my family has been going since I was a kid. I mean, I’ve never been to a place in Wisconsin that had quite this much taxidermy, but the feel was familiar. In the entryway, there was a bulletin board showing photos of locals posing with bucks they’d shot and huge salmon they’d caught.

While we waited for our food, we read a little information sheet about the place and learned that some of the tiny deer we saw displayed in standing or running poses had actually been fetuses collected from roadkill. That made sense, because they were so tiny! The spotted fawns were roadkill too, since of course you’re not allowed to shoot those. Toth and I walked around the whole large room while we waited, looking at every animal and every bottle.

They even had Avon cologne bottles, which I recognized because my dad has one of those too, shaped like a mail truck.

When she heard we were headed to Bend, our waitress warned us that it was “crazy” up there because of the impending eclipse. People were apparently mustering in bend before driving up to Madras, which was on the centerline and would see totality. Just about the same time, our friend in Bend had texted us to warn to fill up with gas before we arrived, because he had just gone to a gas station that was out of gas. I refused to get too worried — after all, I knew that rural people’s idea of “crazy traffic” didn’t match my idea of crazy traffic. But just to be safe, we stopped in La Pine, a bigger town just down the road, to fill our tank and buy some groceries. Then we drove to our friend’s house.

We could see, just rolling into town, that we were going to love Bend. Every other business we passed seemed to be a brewery. We didn’t notice any excessive traffic.

Our friend was not home, but he had sent us the door code to get into his sweet three-bedroom house, and as it was by now late, and we had had a very long day, we quickly got the kids situated with their camping maps and sleeping bags on the floor of the spare room. Our host arrived home about then, and we enjoyed catching up and having a beer after a day that had seemed a week long. We began making plans for our one full day in Bend.

* Now one of the kids has a fancy ThermaRest. It’s already come in really handy for staying in hotel rooms, which usually don’t have enough beds for a family of five. I bought a big-butt Aerobed for Erik and me so we can sleep in style next time we camp.