CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK — Where’s the best place at Crater Lake National Park to watch a sunset?
Just as the name implies, the Watchman, a place that lives up to its name.
At an elevation of 8,025 feet, the Watchman, formally the Watchman Lookout Station, lives up to it name. Its summit provides a panoramic 360-degree view that’s deservedly best known because it towers over Crater Lake. But the sights also include several neighboring peaks — including Mount Scott, Mount Thielsen, Union Peak and Mount McLoughlin — along with expansive backcountry in and, even more, outside the park.
But evenings at the Watchman add another special dimension, with westward views offering typically dazzling sunsets. It’s alluring enough that the park offers nightly sunset hikes during the summer months. The starting times for the ranger-led walks from the Watchman parking lot off Rim Drive begin about an hour before the fiery orb disappears. Reflections, the park’s newsletter, lists meeting times.
The ranger-led walks add perspectives, but at a round-trip distance of 1.6 miles and elevation gain of 420 feet, it’s a hike worth taking with or without a guide any time of day.
The well-defined and graded trail leads to Watchman Peak, the high point on the lake’s western rim. It was named by William Gladstone Steel, the “Father of Crater Lake,” in 1886. The lookout building atop the peak was built in the 1930s two serve two purposes — as a lookout and as a museum.
Lookouts, like the one on Watchman Peak, were located on mountain tops overlooking expansive forest lands. Trained observers, usually park rangers, lived in the Watchman, which was used during fire season until 1974 but has since been staffed only intermittently.
It’s an impressive building with its massive masonry walls and location, perched 1,849 feet above the lake. Because local materials were used in its construction and because of its history, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
The Watchman’s lookout is a two-story blockhouse design with a 14-by-20-foot wing that extends east from the southeast corner of the main structure. The bottom floor has a 17-by-170-foot footprint. The first floor was built with stone masonry walls and includes a small exhibit room, an unusual feature for a working fire lookout. The first floor also has a restroom, storage area and an 8-foot glass window that provides lake views. The lookout’s second floor is a four-sided, glass-enclosed observation room with a 17-by-17-foot outside catwalk. The first floor was built into the hilltop, so its second story is supported by a steel frame.
Getting to the historic Watchman also involves sampling a bit of older park history. The trail begins on the original 35-mile road around the Crater Lake by the Army Corps of Engineers from 1913 to 1918. During the hike, ranger Jeff Bauer said, the section of old road by the Watchman was built in 1916, with crews challenged by late-melting snow.
In a quarter-mile at a signed junction, the trail leaves the road and climbs gradually up Watchman Peak’s south flank, winding past mountain hemlocks and whitebark pines.
During frequent stops, Bauer also told stories about the park’s once overly abundant black bear populations that raided park garbage pits (including the legendary ‘Ol Boss), noted the lake covers only 7 percent of the park, pointed out areas near Lightning Springs recovering from 2006 forest fires, and discussed 1988-89 lake explorations by Deep Rover, a one-person submersible that located lake bottom hydrothermal vents. Those vents, he said, indicate the volcanic activity that created the lake 7,700 years ago is still alive.
“It’s in a state of dormancy,” Bauer said of Crater Lake. “We don’t know when it will erupt again.”
Bauer also told about the “Crater Lake monster,” a fly that lays eggs in the lake, and exploding populations of crawfish that threaten the one-of-a-kind Crater Lake newt. He explained how Steel planted the lake with fish, and crawfish to feed the fish, in early efforts to lure visitors to the then-remote, little known and little visited lake.
As sunset neared, Bauer’s group of about 40 joined others atop the Watchman for the sunset sighting.
Watching from the Watchman didn’t disappoint. Unlike recent weeks, when smoke from regional wildfires had obscured the view, the sky was clear as the setting sun glowed and shimmered during its dramatic disappearing act.
“That’s one of the things that makes this place special,” Bauer said, “the sunsets.”
Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-880-4139.
Guided hikes end Monday
The time is getting short to go on ranger-led Watchman Peak Sunset Hikes, which are offered through Sept. 17 at Crater Lake National Park. The hikes begin at 6 p.m. from the Watchman Peak Overlook, a parking area with wooden fences 3.8 miles northwest of Rim Village. The round-trip distance is 1.6 miles with a 420-foot elevation gain. Of course, you don’t have to have a guide to visit the Watchman, but the trail is closed some days while construction crews make repairs to the rock walls near the summit, the location of a fire lookout built in 1931, so check at the visitor center for updated information or call 541-594-3000.