Photograph by Dennis Frates, Alamy
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Named for its resemblance to a sorcerer's hat, Wizard Island rises out of Crater Lake.

Photograph by Dennis Frates, Alamy

This Stunning National Park Is Set in a Dormant Volcano

Location: Oregon
Established: May 22, 1902
Size: 183,224 acres

Few forget their first glimpse of Crater Lake on a clear summer's day—21 square miles of water so intensely blue it looks like ink, ringed by cliffs towering up to 2,000 feet above. The mountain bluebird, Indian legend says, was gray before dipping into the waters.

The tranquil Gem of the Cascades is set in a dormant volcano called Mount Mazama, one in the chain of volcanoes that includes Mount St. Helens. Mount Mazama's eruption about 5700 B.C. catapulted volcanic ash miles into the sky and expelled so much pumice and ash that the summit soon collapsed, creating a huge, smoldering caldera.

Eventually, rain and snowmelt accumulated in the caldera, forming a lake more than 1,900 feet deep, the deepest lake in the United States. Wildflowers, along with hemlock, fir, and pine, recolonized surroundings. Black bears and bobcats, deer and marmots, eagles and hawks returned.

Scientists have yet to understand completely Crater Lake's ecology. In 1988 and 1989, using a manned submarine, they discovered evidence that proves hydrothermal venting exists on the lake's bottom and may play a role in the lake's character.

Crater Lake forms a superb setting for day hikes. Thanks to some of the cleanest air in the nation, you can see more than a hundred miles from points along many of the park's 90 miles of trails. Forests of mountain hemlock and Shasta red fir predominate near the caldera rim. At the rim twisted whitebark pines testify to the harshness of the long winter. Ponderosa pine, the park's largest tree, and lodgepole pine are common farther down from the rim.

How to Get There

Enter the park from the west (Medford, about 85 miles away) or the south (Klamath Falls, about 65 miles away) on Oreg. 62, or from the north on Oreg. 138. Airports: Medford and Klamath Falls.

When to Go

Go in the summer to see the lake at its best. Oreg. 62 and the access road leading to Rim Village remain open in winter, and cross-country skiing is becoming increasingly popular. The drive around the lake usually closes in October because of snow; in some years, the drive may not reopen completely until mid-July. Peak wildflower viewing is late July/early August.

How to Visit

Spend at least a half day touring the 33-mile Rim Drive, enjoying its many overlooks and several hiking trails. On a second day, consider a hike down to the shore for the two-hour narrated boat tour of the lake. Some tours stop at Wizard Island; if time and weather permit, climb to the top of it and catch a later boat back.