After Joe and I finished watching the sunrise over Crater Lake we began driving along the rim once more. We stopped at a couple of scenic viewpoints along the way, overlooking the wondrous lake. We had to go halfway around the crater to reach our destination, the parking lot above Cleetwood Cove. The lot was a huge football field sized slab of asphalt. It was long and narrow, shrouded by tall dark pines. It was also empty. We pulled in and parked my car in the deserted lot.
The Cleetwood Cove Trail is the only way down to Crater Lake. That is because most of the caldera rim is far too steep to provide access to the lake. Here, the crater is less vertical and the lake is only 700 feet below the trailhead. The trail is short, too, at just 2.2 miles round-trip. However, because of the steep grade of the path, the hike is considered moderately difficult.
Joe and I were still in our cold weather gear as we walked from the lot to the trailhead. Joe had his guitar case strapped to his back and I wore my backpack on the short hike. Although most of the crater has a nearly sheer face, the trail was heavily forested. The trail consisted of several switchbacks from the start. At first they were short and steep, but they grew longer and more gradual. The path was wide, well-defined, and surrounded by tall red firs. I learned later that the trail is broad because maintenance vehicles travel down to the boat dock with supplies.
The Cleetwood Cove Trail is the most popular hike in the park. This again, is because it is the only way down to the lake. There is a small rocky beach and a boat dock at the end of the trail. Most people that hike the trail do so in order to reach the dock. Boat tours that circumnavigate the large lake depart several times daily. A couple of boats lead tourists to the shore of Wizard Island as well. Some visitors hike down to Cleetwood Cove, catch a boat ride to Wizard Island, and then climb more than 700 feet to the summit of the island before returning.
Despite the popularity of the boat tours, the trail was completely empty. That’s because the earliest boat tour doesn’t start until around 10:00 a.m. We began our hike soon after watching the sunrise at Crater Lake Lodge, at about 7:00 a.m. We wouldn’t even see any dock workers until we started our hike back up to the trailhead.
Even though the sun had reached the sky the temperature hadn’t climbed much. The fir trees reached far overhead, blocking most of the sun’s rays from the path. That made for a cool, shady descent. We walked quickly down the hard-packed trail to keep warm. When the switchbacks became especially long and less steep, we really flew down the path. Sometimes there was a steep drop next to the path, but it normally wasn’t too bad because of all the trees bordering it.
As we neared the bottom of the trail the switchbacks became short and steep once more. The trees dispersed, providing impressive views of the lake. We proceeded past exposed lava cliffs to the shore. The expansive lake stretched out before us. It was strange to see it up close after only viewing it from far above. It was an incredibly different perspective. The sublime water swayed in gentle waves against the shore. In the distance, in every direction, the lake met its demise against the rocky walls of the rim. It was as if it were surrounded by a jagged mountain range linked by a spectacular ridgeline. I felt like I was inside a cirque of rugged peaks, not a giant crater.
We continued around a corner and found the boat dock. It was completely abandon. A handful of small boats, tied to the dock, bobbed up and down in the water. A wooden stairway led down over the rocky coast to the dock. We walked down for an eye-level view of the water.
After a quick look at the dock we decided to explore more of the shore. We followed along the rock-strewn shoreline to its end at a gigantic wall of boulders reaching partway up the caldera. We separated there for a while. Joe took out his guitar and sat on a large boulder a few feet up from the water. I scrambled over some large rocks and eventually made my way down to a boulder resting in the lake. I precariously laid on the boulder and reached a hand into the water. I pulled it out immediately. The frigid water stung my hand. I then retreated from the water and climbed a little higher up the boulder wall and set my backpack next to me as I took out a few things. I took some pictures and then wrote in my notebook for a little while. I couldn’t do it for long, though, because my fingers were freezing. As cold as the lake was, the air above wasn’t much warmer.
Similar to watching the sunrise earlier, the only negative about this experience was the cold. Sitting there by the water, listening to the tranquil waves nearly put me to sleep. I was completely relaxed and at peace. I stared into the clear water, able to perfectly make out the imperfections in the large rocks below the surface. Looking across the lake as a whole, it looked more alive than from above. Small waves created ripples in the water, but only produced petite splashes against the rocks below me. The only sounds of the shore were a cool breeze, the hypnotic sloshing water, and Joe gently strumming his guitar. Those contributed to my time down there being so perfect. But again, I think the most important element was the fact that there wasn’t another soul around. For me at least, it simply makes for a more intimate and enjoyable time. Joe and I barely talked while we were down there, adding to the solitude. It’s not like we said, “Let’s not talk,” it was just our instinct to keep quiet and embrace our surroundings.
After about an hour we saw a couple of workers wander down the trail and walk onto the dock to start preparing the boats. At that point we decided to pack up and start our short climb back to the rim. We figured it was only a matter of time until the trail would be overrun with tourists coming down for the first boat tour.
Our ascent wasn’t as bad as expected. We hiked at a slow, steady pace. We took a couple of short breaks to catch our breath and down some water, but not many. The added exertion helped us finally warm up. We passed a few people on their way down by the time we neared the trailhead, but we made it up before it got too crowded.
Once we eclipsed the rim we got in my car and continued along the 33-mile rim drive. We stopped at a few more scenic overlooks on our way back to camp. By the time we got there the temperature finally warmed up. We quickly took down my tent and left the park. We drove west until we saw the Pacific Ocean and then turned north towards Washington and Olympic National Park.