Monday, July 2, 2018

Oregon's Other Crater: Little Crater Lake

The spectacular collapse of Mt. Mazama over seven thousand years ago left a massive caldera that  filled with crystal-clear blue water . Five miles across and nearly two thousand feet deep, Oregon's magnificent Crater Lake draws tourists from around the world.

This is not that lake.

Tucked on the shoulder of Mt. Hood, Little Crater Lake had no explosive origin. This small body of water began as a fault in the earth's crust; the crater we see today was formed by erosion from the artesian spring that fills it. At one hundred feet across and forty-five feet deep, Little Crater Lake goes fairly unnoticed by most of the world, and that's just fine with Oregonians.

One feature this lake shares with its more impressive namesake is its intensely blue water. It shines like a jewel in a mountainside meadow. Looking down into the clear, ice-cold water is almost dizzying, but rumors of the lake being "bottomless" are quite unfounded; the bottom is plainly visible. At thirty-four degrees, this is not anyone's favorite swimming hole, and don't plan on fishing here. What you will find, though, is a fully-accessible, family-friendly stroll through a beautiful mountain meadow that is strewn with wildflowers in late June and early July, with huckleberries ripening in August. A paved walk of a mere 800' leads to a waterside viewing platform; take your time and enjoy the forest and meadow views in this peaceful area. The lake itself appears in a sudden jolt of blue. Expect to take more time than you thought you would photographing this beautiful lake and its adjacent meadows; it is truly a special place.

East bank of Timothy Lake
The trail continues as a non-paved but easily-walked path for 0.15 miles to the Pacific Crest Trail. For a longer but still relatively easy hike, follow the PCT to Timothy Lake (note that no wheels are allowed on the PCT). It is possible to hike alongside Timothy Lake for three and a half miles, taking endless photos from the east bank.

To find Little Crater Lake, take Highway 26 for about 40 miles past the town of Sandy and turn right onto Road 42 (Skyline Road). After four miles, turn right on narrower, but paved, Forest Road 58 and  follow it for two miles to the campground and trailhead.

To make the most of your visit, plan on camping while you are here. The first, and most obvious, choice is Little Crater Lake Campground (do not confuse this with Little Crater Campground in the Newberry Crater area outside of Bend). Camping here is simple, with about a dozen tent and RV sites and vault toilets. This peaceful forest campground is a perfect home base for photography and exploration in the area.

There are other options as well, though. Another obvious choice is nearby Timothy Lake, a hugely popular mountain lake with seven campgrounds and boat ramps with day-use areas. There is even a hike- or boat-in campground. This 1500-acre lake is definitely worth a visit on its own and will likely be the subject of a future blog post.

If both of these excellent choices are full, another option is nearby Clackamas Lake, a simple campground near a three-acre lake. More of a wetland, this modest lake offers fishing and non-motorized boating. The camp sites here are more suited to tent camping than RVs, but a horse camp  offers eleven sites for equestrians. Ride (or hike) the Miller Trail from here to Timothy Lake. History buffs will want to check out the Clackamas Lake Historic Ranger Station District, established over a hundred years ago to house Forest Service workers. Eleven buildings remain, and the district is on the National Register of Historic Places. When available, it is possible to rent the 1933 Ranger's Cabin.

Determined campers without reservations who find no vacant sites can often find "dispersed" sites. Keep a sharp eye out during your drive and you may spot your campsite! Of course, amenities and security are nonexistent, but we have spent many happy nights in simple pullouts when all other spots were taken.

Little Crater Lake may be unassuming and a bit out of the way, but don't let that deter you. We saw this lake on maps and in guidebooks for years without stopping by to see it. It seemed like the tiny lake and short hike weren't worth our time. Don't make the same mistake; go explore this beautiful, unique place for yourself. You won't be disappointed.

Through the meadows surrounding Little Crater Lake

Little Crater Lake

Fallen trees, carefully preserved by the frigid waters

East bank of Timothy Lake
Nearby Clackamas Lake
We'll see you in the meadows!