Although I've lived in Oregon for ~13 years now, amazingly, I've never been to Crater Lake -- Oregon's only National Park and the deepest lake in the United States. I'd actually wanted to visit the park for years now, but since it's a bit out of the way from my usual destinations, it's always seemed to take a backseat to other plans. After doing the Old McKenzie Pass (Hwy 242), Emily (my wife) and I started talking about doing Crater Lake as a road ride. A few of our friends had done it in years past and raved about the quality of the ride. The hope was that we could get down there when most of the road had cleared of snow but was still closed to vehicle traffic. A couple of weeks later I called the park to see what the road conditions were, and to find out when would be the best time to come for a ride. She said that the next few weekends would probably be best, since after that they were going to have it cleared and opened to cars after that. She also mentioned that there may be a few short stretches that would require hiking over some snowdrifts. Unfortunately, Emily and I had conflicting schedules up to then, so I figured we'd just end up doing it once the entire rim drive was open to everyone.
Fast-forward to the middle of last week, I got the news that for the first time ever, they had cleared the road and were going to open to hikers and bikers only, on June 22nd & 23rd -- I certainly wasn't going to pass up this opportunity! A quick check of the weather indicated that Saturday was definitely the best day, with the forecast calling for 75 degree temps and partly cloudy skies. It looked like word had spread rather quick, as folks were already talking about it on Facebook. After seeing that a buddy, Alex, was planning on heading down for the event, I quickly got ahold of him to see if he wanted to join up for the ride. After some back and forth messaging, we had a plan -- head down for the day, leaving Eugene bright and early on Saturday morning.
After getting all of my gear packed up, I drove to Pleasant Hill to pick up Alex before heading Southeast to the lake. With semi trucks doing sub 30mph and the construction at the tunnel, The drive on Hwy 58 between Oakridge and Willamette Pass was extremely slow going. Luckily, when we got to Hwy 97, traffic cleared up a bit and we were able to make much better time. I actually like the drive of this section, a high alpine setting where views of Mt. Thielsen eventually open up. Before long we reached Hwy 138, and soon after that the turnoff to Crater Lake National Park. There was a bit of a line getting into the park, but it wasn't too bad, and we made it through in about 20 minutes. Just past the park entrance, but not yet at the lake, we pulled over so I could snap some shots of the amazing surroundings.
|Backed up at the park entrance|
|Not even at the lake and we're already stopped to take in the view...|
Once we reached the North Junction, we decided to start the ride from there, cutting out the extra driving it would have taken to start at the Park Headquarters on the south side of the lake. The one disadvantage of starting here was that we would be ending the ride with a long climb, instead of doing it at the start when we were fresh. We certainly weren’t the only ones that would be starting from here, as we squeezed my Suby into one of the few remaining/improvised spots. I quickly got geared up to try and get out ahead and take my first photos of the lake. I was certainly expecting to be wowed taking in my first ever view of this national wonder – let’s just say that it did not disappoint! Just as I had seen in many photos, the lake itself was bright blue with a mirror finish, providing some amazing reflections. Of course no photos can do it true justice, and mine are certainly no exception. I soon saw Alex starting to climb up the first hill, where I motioned for him to come over and take a look. Just like me, seeing it in person for the first time, he was completely blown away by the majesty before us. After taking a few glamour shots and knowing that we’d be taking in a lot more views along the way, we headed back to our bikes to start the ride.
|The closed gate at the North Junction|
|First view of the lake! Well, this isn't going to suck...|
|Alex poses for the first glamour shot of the day|
Right out the gate, I was feeling really good, both physically and mentally. The temperature was perfect (high 60s/low 70s) and the sun was shining bright. The climb around the backside of Llao Rock was nice and gentle, a great way to warm up the legs. There was certainly snow lining the road, but I expected it to get deeper as we gained some elevation. Even though you couldn’t see the lake from this section, looking north over your left shoulder presented great views of Mt. Thielsen. The first climb soon flattened out and started back down the other side, eventually bringing us to the first of the many road pullouts, presenting another view of Crater Lake.
|Alex starts climbing near the start of the ride|
|Thielsen, looming over our left shoulder (to the north)|
|Some snowbanks early on|
As we continued to descend (with a couple short climbs) past more pullouts, I knew it was only a matter of time before we hit a solid stretch of climbing – we were losing what felt like a good amount of elevation. We stopped at a few more pullovers along the way, and believe it or not, although the views were similar, they didn’t seem to get old.
|Mt Scott, in the distance|
|Alex, on a typical section of road on the northwest side of the lake|
|Keeping the lake in sight|
|Not a bad place to rest your trusty steed|
|Grotto Cove, with Mt. Thielsen in the distance.|
Eventually, around the 8 mile mark, we started the first long climb. Even going up was enjoyable, facilitated by the outstanding views and weather, even when the road peeled away from the lake. As we continued to climb, Mt. Scott loomed in the distance, and was definitely the most pronounced peak in the immediate area. Near the top of this climb the road skirted the foothills of Mt. Scott, where it felt almost close enough to touch.
