Guide to Crater Lake’s Photogenic Landmarks
Crater Lake National Park encompasses some of the grandest scenery on Earth. Some 7,700 years ago, Mount Mazama—then standing 12,000-odd feet tall—pulled a real drama-queen act in a multistage eruption that spewed ash over a big swath of western North America and collapsed its summit. That sunken crown then, in pretty short order (geologically speaking), filled with snow melt to form the deepest lake in the U.S.—nearly 2,000 feet down—and one of the purest bodies of water anywhere.
Today, Crater Lake is a year-round Klamath County attraction, and whether you’re gazing down on it in wintry splendor or on a bluebird summer’s day, you can happily lose yourself in picking out its splendiferous topographic features. Here’s a run-through of only some of the most prominent and fascinating landforms composing the caldera!
The dominant feature of Crater Lake itself, Wizard Island is a cinder cone extending some 760 or so feet above the lake’s surface—only the above-water portion of a much larger andesitic landform that looms, in total, more than 2,000 feet above the caldera’s floor. Wizard Island—which formed within a few centuries after Mount Mazama shuddered apart—is the only of the recent cones and lava flows that managed to stay protruding as the caldera filled with lakewater. You can tromp around on Wizard Island—and peek into its little crater—in the summertime, when tour boats dock along its shores. When you do, keep an eye peeled for the garter snakes that live here—enjoying some of the most isolated and scenic digs of any serpents in the country, we’d say.
Among the most famous features of Crater Lake, Phantom Ship—separated from the southeastern caldera wall at Dutton Cliff by a narrow channel—is also the oldest visible rock within the caldera: a spiked islet of 400,000-year-old andesite, produced by the so-called Phantom Cone, which does indeed resemble a ghostly sailing vessel, not least when the lake’s hung with fog. About 500 feet long and 200 or so feet at its widest, Phantom Ship raises its skeletal spires some 170 feet out of the waters.
A surprisingly diverse cadre of trees rubs shoulders on this rugged outcrop, including whitebark, western white, and ponderosa pines as well as Shasta red fir and mountain hemlock. Meanwhile the Old Man of the Lake—the vertically floating hemlock log that’s been bobbing around Crater Lake since at least the 1800s—often “hangs out” in Phantom Ship’s vicinity. The Ship and the Old Man make a mysterious tag-team, to say the least.
Sun & Kerr Notches
Alpine glaciers once streamed down the slopes of Mount Mazama, carving (as glaciers will do) great U-shaped canyons and valleys on the mountainsides. Mazama’s caldera-forming eruption “beheaded” these trenches, as evidenced by some prominent notches on the Crater Lake rim. Most strikingly, these include Sun Notch above Chaski Bay on the south shores, marking the head of the Sun Creek valley, and, to the northeast, Kerr Notch above Kerr Valley, which is drained by Sand Creek (and which funneled pyroclastic flows from Mazama’s great eruption as far as Klamath Marsh).
The Rim Drive edges these notches and their glacial valleys between the park visitor center and the turnoff for Pinnacles Road, which runs down Kerr Valley; be sure to take the short hike up to Sun Notch off the road for a fantastic view down into the lake, including quite the gander at Phantom Ship.
Surveying Crater Lake from the vicinity of Rim Village, you’ll have a nice prospect of the Devil’s Backbone to the north. This is the most arresting of the volcanic dikes—linear conduits of lava following fissures—which cut the walls of the caldera, and the only one that runs from the lakeshore all the way to the rim. The dark, spiky palisade of the Devil’s Backbone, formed of andesite, is part of the internal “plumbing” of Mount Mazama exposed by the collapse of the caldera.
The craggy crown of 8,156-foot Hillman Peak on the west side of Crater Lake marks the highest point of the caldera rim. Hillman is a so-called “parasitic cone” of Mount Mazama boiled up some 70,000 years ago, and basically cleaved in half by the caldera collapse: a disembowelment revealing feeder dikes and other of its colorful innards overlooking the lake. You can nab a fine view of Hillman Peak from just south along the rim at the observation center atop the Watchman, which serves as one of the best all-around overlooks of Crater Lake.
From a pullout between Cloudcap and Phantom Ship overlooks on the eastern rim, it’s impossible to miss the vibrant orange of Pumice Castle against the comparatively drab caldera walls. This hoodoo outcrop of dacite pumice—frothy volcanic rock blasted out during eruptions—has resisted erosion thanks to its welded character, and owes its eye-catching color to oxidation.
Getting to Know Crater Lake’s Defining Features
There are numerous other caldera elements we’ve had to leave off this list, from Redcloud Cliff to other rim-jutting peaks such as Applegate, Garfield, and Roundtop. And keep in mind Crater Lake National Park includes a number of other fascinating features beyond the lip of the caldera, including the park’s high point of Mount Scott to the east (the oldest component of the Mount Mazama complex), the tuff towers of the Pinnacles to the southeast, and the evocative wastes of the Pumice Desert to the north.
Needless to say, Crater Lake is the kind of place that takes visit after visit to get to know—and, rest assured, not the kind of place that ever gets “old.” Believe us: Each and every time you hit Rim Village, you’ll be bowled over anew by one of the dreamiest landscapes in the world.
Written by Ethan Shaw for Matcha in partnership with Discover Klamath Visitor and Convention Bureau.