We set off on a bright, cool morning laced with birdsong. The night before, we’d camped near Toketee Lake in the Umpqua National Forest, where we visited the famous (and satisfyingly hot, but somewhat begrimed) Umpqua Hot Springs. Now, we were bound for clearer waters. The clearest, in fact.
After a beautiful drive on rural, two-lane highway that hugged the shoulder of the Rogue River and took us through dappled forest light, we swung northwest — and found a line of cars idling outside the Annie Spring Entrance Station. Well, it was midday on the Sunday before Fourth of July. What did we expect?
Luckily, the line moved quickly, and soon we were following a steep, winding road through sparse country overlooking a valley and stark mountain ranges beyond. Climbing a final hill, the road emerged on the rim, and Crater Lake slid into our field of vision like a backdrop hoisted by glittering stage hands.
“Wow!” Ben cried.
“Oh, my god,” I said.
“Right?” said Amanda, who’d seen it before.
The sight of the lake was arresting. Under a blue sky, the water was a deep, headstrong, glassy cobalt, a color I couldn’t remember seeing elsewhere in life. At almost 2,000 feet, it’s the deepest lake in the U.S., and its self-containment (no streams flow into or out of the crater) makes it one of the purest and clearest bodies of water on earth.
But why is it so blue? The park’s brochure offers an unsatisfying response, explaining that “other colors of the spectrum are absorbed. Blue wavelengths are scattered and seen by human eyes.” OK. That explains how blue works, but not why Crater Lake is bluest. As we wound along West Rim Drive, I decided to accept it. Some things are simply beautiful, and no amount of data could justify or diminish their splendor.
Drinking in periodic views of the lake and iconic Wizard Island, we followed the road as West became East Rim Drive. When we saw a sign for boat rides, we turned off and found a spot in the parking lot. Though it was unmarked, this had to be the place we were seeking: the Cleetwood Cove Trailhead.
Only one trail offers legal access to the shoreline of Crater Lake, and this is it. It descends a little over a mile from the rim to the water, with about 700 feet of elevation gain one way and an 11 percent grade. Not a cakewalk, but not too much work for the spectacular vistas at every switchback — and the reward of dipping a toe, or more, in those crystalline waters.
Amanda, Ben and I were at an advantage when it came to hiking; we were all working for the summer in Klamath National Forest, so we spent our weeks carrying axes, loppers and cross-cut saws into the wilderness, clearing trails for other hikers. Free and easy in daypacks and street clothes, we skipped down the trail, noting that it was wide, unimpeded, and well-graded. Soon we stood by the water.
“It’s so clear!”
“You can see right to the bottom.”
“Why didn’t we bring our swimsuits?”
Why indeed. Sources described the water as frigid, hovering near 38 degrees year round. Unswimmable. Yet, Internet claims to the contrary, plenty of people seemed to be frolicking in the clear water on this warm first day of July. Families clustered on the stony beach near the boat launch. College kids and screeching teens leapt off a rock into deep water. A pregnant woman in a sun hat dangled her legs into the cold blue, smiling at the horizon.
“Let’s go over there,” Amanda said, pointing beyond the crowds.
We scrambled over some boulders and picked our way across a small talus slope. Finally, we found a big flat rock at the water’s edge and dropped our packs.
“Who’s going in?”
“Me!” I cried, stripping down to a sports bra and shorts. “These clothes’ll dry.”
Without further ado, I waded in.
“This isn’t that cold,” I boasted as the icy water stunned my legs. “It can’t be worse than Clear Creek.”
After work and on weekends, my co-workers and I jumped in the glassy tributaries flowing into the Klamath River. How much colder could it be?
Oh. Colder. I dove out into deep water and immediately came up spluttering.
"Guys,” I tried to say. “This is actually kinda cold.”
But I could barely speak. The water had taken my breath away. My lungs contracted. My muscles seized up. I struggled to tread water. I breathed deeply and hung in for about 20 more seconds, then was out in a flash, hauling myself up on a rock like a seal.
“That was real.”
Amanda and Ben followed suit, jumping in clothed and coming out gasping. It was cold, but it felt amazing — especially after it was over. We lay on the rocks shivering and sunning ourselves for almost an hour, listening to the waves lap at the shore and watching the rock-jumpers and periodic boats crossing the chop to Wizard Island.
“Ah,” someone said. “This is it. This is the water we were looking for all weekend.”
Maybe it was the water we’d been looking for all our lives. It’s no surprise that the native tribes, who witnessed the eruption that created Crater Lake, still believe spirits and powers inhabit this caldera. It’s no wonder they host rituals and vision quests along its shores. We were but visitors there for an afternoon, but we felt the magic of the lake inhabit us as well. Climbing back up the trail, we felt invigorated, renewed. I gave the lake a farewell smile as we turned to the car, and the light on the water winked back.
Kelly Ramsey lives this summer in Happy Camp, California. She writes an adventure blog at https://www.kellylynnramsey.com/
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