Editor’s Note: This post is courtesy of Travel Oregon.
There’s a distinct feel to riding a bike through a National Park. The road surfaces are excellent, there’s no roadside trash, and it’s as if the entire forest within park boundaries has been perfectly manicured. It also seems like every National Park I’ve visited has a grand processional road leading to the main attraction. Zion, Mesa Verde, Grand Canyon and Yosemite all stretch their borders well beyond the main attraction, helping build anticipation. Crater Lake is no different, its 17 pristine miles of road connecting the park’s southern boundary to the world famous lake.
Though the word crater leads some to think an asteroid created this giant water-filled hole, Crater Lake was actually formed by a massive volcanic eruption. Before the eruption and implosion, the mountain was known as Mount Mazama, which is believed to have been about 12,000 feet tall.
As devastating as the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens was, it was a polite dinner table hiccup compared to the fulminant hurling of magma at Mount Mazama. The eruption covered the Pacific Northwest in two feet of volcanic ash, and created the deepest lake in North America and ninth deepest in the world.
Though Crater Lake had below average snowfall last winter, there were still towering snowdrifts at Rim Village. I was concerned the East Rim Loop Road might be impassable. East Rim typically opens to vehicle traffic by Memorial Day Weekend, so being there a week early was a bit of a gamble. With the lake level just above 6,000 feet and the loop itself undulating between 6,400 and 7,700 feet, weather in mid-May is often unpredictable.
Fortunately, on the day of my ride temperatures hovered in the low 40s and low cloud cover gave way to partly sunny skies. There was just enough sun on the north side of the lake that I was able to get a sampling of the world renown water clarity and otherworldly emerald blueness. I live near California’s Lake Tahoe and marvel at its Caribbean-like colors, but not even Emerald Bay compares to the stunning blueness of Crater Lake. The color — and entire scene — is inspiring with sheer thousand-foot cliffs dropping straight off the edge of the road to lake level.
Riding a bike up a volcano is a unique experience. It starts with a long, gentle gradient through lush and loamy forest, eventually giving way to a barren, rocky moonscape. The spin from the south entrance of Crater Lake to Rim Village is about 17 miles, but it’s just a friendly appetizer before the main course on the Rim Loop.
Totaling 33 miles and more than 3,500 feet of climbing, the Rim Loop ride is by itself a challenging but attainable day on the bike. For diehards looking for extra saddle time, riding from the Park’s southern boundary to the lake and back ups the ante to nearly 70 miles and 6,500 feet of climbing.
My jaw must have dropped at least a dozen times each during the ride around Crater Lake. The views are far too powerful to put into words. Crater Lake must be seen to be fully appreciated. The water’s absolute glassy stillness perfectly reflects the towering snow-capped peaks that surround the lake. Honestly, even photographs don’t tell the whole tale. Only the naked eye can fully embrace this natural wonder. Centuries ago, young Native Americans would embark on solo vision quests to the lake in search of spiritual guidance. During my casual ride, I felt I was on a vision quest of my own.
Beyond the power of the lake, the power of the surrounding mountains and cliffs force awareness and respect. Sections of the East Rim Loop road are cratered with evidence of fallen rock, and considering the ice and snow melting off the trees and cliffs during my ride, I made sure not to loiter for long in any one place.
As far as when and how to do the Crater Lake Rim Loop ride, here are two pieces of advice: If possible, ride it during a period when the road is closed to cars and do it counter-clockwise from the Visitor’s Center about three miles down from Rim Village. By riding counter-clockwise, you starts with a steady climb and get all mind-blowing views in the second half of the ride, finishing with a swoopy grin-inducing three-mile descent back to the Visitor’s Center. Riding when the road is closed to cars allows you to fully focus on this natural wonder.
If you cant get there before the road is fully open, the National Park Service is hosting biking/hiking-only days where 24 miles of the East Rim Loop will be closed to cars on September 19 and 26. And honestly, even doing this ride when the road is open to cars is a true bucket list cycling experience.
Check out this summer’s 7 Bikes for 7 Wonders scavenger hunt. We’re hiding seven custom-made bikes around Oregon for someone to find and ride. For full details and rules, please visit traveloregon.com/7bikes7wonders. To learn more about the state and all it has to offer, check out TravelOregon.com.