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Gem of the Cascades

While visiting Oregon to present at the 16th biennial North American Agroforestry Conference, it only made sense to spend a little extra time exploring some of this state’s natural wonders. After the conference, I met Angie at the Portland International Airport and we headed south towards Oregon’s only National Park.

Established in 1902, Crater Lake National Park is a little gem nestled in the wild old growth conifer forests of the High Cascades about 100 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. The park is named after Crater Lake, a cobalt blue lake formed 7,700 years ago when the 12,000-foot Mount Mazama blew its top and left behind an open crater that later filled with rain and snowmelt. At 1,949 feet deep, Crater Lake is considered to be America’s deepest lake and the ninth deepest lake in the world. Scientists also consider it to be one of the cleanest and clearest large bodies of water in the world (NPS 2020).

One reason for this is that there are no direct inputs or outputs to the lake. No rivers or streams carry sediments into the lake that cloud its clarity. The lake is fed entirely by rain and snow and the only way that water escapes is through evaporation and underground seepage on the mountain slopes below. Angie and I hiked to the beautiful Vidae Falls on the slopes of Mazama whose probable source is subsurface seepage from the lake.

Vidae Falls drops 115 ft down the side of Mount Mazama. Although Crater Lake does not have any direct inputs or outputs, there is a theory that this water comes from the lake, seeping out of cracks in the rocks deep beneath the ground

Two features that make this lake unmistakable are the two rock formations within the lake: Wizard Island and the Phantom Ship. Wizard island is a cinder cone formed within the caldera. Several hundred years after Mazama’s eruption, several smaller eruptions formed cinder cones. Wizard Island was the only cinder cone that rose above the level of the water. It has its own crater on its summit, which was given the name “the witch’s cauldron” by William Gladstone Steele in 1885. Thus, Wizard Island is essentially a volcano within a volcano. The Phantom ship is a natural andesite rock formation that has been sculpted over the years by hydrothermal activity.

Wizard island, as seen from behind the trunk of a conifer. Notice the wolf lichen (Letharia vulpina) growing on the bark. Wolf lichen is a fruticose lichen that was named by the Europeans who used it to poison wolves. The lichen contains the toxin vulipinic acid and when it was combined with shards of glass and meat it proved to be extra effective at killing wolves and foxes. Some American Indians would boil wolf lichen, either alone or with grape bark, to create a bright yellow dye that they would use to color hand-made baskets

We were mesmerized by the cobalt blue color of the lake. The depth and the clarity of the lake create the most intense blue hue I have seen in any body of water. Along the shore, where the lake is shallower, some of the green wavelengths were reflected, creating a turquoise color reminiscent of far off tropical beaches.

A study of blue hues

The area gets considerable snowfall from September through June. Up to 37 inches have fallen in the park in a single day! Interestingly, the lake rarely freezes over due to the relatively mild onshore winds from the Pacific Ocean. Water temperatures of the lake have been increasing due to climate change. Surface temperatures have risen an average of 1°F every 10 years (54 °F in the 1960s to 59 °F today; NPS 2020). How will this change the lake’s ecology? Some researchers speculate that it may create conditions for increased algae growth, reducing the clarity of the lake.

Many areas of the park are still blanketed by snow in late June. Here, spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa) makes its season debut

The park protects over 286 square miles of wilderness, with less than 10% of that being occupied by the lake itself. Several shield volcanoes (formed by fluid lava flows) and stratovolcanoes (formed by pyroclastic flows) can be seen in the surrounding area, many of which are thought to have been parasitic on the larger Mazama stratovolcano. These are volcanoes that developed along the flanks of the larger volcano where lava found its way to the surface. We got spectacular views of Union Peak to the southwest.

Union Peak is the remnants of a shield volcano (formed by liquid magma) found in the southwestern corner of the park. During the last ice age, glaciers carved away the sides of the volcano, leaving a central glacial horn

The park is also a wonderland for recreation. Swimming and fishing are both permitted in the lake and the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail passes directly through the Park.

The old growth trees of the area are relatively small in size due to the rapid drainage of the soils. Few trees get to be over 150 feet tall and most have diameters under four feet (NPS 2020). There are four main forest zones in the park. The lowest, which starts around 4,500 feet in elevation is dominated by Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa). Ponderosa pine has striking red-orange bark when it is mature and it often has a strong vanilla aroma. It has long needles that grow in bundles of three.

Around 5,000 feet, the Ponderosa’s give way to vast stands of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta). Some people refer to these habitats as “dog hair’s forest” because of the thin, spindly stands that they form. The lodgepole pine is the park’s only pine that has bundles of two needles. Western white pine (Pinus monticola) and Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) are also found throughout.

Driving through vast stands of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) in Crater Lake National Park. Music by Toro y Moi.

The sun's rays pierce through the boughs of an Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii)

Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) then becomes the prevalent species above 6,000 feet in elevation. Hemlocks can typically be identified by looking at the top of the tree, also known as the leader. The leader of the hemlock droops down, pointing back down towards the ground. It has thin branches and small needles. Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla)also grows in the southwestern part of the park and can be distinguished by its much smaller cones.

And finally, starting around 7,500 feet, Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) woodlands become predominant. Whitebark pine is a keystone species that can be found growing along the rim of the lake. In recent years, the mountain pine bark beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) has been responsible for the killing of nearly half of the park’s whitebark pine trees.

Several whitebark pines (Pinus albicaulis) growing on the rim of Crater Lake. They often have a stunted or gnarled appearance due to the wind and snow

There are some areas of the park, where no vegetation grows at all. Leading away from Mazama in a northerly direction, the Pumice Desert is a very thick area of pumice (rough textured and highly vesicular volcanic glass) and ash that is practically devoid of plants due to the soil’s high porosity.

In other areas, we observed a wealth of wildflowers, including spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa), lanceleaf spring beauty (Claytonia lanceolata), and Pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa). They contrasted beautifully with pockets of melting snow along areas of the Rim Drive.

American Indians eat the roots and pods of lanceleaf spring beauty (Claytonia lanceolata), which can be cooked and eaten like potatoes

Although native to moist woodlands from California to British Columbia, Pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) is widely grown as a garden plant and several cultivars have been developed

We decided to make our camp just outside the National Park at the Diamond Lake campground. I highly recommend this as an overnighting option during the more crowded summer months. We hung our hammock lakeside and enjoyed two amazing sunsets over the lake. We also enjoyed a moment with a curious long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata), who jumped across our campsite with some kind of vole in its mouth.

In the mornings, we enjoyed birding around camp. Some species that were new to us were the red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis), chestnut-backed chickadee (Poecile rufescens), and townsend’s warbler (Setophaga townsendi).

Painting of a chestnut-backed chickadee (Poecile rufescens) (Accessed July 18, 2020

Although we weren’t able to spend a great deal of time in the park, we certainly developed plenty of appreciation for its raw volcanic beauty. As we sat trailside on a rock eating our lunch, we stared down into the profundity of the lake and lost ourselves in hypnosis. Small waves were forming on the surface of the water, breaking the reflection of the surrounding cliffs. The sun sent flecks of gold across the lake and Angie and I embraced one another, drinking in the tranquility around us.


National Park Service. 2020. Accessed July 16, 2020.

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