|The climb to Mt. Scott|
|A quick stop for photos|
|Alex nears Mt. Scott|
|Great views behind us as well|
|Alex Scott, modeling in front of his namesake hill|
It was here where we had a choice to make, either continue along the Rim Drive, or take a quick detour to another lookout at Cloud Cap Bay, the highest point reachable by road. We ended up taking the detour, since we were still feeling really fresh and wanted to make as much of the day as we could. With that, we made a right and continued one mile to the lookout. Once again we gained another panoramic view of the lake, and like the others, it didn’t feel like wasted effort to stop. There were a few other riders hanging out at the overlook, and we all agreed it was a perfect place to relax and eat a snack. After 10 minutes or so, we turned around and headed back to Rim Drive, to continue the loop.
|Detour to Cloud Cap Bay|
|View from Cloud Cap Bay|
|More views of Mt. Scott on the way back to Rim Drive|
The next section consisted of almost four miles of downhill -- we did stop briefly at the Sentinel Rock overlook before moved on. At the bottom of the downhill was a lookout for the Phantom Ship, a rock formation, which as you might guess, looks a bit like a pirate ship. It's actually a pretty cool landmark, and one of only two islands within Crater Lake.
|Headed down again|
|Mt. Thielsen, from the Sentinel Rock overlook|
|Alex mixes it up with some other folks on a screamin' downhill stretch|
|Just another view of the lake|
Once we were done at the Phantom Ship overlook, the road began to climb away from the lake again. For the first part of the climb the road was carved into a cliff, with the wall on the right and some views to the left. Eventually, the landscape changed to grassy hills that were sparsely dotted with trees. As we continued to climb, I thought about how lucky I was to be enjoying this place, with the ever-changing terrain and a complete lack of traffic to detract from the experience.
|The start of another climb|
|The cliff walls provided some shade, which is a commodity on this ride|
|Alex takes in the scenery during the climb|
|Nearing the summit|
As the road slowly rounded over, it started another awesome descent, with the first part following along the cliff etched into another cliff on the right. After ~1000' of elevation loss, we reached a pull-out that looked onto Vidae Falls, a beautiful cascade dropping off the cliff wall. There were a few people hanging out near the base of it, and since we didn't see any other bikes we assumed that we must be getting close to the section of road that was open to cars.
Sure enough, after another short climb and descent, we reached the gate near the Park Headquarters, and where Hwy 62 connected with Rim Drive. From this point to where we had started the ride, we'd be sharing the road with vehicles, and climbing for a majority of the remaining 9 miles. From the park HQ, the road climbed in earnest through a series of switchbacks before the gradient tapered off a bit. Although there was quite a bit of traffic, most of the cars were keeping the speed under control and giving us a wide berth. After ~3 miles, we reached the Rim Village, with the largest concentration of tourists thus far. We only stopped briefly here to take in another view of the lake and grab some quick photos. From this spot you get the postcard view of Wizard Island, on the west side of the lake.
|Alex starting the climb, up from the Park HQ|
|Alex poses in front of Wizard Island|
|The author gets a rare photo op|
(photo by Alex Scott)
Once we had taken in the view and helped a few folks with some group photos, we were off again. We stopped a few more times at the various vistas along the way, and we were also treated to some nice panoramic views to the west and south, with Mt. McLoughlin and Union Peak being the dominant landmarks. The Watchman Peak loomed in the distance as the road traversed around the backside of it, where snow still covered a majority of its steep western slope. We saw a few hikers that were following the packed trail to the summit, where a fire lookout provides an unobstructed view of the entire park. It probably would have been a cool little side hike, but we didn't have bike locks and I sure as hell wasn't shouldering my bike up to the summit.
|Token view of Wizard Island|
|Alex shares the road, climbing towards The Watchman|
|Mt. McLoughlin (left) and Union Peak (right)|
|Alex finishing the climb around the backside of The Watchman|
|Devil's Backbone, form the Watchman overlook|
With the Watchman behind us, we rode around the back of Hillman Peak, which didn't require quite as much climbing. On the other side of Hillman we could see the north parking lot, where we had started the ride. As an added bonus, the last mile was a nice little descent, ensuring that we didn't actually end with a climb... Unfortunately, back at the car, the ice did not survive in the cooler, so we were forced to drink really warm beer -- I'm usually not one to complain about the temperature of my beer, but these were pretty warm and went down like nails... We certainly couldn't end the ride with that, so we made sure to stop at the first decent looking restaurant to grab some cold ones and some grub. After a great meal at a pasta joint in Crescent, we made the drive back to Eugene, ending an epic day on the road bike!
|Another view of Thielsen, towards the end of the ride|
|One last shot of the lake, before completing the loop. "Hey, we rode all the way around that!"|
Crater Lake is hands-down the best road bike ride I've ever done! If you live in Oregon and have a bike, make it happen, even if it's a mountain bike, commuter, or beach cruiser -- we saw all sorts of folks doing the ride and everyone was enjoying it! I feel extremely fortunate to have gotten the chance to ride it when the East Rim Drive was both cleared and closed to cars -- that's pretty hard to top! That said, I do have some friends that have done the ride when it is open to vehicles, and they've ensured me that it's still an awesome ride, and still worth it. I'm hoping that they continue keeping it cleared/closed to cars for at least one weekend a year, which I'd happily drive down for every time.
The tracks from our ride: