I tried for days to get reservations at Crater Lake National Park. Each day I got the same result…”No Availability, Campground Full”. Finally, after becoming frustrated with their website, I called. I was immediately place in the cue, “your estimated wait time is… twenty-five minutes”, an animated voice would say. Fortunately, my patience paid off. I was able to book a site at Mazama Campground. Not for the dates I wanted but for four nights later. The agent on the phone said it was the last site available for the next six weeks. I felt lucky to get it.
That meant, however, that we’d need to find a place to stay for four nights, preferably somewhere in between. Our options were limited but we found an available site at Sycamore Grove Campground in Red Bluff, California. It’s a forest service campground on the Sacramento River. How a forest service campground came to be located in an urban area…I don’t know.
I know there are no perfect campgrounds. There is always something that could be a little better. But I had several issues with this campground. I’ll only list a few. The site we had was smaller than indicated on the website causing me to do some creative parking. It appeared that maybe a couple of sites were occupied permanently by the homeless. Another site was used as a place for…I don’t know…maybe a family reunion were more than 30 people gathered. The site where the campground host was located looked like a scene from the Hoarders television show. It’s a shame this campground is so poorly managed because it’s well laid out, in a good location on the Sacramento River, and has abundant open space with plenty of shade from the sycamore trees. It could be a very nice campground. But it just gave us an uneasy feeling. I don’t recommend it for anything more than maybe a quick overnight stop while traveling I-5. Ugh!
Our days there were uneventful as we mostly stayed at our campsite. We saw nothing in Red Bluff that spurred our interest. Grammi said the only good thing in Red Bluff was the donut shop. We did take a thirty-five mile drive north to the Sundial Bridge in Redding. It’s a well-known pedestrian suspension bridge that spans 710 feet across the Sacramento River. It serves as an access point to Redding’s Sacramento River Trail system and connects the north and south areas of Turtle Bay Exploration Park. I found the design of the bridge very interesting. As you walk across, you can see the river through the glass decking below your feet and as the name suggest, it’s a working sundial. One of the world’s largest. The 217 foot gnomon cast its shadow across a large dial on the north side of the bridge.
We were happy to leave Red Bluff and the Sycamore Grove Campground. We headed north into Oregon toward Crater Lake National Park. We checked into Mazama Campground around two o’clock in the afternoon. It was the first campground within a national park that we’ve stay at this year. The site was a little tight as we had to maneuver past a tree and around some large rocks, but we managed. Like most national park campgrounds, there is no hook-ups.
I know I run the risk of sounding a little whiney here, especially after being critical of our last campground, but the site was dirty. It had trash scattered around. The fire pit hadn’t been cleaned out in…well maybe forever. The picnic table was grose and falling apart. It just looked run down and unkept. To top things off, the site in the next loop over from us was essentially right out our front door. They had two campers parked on one site with two families occupying it. They ran a loud open-frame generator continuously during the day and played a boom box radio so loud it almost drowned out the generator noise. When we checked in, we had to sign a paper acknowledging we read and understand the rules. But who enforces the rules? I never saw a park ranger. The campground is operated by a private concessionaire which explains a lot. Our reprieve was there was so much to see and do we weren’t around the campsite too much. But again, ugh!
After setting up the camper, we still had plenty of daylight left. So we drove up to the Rim Village and found a place to park the truck near the visitor center. From there we took a short walk to the Rim Trail for our first look at Crater Lake. Our initial impression was the same as probably everyone else that sees it for the first time. “Wow! The water is so blue.”
Crater Lake was formed 7,700 years ago after the eruption of Mount Mazama. Over the ensuing years, rain and snow filled the caldera creating what we now know as Crater Lake. At 1,949 feet, it’s the deepest lake in the United States and one of the deepest in the entire world. There are no outside water sources into Crater Lake. It maintains its water level directly from the rain and snowfall. Therefore, no mud or sediment wash into the lake keeping Crater Lake one of the cleanest and clearest lakes in the world. Because of the clarity and depth of the water all the colors of the light spectrum are absorbed except for the deepest blue and violet giving Crater Lake its famous blue color.
We walked along the Rim Trail toward Crater Lake Lodge. Our daughter Amber spent her honeymoon there in 2009. She told us we HAVE to check it out, that we HAD to see the Great Hall and dine on the rear terrace overlooking the lake. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the lodge was opened in 1915 and has provided tourist a cozy place to stay for many years. In the 1990‘s the lodge went through a major renovation. Todays guest enjoy modern accommodations. Unfortunately, when we walked up to the entrance, we were turned away. There was a sign posted on the door—“Due to COVID-19 only registered guest are permitted inside at this time”. Bummer! We walked around to the back and saw some rocking chairs set out along the rim. We sat and rocked there for a while looking across the lake and marveling its magnificence.
