Crater Lake's beauty will hook you with one glimpse

Standing on a rock ledge about 18 feet above Crater Lake, I wondered if jumping would give me seven years of bad luck.

Below me, fluffy white clouds and the inverted peaks of the caldera rim reflected in what's known as Heaven's Mirror. Somehow, the cobalt sky looks even bluer in the lake's pristine waters.

"It's a site you never get used to," said Karen Kenlan, a longtime Oregon resident. "It takes your breath away every time you see it."

Formed violently 7,700 years ago when Mount Mazama erupted, collapsed and its 5-mile-wide crater slowly filled with rain water and snowmelt, the lake in southern Oregon is one of the deepest (1,943 feet) and clearest in the world.

Mesmerized by the beauty, I could have soaked it in for hours, but a shout jolted me back to reality.

"Jump," my kids yelled.

So I stepped off the ledge, dropped 18 feet and disappeared into the blue.

When Mount Mazama blew its top, it was a mountain without a name.

It wasn't until 1896 during an expedition to Wizard Island on the west side of the lake that it got its name. Fay Fuller, a journalist for the Tacoma Ledger, christened the collapsed volcano Mount Mazama with a bottle of lake water.

Fuller already was well-known for her coverage of mountaineering in the newspaper. She also was the first known woman to climb Washington state's Mount Rainier, a feat she accomplished in 1890.

The mountain was named for the Portland mountaineering group The Mazamas, which was founded just two years earlier, said longtime park historian Steve Marks.

After Mazama collapsed, another eruption formed a cinder cone that would become Wizard Island: It was thought that it looked like a wizard's hat.

Today, Wizard Island is a popular tourist attraction that can only be reached by a park boat. No other boats are allowed on the lake.

On Wizard Island

Once on the island, visitors can hike on lava rocks or climb to the top of the cinder cone and explore the crater.

"Rangers even go sledding in the crater sometimes when there is snow," said Ranger Lesley McClintock.

The hike to the top of the island is about a mile, but it's easier than the shorter and flatter walks over the old lava rocks, McClintock said.

"Visiting the island is a must do," said Martin McCartan, a manager for Xanterra, the company that oversees the park's lodges, tours and largest campground. "It's a heck of a hike, but it's worth the trip."

The hike he's referring to is the 1.1-mile hike that descends 700 feet from the crater rim to the boat dock at Cleetwood Cove.

"The hike down is easy enough," McClintock said. "It's the hike back that gets you."

Part of McClintock's role as a ranger at Crater Lake is to act as a tour guide on the Trolley that makes multiple loops each day 'around the crater rim.

Whether taking the trolley or driving the loop on your own, McClintock says Rim Drive is one of the best ways to experience Crater Lake.

As for good places to stop on the 92-year-old road, there are plenty:

Stops along the road

Cleetwood Cove offers the only legal hike to the lake. Trying any other route to the lake can result in a fine of $250 or more, McClintock said.

Cloudcap Overlook lets you drive to almost 8,000 feet above sea level. Watchman Look offers views of the turquoise pools on the east side of Wizard Island.

"The water is greener because it is shallower there so you see the green rays of light," she said. "When it's deeper you see the blue."

From Pumice Point, you can see the U-shaped valleys carved by the glaciers that once covered Mount Mazama.

And from Phantom Ship Overlook, you can look down on the lake's other island, the sharp rocky sails that form Phantom Ship.

"There are so many great places to stop," McClintock said. "You can't go wrong."

If you are looking for a challenge, it's easy to find at Crater Lake.

The altitude - 7,100 feet above sea level at Rim Village; Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park is at 5,400 feet - makes even easy hikes a little more challenging. Each August, the park hosts the Crater Lake Rim Runs, where participants can run one of the nation's highest marathons.

And if you are a road cyclist, the crater rim is one of the Northwest's iconic challenges.

"It's the hardest 33 miles around," said Karen Kenlan, who tries to bike the Rim Road at least once per year. "It is so hilly. "There are no flat spots anywhere."

A lot of hills plus the altitude might make for a tough ride, "but the scenery is spectacular," Kenlan said. She recommends taking warm clothes for the ride. "It can get cold even in the summer," she said.

She also recommends riding clockwise, which puts you on the lake side of the road and keeps you across the road from the steepest roadside drops.

McClintock has biked the rim several times and said climbs are tough and descents are fast. She recommends starting early - by 6 a.m. - when traffic is minimal.

"There are sections of the road without guardrails," McClintock said. "You can imagine how scary it is to be passed by an RV."

It's a good thing you don't need a reservation to enjoy the 96-year-old Crater Lake Lodge, because unless you planned your trip well in advance, you probably aren't getting a room.

McCartan said you'll need to book a room six to eight months in advance to get one, unless you are lucky. The lodge keeps two rooms - one is small and the other is over the kitchen - open for walkup guests. But don't count on scoring one of these rooms.

"They fill up every night," McCartan said.

Still, you don't need a reservation to stroll through the rustic great hall, stand in front of the large stone fireplace or sip a beverage on the veranda overlooking the lake.

"Or have dinner at the restaurant," said McCartan, the lodge's former executive chef. "I'd recommend the blue cheese halibut. Basically it is seared halibut coated with blue cheese, then baked. It is very good and it's one of our top menu items."

As I surfaced from Crater Lake after jumping from the ledge in Cleetwood Cove, I had one thing on my mind: How quick can I get out of this freezing water.

Grab that wetsuit!

The water temperature is typically about 55 degrees, McClintock said, "so you shouldn't spend too much time in there, maybe 10 minutes unless you have a wetsuit."

The only problem was I promised my daughter I'd wait for her to take the plunge. I had to tread water for about 30 seconds before she leaped, and the swim over to the rocky exit zone was only about 10 yards, but by the time we got out of the water, we were both shivering uncontrollably.

My son laughed at us and asked whether I could swim the five miles across the lake.

"Impossible," I said. "Too cold for anybody to do that."

But I was wrong. In 1929, a woman, Lee Fourier, greased up in whale fat to fight the cold, swam across the lake, McClintock said. The feat hasn't been attempted again, McClintock said. Today, swimming is only allowed at Cleetwood Cove and Wizard Island.

"Even if people think it's too cold, a lot put a foot in so they can say they've been in Crater Lake," McClintock said. "It's a pretty unique experience."