CRATER LAKE, Ore. — Imagine my embarrassment. I, an Oregonian since age 2, and a photojournalist in the state for more than a decade, had never visited Crater Lake, the state’s only national park and a site so iconic it has its own license plate.
When I found myself in Southern Oregon earlier this month, I carved out enough time to take the long way home. Oh my goodness, what a sight.
“I remember the first time I saw Crater Lake,” said Bill Kelly, of Portland, taking a picture of his daughter, Katie, with her friends Tess and Samara Michaelson at Rim Village, with forested Wizard Island and the shockingly blue water as the backdrop.
“It was at the end of a long western road trip, and it had taken forever to get here,” Bill Kelly said. “My family had seen Bryce Canyon and all these amazing places, so I was tired and jaded. But then I walked up right here, and, whoa.”
Now Kelly was showing his daughter and her friends the same view at the end of a road trip.
“I drove them to the Beyoncé concert in San Jose,” he said, “and we had to hit Crater Lake on the way back.”
“Well,” his daughter butted in, “we’re not exactly hitting Crater Lake.”
She technically was right. The water was down the caldera wall more than a thousand feet beneath us.
“I’d say Crater Lake is the Beyoncé of Oregon,” her friend Tess Michaelson said.
At a gift shop near the park headquarters, National Park Service volunteer Tim Elam showed Terry Bellamy a small model of the park.
“The tour boats were helicoptered in,” Elam said. There is no road to the water’s edge, and only one trail along the lake’s 33-mile-long circumference leads down the steep cliffside to a boat dock.
Bellamy was living temporarily in Ashland while acting in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
“My show ends soon, and I needed to see (Crater Lake) while I was in Oregon,” he said.
Indeed, as with many national parks, license plates from myriad states populated the parking lots as nature-lovers made their pilgrimages. Teresa Degarlais and her daughter Abby made a small snowman on the Watchman Peak Trail, high on the western rim.
“We’re from Savannah, Ga., so we had to see the snow,” Teresa Degarlais said.
The trail curls up Watchman Peak to an 80-year-old fire lookout. At an elevation of 8,025 feet, hikers climb up to the lookout platform and are suddenly confronted with one of the great panoramas of the natural world.
Kris Griffith and Maria Cabanillas of Houston, Texas, took turns with a pair of binoculars and scanned the horizon. Far to the south, still heavy with snow, lay Mount McLoughlin and Mount Shasta, which the Klamath tribes believed was home to the Spirit of the Above-World. To the southeast can be seen Klamath Lake and the vast basin beyond. To the north, craggy Mount Thielsen poked over the shoulder of nearby Hillman Peak.
And bright and shining directly beneath them, the great six-mile-wide caldera, sharply sided with the rocky remnants of old Mount Mazama, only a tribal memory now.
What’s here is invisible history, the cataclysmic eruption of a long-ago mountain, here before we were. And what is visible, in the background behind us and our gift-shop trinkets, is to my eyes the truest representation of the state of Oregon, hidden in plain sight: the sacred lake itself, a bowl of purest blue.
“Wow,” Cabanillas said.