Sunday, August 9, 2020

Garfield Peak (Oregon)

Sunset on Crater Lake from Garfield Peak
3.5 miles round trip, 1000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Crater Lake National Park entrance fee required

Garfield Peak is a high point along the rim of Oregon's Crater Lake, a lofty viewpoint from which to study the stunning blue color of the deepest lake in North America. Due to its proximity to the visitor center and lodge at Rim Village, Garfield Peak is a popular hike, but that also makes it a perfect hike for shoulder seasons when the rest of the roads in the park are not yet open. The summit delivers views not only of the lake, but also of the Cascade volcanoes to the north and south and the nearby Klamath Basin. The hike maintains a steady uphill and is steep in parts but pays off with its excellent views.

I hiked Garfield Peak in July during a road trip from Seattle down to California. Crater Lake National Park is far from any major metropolitan area, although it is not too far from the towns of Medford, Klamath Falls, and Bend in Oregon. The hike to Garfield Peak starts from Rim Village, the main collection of visitor services in the park; the trailhead is at the far eastern end of the lot next to Crater Lake Lodge. 

From Rim Village, I followed the paved path that ran along the rim of the caldera, passing the back patio of Crater Lake Lodge. This trail already delivered excellent views of the lake: the unbelievably blue waters were nestled in a massive caldera bounded by the Watchman, Hillman Peak, and Llao Rock, with the perfect cinder cone of Wizard Island rising from its placid waters. The lake was formed when Mount Mazama, one of the Cascade stratovolcanoes, collapsed following a cataclysmic eruption that emptied its underlying magma chambers. The resulting caldera was filled by snowmelt and rain to a depth of nearly 2000 feet, resulting in one of the clearest and bluest lakes in the world.

Crater Lake from the trailhead at Rim Village
The paved trail brought me downhill along the rim of the caldera to a saddle where the pavement ended and the dirt Garfield Peak Trail began, a quarter mile from the lodge. The trail passed through a bit of forest before traversing a pretty meadow while beginning a steady climb. At the end of the meadow, the trail returned to the rim, delivering views of the lake. Each time I saw the lake, I could not help but gawk at its blueness; surely this was the lake that defined the color blue. Looking at its shoreline, I was amazed by how clear the water was: I could see ridges dropping below the water, easily looking tens of feet down into the water.

Incomparable blue

The trail climbed fairly aggressively as it followed the ridge for a while, with switchbacks to circumvent rockier sections of the rim. I passed a water storage tank that is likely the water source for Rim Village below and then lost the views of Crater Lake as the trail swung onto the southwest slopes of Garfield Peak. Here, the trail pushed uphill somewhat steeply while crossing Garfield Peak's open slopes, which provided some of the first good views to the south.

Garfield Peak Trail
Forests covered the volcanic landscape to the south, hiding much of the evidence of the violence that birthed the Oregon Cascades. The sharp profile of Union Peak was visible to the southwest while snowy Mount McLoughlin, the next major Cascade stratovolcano to the south, reigned on the horizon. I spotted Mazama Village's visitor and park administration facilities amidst the forest below.

Mount McLoughlin and Union Peak rise to the south
Although the area was a little arid and there wasn't much lush vegetation, there were still pockets of wildflowers blooming, such as the phlox that I frequently encountered growing amidst rocks near the trail.

The trail then wrapped around to the south side of Garfield Peak before switchbacking and back to the rim of the caldera at 1.2 miles. Here, the views returned: the angle was largely similar to the one from Rim Village, although more mountains behind the lake had emerged. Mount Bailey, a stratovolcano to the north, had come out of hiding from behind Llao Rock. However, Mount Thielsen, a sharp, eroded remnant of a volcano that had been visible at Rim Village had disappeared behind the clouds. On a clear day, Thielsen and other Cascade volcanoes to the north, such as Diamond Peak and the Three Sisters, should be visible from Garfield Peak's summit. This spot is the best view of the western half of the lake and Wizard Island, as a ridge partially obscures this view from the summit.

Crater Lake
The view to the north and east along the lakeshore were also impressive: Mount Scott, the highest point in the park, rose behind the cliffs of Cloudcap and the forested, flat Oregon landscape rose beyond the low cliffs on the north side of the lake.

Mount Scott rises above Crater Lake
The last half mile of the hike was very scenic, generally following the rim of the caldera as the trail ascended steadily towards Garfield Peak's summit. As I was here a little earlier in the season, I had to cross a couple of small snow patches. The trail made a final few switchbacks before bringing me to the 8054-foot summit.

Garfield Peak is neither the highest point on the caldera rim- that would be 8151-foot Hillman Peak- nor is it the most dramatic viewpoint of the lake- that honor likely belongs to the Watchamn- but it is still an incredible place from which to study Crater Lake and its surroundings. Looking south from this hump on the husk of the former Mount Mazama, I could easily see how Mazama fit into the chain of Cascade stratovolcanoes with Mounts McLoughlin and Shasta. Clouds obscured the view to the north, where on clearer days I would likely have come to a similar appreciation with the view of Thielsen, Diamond, and the Three Sisters.

Mount McLoughlin
The Klamath Basin was also visible to the south. This flat, grassy valley was bound by volcanic hills on the north but was filled with the massive Upper Klamath Lake to the south. Upper Klamath Lake is the headwaters of the Klamath River, which flows to the Pacific Ocean after cutting through the rugged Klamath Mountains. Crater Lake has no surface outlets, but water seepage from the lake likely feeds springs that flow out to Upper Klamath Lake.

Klamath Valley
Views of the lake were incredible as well. Although the view in the direction of Wizard Island was limited, the rest of the lake lay below me. I spotted Phantom Ship, the lake's other main island, which had not been visible from Rim Village. Phantom Ship's soaring masts are actually andesitic pillars. Crater Lake's extraordinary beauty led many early European American visitors to romanticized names. However, before the lake was known as Crater Lake, the first European American accounts of the lake gave it rather prosaic and similar names: first Blue Lake, then Deep Blue Lake. The lake was known as Crater Lake by the time William Gladstone Steel championed the preservation of this astonishing beauty and Theodore Roosevelt set aside the nation's sixth national park.

Crater Lake from Garfield Peak
The Klamath people lived in the area around Crater Lake long before European Americans arrived- in fact, they probably lived in the region before even Crater Lake existed! Mount Mazama's massive eruption was just 7700 year ago, a time when human habitation throughout North America was already well established. Klamath legends describe Mount Mazama as Llao, a spirit of the underworld, who battled Skell, a spirit of the above-world who lived on Mount Shasta. In a ferocious battle between the two, Skell finally prevailed by driving Llao underground, burying him in the lake that now fills the caldera.

Phantom Ship
I saw a few other hikers at the summit, but after staying on the upper part of the mountain until sunset, I had the mountain to myself during my descent.

This was an enjoyable hike with stellar views of Crater Lake. With easy access from a part of the park that's open year-round, this is a good hike to do when much of the rest of the park is closed. And even with its proximity to the crowds at Rim Village, this is still a top priority hike when the rest of the park is open for its beautiful lake views and far-reaching Cascades views.

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