A prominent feature arising over 700 feet from the lake is Wizard Island. It is actually a cinder cone which formed creating an island on the west side of the lake. Boat tours are normally available out to the island where you can hike to the top and see the volcanic crater, but the boats are not running for the 2020 season because of COVID-19. Nevertheless, viewing the island from the rim is still an awesome experience.
The next morning we took off for a drive along the 33 mile loop road that encircles Crater Lake. We began on West Rim Drive and traveled clockwise so the overlooks for the lake were on the right side. The drive along the caldera rim has 30 scenic overlooks. Each overlook offers views of either the lake or the surrounding landscape. You can see the lake from many different angles, marvel at the unique geological formations around the caldera, gaze across subalpine meadows, or take-in the fabulous panoramic views of the distant mountains. It’s recommended to allow 2 – 3 hours to complete the loop. It took us 9 hours.
Of course we stopped at nearly every overlook, taking the time to appreciate the views. I’ve seen people in cars pull out on the overlooks, slow down while straining their necks to see, then pull away without ever stopping. That’s not us. We stop. We get out of the truck. We read all the posted information boards. If there’s a trail leading away, we might explore where it goes. We invested time to get here. You can bet we’re going to take the time to see it.
Some of our favorite stops were:
—Discovery Point – this is where gold prospector John Wesley Hillman first spotted Crater Lake in 1853. We had a great view of the south side of Wizard Island and took an easy 2 mile round trip hike on a portion of Discovery Point Trail.
—Watchman Overlook – this is a popular spot with limited parking. There’s a short walk to an observation deck with broad views of the lake. It’s also has a great view of Wizard Island.
—An unknown named pullout just north of Watchman Overlook and below Hillman Peak overlooking Williams Crater was a patch of snow close enough to the road for grammi and I to engaged in a friendly snowball fight. We laughed so hard as we ran around tossing snowballs at one another.
—Pumice Desert – veering away from the Rim Road at the North Junction we proceeded to this dry meadow designated as an area of research.
—Diamond Lake Overlook – we discovered there are beautiful places to see outside the park. Along Oregon Route 138 we stopped at an overlook with a great view of Diamond Lake. The chipmunks there were very curious and begged for a handout.
—Cloud Gap Overlook – this is the highest road-access overlook where we found stunning panoramic views of the Crater Lake.
—Pinnacles Overlook – a short 6 mile drive off of East Rim Road on Pinnacles Road took us to this overlook and a one mile round trip hike along the rim of Wheeler Creek where we saw a colorful array of volcanic pumice spires.
—Vidae Falls – located right next to the road, this was an easy waterfall to see. Its 100 foot drop was quite amazing.
We completed the loop with a stop at the gift shop at Rim Village where we picked up a post card and a souvenir refrigerator magnet. We returned to the camper just before sunset.
Over the next couple of days we continued to explore much of Crater Lake National Park by hiking as many trails as we could find the strength to conquer. We did go to Cleetwood Cove Trailhead where you can hike down to the lake, but after much consideration we decided not to do that hike. Because the boat tours were closed we saw no other reason to make the strenuous hike down and back up just to touch the water.
The hikes we did take included:
—Watchman Peak Trail – rated as a moderated hike because of its nearly four hundred feet of elevation gain, it ascends to the Watchman Observation Station atop Watchman Peak with its wonderful 360 degree view.
—Sun NotchTrail – this is a moderate rated ½ mile loop trail to an overlook on Crater Lake featuring an island named Phantom Ship. This island rises about 160 feet above the lake’s surface and gets its name because its profile resembles a sailing ship .
—Plaikni Falls Trail – a beautiful 2.2 mile out-and-back trail through old growth fir and hemlock leads to a waterfall with a rocky base where the water splashes then continues to cascade down the creek. An array of wildflowers along the creek adds to its beauty.
—Castle Crest Wildflower – this loop trail is one of the shortest hikes in the park. Here we encounter spring feed streams with tons of wild flowers. A word of warning: bring insect repellant for this hike. The mosquitos were horrendous.
One evening we went to the same overlook where we tossed snowballs to watch the sunset. It was nothing less than spectacular.
Then for our final evening in Mazama Campground, being thankful that our noisy neighbors were gone, we sat outside the camper and enjoyed the peaceful summertime coolness.
Despite the noisy campground, we enjoyed our visit and would definitely return to see the inside of Crater Lake Lodge and to take the boat ride to Wizard Island. There are still many more hikes that maybe some day we’ll try.
We will continue our adventures in the morning to yet another national park.
So until next time…happy days and safe travels.