Thursday, August 6, 2020

Cleetwood Cove

Mount Scott from Cleetwood Cove
2 miles round trip, 650 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Crater Lake National Park entrance fee required

Cleetwood Cove provides the only access to the shoreline of Oregon's unbelievably blue Crater Lake. This is the spot for visitors who want to dip their toes in Crater Lake or jump in entirely, or just to see the stunningly blue water up close. The trail itself is short and a bit steep as it drops from the rim of the caldera down to the lakeshore via a set of dusty switchbacks; just remember that what goes down has to come back up! Despite the steepness of the trail, this is an extremely popular hike, one of the busiest in Crater Lake National Park, so expect crowds. During most summers, boat tours on the lake launch from the dock at the end of the hike. East Rim Drive, the access road for this trailhead, is closed in winter and does not open most years until sometime in July, so the season for hiking this trail is quite brief.

I hiked Cleetwood Cove during a July visit to Crater Lake with Anna as we drove from Seattle to California. Crater Lake National Park is far from most major metropolitan areas, although it is about an hour and a half from either Medford or Klamath Falls and is just a little farther than that from Bend. To reach the Cleetwood Cove Trailhead from Rim Village, which contains many of the park's visitor facilities, take the West Rim Drive north until it intersects with the East Rim Drive; then follow the East Rim Drive for 5 miles until reaching the large parking lot for Cleetwood Cove to the left of the road.

The enormous parking lot attests to the fact that Cleetwood Cove is the most popular trail in Crater Lake National Park. From the parking area, walk back to East Rim Drive and cross the road to reach the start of the trail. The trail drops 650 feet from the caldera rim in one mile to reach the lakeshore; some novice hikers happily make their way down to the lakeshore without water or other essentials before realizing that they have to hike back up the side of the caldera. Don't make that mistake!

The trail is wide and well-built, although a bit dry and dusty. From the trailhead, the wide path made a number of quick switchbacks as it began to drop downhill. Although this part of the rim was largely forested, there were still a number of spots where gaps in the trees provided views of Crater Lake below with Mount Scott rising in the distance.

Mount Scott rises above Crater Lake
The waters of Crater Lake appear like blue ink, with a color that must be seen to be believed. This color is partially a result of Crater Lake being the deepest lake in North America, at nearly 2000 feet deep. Crater Lake is part of the Cascade Range in the Pacific Northwest and like the great stratovolcanoes of the range, Crater Lake has a volcanic origin. In fact, Crater Lake is a stratovolcano: the lake fills a caldera formed after an explosive eruption of Mount Mazama 7700 years ago emptied the magma chamber below the peak, causing the summit of the mountain to collapse. Mount Mazama would likely have been over 12000 feet tall before its collapse; today, Llao Rock, Cloudcap, Garfield Peak, the Watchman, and other prominent points around the lake mark ridgelines of the ancient volcano.

Deep blue waters of Crater Lake
The trail descended continuously, with switchbacks early on and another set of switchbacks as the trail made its final descent to the lakeshore. From the second set of switchbacks, there were fewer trees, so we had marvelous views of the lake, with Mount Scott, Applegate Peak and Garfield Peak rising above the lake's placid surface.

Cleetwood Cove
We finally reached the lakeshore near the boat dock, which at the time of our visit was under renovation (boat tours had been cancelled that summer due to the Covid-19 pandemic). While the trail did not go down directly to the water, most visitors scrambled down the talus slopes by the water to get to the lakeshore. There were many visitors here: we were running into hikers about every minute on the trail and hiking groups were spaced out every 10 feet or so along the shore here.

The water was chilly but not freezing and oddly enough didn't look quite as blue from up close as it did from far above. The clarity of the water was amazing: we could easily see tens of feet below the surface. We sat on the lakeshore and enjoyed the views of nearby cliffs of volcanic rock, Mount Scott in the distance, and Garfield Peak across the lake.

Crater Lake at Cleetwood Cove
After enjoying the lakeshore, we followed the trail a little bit farther to its end, at the base of a rocky ridge that defines the west end of the cove. There were better views to the west from here, as we could see Wizard Island, the Watchman, and Hillman Peak from here. There was a toilet here as well as a small cliff from which many visitors were leaping into the lake. The area was a little too crowded for my comfort, so after taking a glance at the views we turned around to return to the trailhead.

The Watchman and Hillman Peak rise above Crater Lake
The hike back up was a bit more taxing, but if you hike regularly you won't find it challenging. We passed at least a handful of hikers though who were struggling with the uphill- so just remember before you come down to the lake that you have to hike back up to your car.

Crater Lake is an absolute gem and Cleetwood Cove is the only way to see the lake up close. However, due to the crowding here, this trail is not the best way to experience the park. But if you see those piercingly blue waters and can't stop wondering what it feels like to jump in, this is the hike you'll have to do.

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