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Park History: Crater Lake National Park


Wizard Island is anchored within the namesake lake of Crater Lake National Park. Photo by
Paraflyer via flickr.

With waters that shimmer azure and forested flanks, the cataclysmic birth of Crater Lake National Park is usually little more than an afterthought for most visitors to this jewel.

Those interested in volcanics know, however, that the national park sits within the caldera of a collapsed stratovolcano, ancient Mount Mazama, which consumed itself about 7,700 years ago.

According to the National Park Service,

Native Americans witnessed the collapse of Mount Mazama and kept the event alive in their legends. One ancient legend of the Klamath people closely parallels the geologic story which emerges from today's scientific research. The legend tells of two Chiefs, Llao of the Below World and Skell of the Above World, pitted in a battle which ended up in the destruction of Llao's home, Mt. Mazama. The battle was witnessed in the eruption of Mt. Mazama and the creation of Crater Lake.

The Klamaths revered the lake and the surrounding area, keeping it undiscovered by white explorers until 1853. That year, on June 12, three gold prospectors, John Wesley Hillman, Henry Klippel, and Isaac Skeeters, came upon a long, sloping mountain. Upon reaching its highest point, a huge, awe-inspiring lake was visible. "This is the bluest lake we've ever seen," they reported, and named it Deep Blue Lake. But gold was more on the minds of settlers at the time and the discovery was soon forgotten.

Captain Clarence Dutton was the next man to make a discovery at Crater Lake. Dutton commanded a U.S. Geological Survey party which carried the Cleetwood, a half-ton survey boat, up the steep slopes of the mountain then lowered it to the lake. From the stern of the Cleetwood, a piece of pipe on the end of a spool of piano wire sounded the depth of the lake at 168 differrnt points. Dutton's soundings of 1,996 feet were amazingly close to the sonar readings made in 1959 that established the lake's deepest point at 1,932 feet.

William Gladstone Steel devoted his life and fortune to the establishment and management of Crater Lake National Park. His preoccupation with the lake began in 1870. In his efforts to bring recognition to the park, he participated in lake surveys that provided scientific support. He named many of the lake's landmarks, including Wizard Island, Llao Rock, and Skell Head. Steel's dream was realized on May 22, 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill giving Crater Lake national park status. And because of Steel's involvement, Crater Lake Lodge was opened in 1915 and the Rim Drive was completed in 1918.

The six-mile-wide lake is, on average, the deepest lake in North America.

Now, if you're not attracted by the lake, the park has more than 90 miles of hiking trails, including 33 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Cycling the 33-mile Rim Drive also is popular, though if you're not prepared for steep uphills it could prove to be a challenge.

There are two campgrounds at Crater Lake, but they're not yet open for the season. The Mazama Campground and its 200 sites is usually open mid-June through early October, and no reservations are required. You'll find running water, flush toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings at this campground.

The Lost Creek Campground, meanwhile, has only 16 tent sites and is typically open from mid-July to early October.


During the summer of 2000, the USGS and their contractors extensively resurveyed Crater Lake's inner caldera below the lake's surface. Using the USGS benchmarked elevation for the lake's surface of 1883 meters (6178 feet), they determined the lake's maximum depth to be 594 meters (plus and minus 1.2 meters [one sigma error] or a 95% uncertainty range of from 591.6 to 596.4 meters). This translates to a maximum depth of 1949 feet (with a 95% uncertainty range of 1941 to 1957 feet).

The average depth of Crater Lake, as determined by the USGS 2000 survey, is 350m (plus or minus 0.7 m [one sigma error]). This translates to 1148 ft, (with a 95% uncertainty range from 1144 to 1153 ft). Crater Lake is, on the average, the deepest in the Western Hemisphere and the third deepest in the world.

Compared using average depths, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the world among those lakes whose basins are entirely above sea level. The basins of the world's deepest lakes, Baikal and Tanganyika, extend far below sea level.

For anyone seeking a short hike with great views of the inner caldera of Crater Lake and the southern crest of the Cascade Mountain range, I would recommend the Garfield Peak Trail. This hike is 1.7 miles to the top of Garfield Peak and begins along the Rim Village promenade, just east of Crater Lake Lodge. During the early summer season, the upper portions of this trail may still be closed due to snow. Check with a park ranger for the most current information.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

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