That such a place exists

By Phil Plait | October 16, 2006 9:52 pm

Mrs. BA, The Little Astronomer, and I just returned from a too-short but amazing trip to southern Oregon. We went for a variety of reasons, but I know that for years to come, it’s what I took back that will stay with me.

Saturday, we drove from our hotel in Ashland to Crater Lake. It was a two hour drive through gorgeous mountains and magnificent standing pines, and it was uphill all the way. A brief stop at the Crater Lake visitors center revealed what looked like a sheer cliff a few hundred meters away, imposing and looming. We had been driving uphill for some time, but this cliff — the rim of the crater — still towered over us. It was daunting.

The drive up to the rim itself was brief. When we rounded the last hairpin turn, the crater lay before us.

There is no possible way to describe the vista and give it even a hint, a taste, of the grandeur it elicits. The beauty is palpable, almost a physical thing you can touch. I stood in awe, soaking in the view.

Mrs. BA, the Little Astronomer, and Canes Minor at Crater Lake. The far rim is 10 kilometers away. All images here are taken by me (except for the last one, obviously), and clicking them will take you to much larger (~800 kb) images on Flickr.

But then, incredibly, things got better. There is an overlook carved into the side of the rim, which sports a room with a small museum and a series of signs describing the view, pointing out details and giving a geological history of the lake. If you haven’t been there or read about it, let me take a moment to walk you through this slice of recent events.

Over millions of years, the northwest region of the United States was built up due to forces that lie beneath. Pressure due to magma pushed on the crust, leveraging it upwards, bulging it. In many places, this pressure created volcanic mountains.

Mt. Mazama was among the royalty of these mountains. It stood at over 3300 meters (11,000 feet), a magnificent stratovolcano. Underneath it was a magma chamber, a vast seething cauldron of molten rock. In some such chambers the magma is thin and quiet, relatively benign. But in others, the magma is thick, viscous, trapping dissolved gases which can tremendously increase the pressure inside the chamber. Under Mazama, the magma was of the latter type. The pressure built over centuries as more and more magma filled the chamber. The chamber expanded and rose. Mazama underwent a series of eruptions over several tens of thousands of years, trying to relieve the pressure. But still, pressure climbed. Finally, after all those eons, the rock comprising Mt. Mazama that sat above the chamber could no longer contain it.

6800 years ago, the volcano violently erupted. Ash and rocks from the catastrophe rocketed into the air, and on the north side a pyroclastic flow — a tsunami of superheated rock and ash — thundered down the side of the mountain at hundreds of kilometers an hour. At two kilometers thick and hundreds of meters deep, it cut through the landscape like a hot knife through butter. Any animal in its way would have had only a few seconds of sheer terror before having its life stripped away. All told, a cubic kilometer of ash slammed its way down the mountainside.

Even after such violence as this, Mazama settled down. The eruptions ended, and the ash cooled, and no doubt a cap formed over the vent. But it was only a respite. A hundred or so years later, the final act began, and it was as sudden as it was devastating.

The volcano exploded.

Not erupted, exploded. The pressure of the subterranean magma could no longer be dominated by the weight of the rock above it, and it exploded upward. A column of rock and ash over a kilometer wide punched up through the atmosphere, reaching heights of 15 kilometers or more. The energy is estimated as more than 40 times the Mt. St. Helens event of 1980, as ash blew outward from fractures all around the volcano’s rim.

As if this weren’t enough, the finale was yet to come. The fuel for the explosion was the magma beneath the volcano, and with the explosion the chamber was partially emptied. But it was the pressure from that magma that had been supporting the volcano. With the support gone, a vast amount of rock ten kilometers — six miles — across collapsed, sending gigatons of rock falling down, inward into the magma chamber. When the central peak collapsed, the height of the mountain was nearly halved, dropping from 11,000 feet (3300 meters) to about 7000 feet (2100 meters).

The sheer force of this event is beyond human comprehension. It was equivalent to a 900 megaton blast, 900 million tons of TNT exploding! What must the native Americans of the time thought, seeing such a thing? Ash from the explosion covered the northwest, reaching as far north as Canada and as far east as Nebraska.

Finally, again, as it had so many times before — though never after this grand a scale — the volcano mostly subsided. The ash and lava cooled, and the mountain took on its present repose. A few small vents were all that remained; one, near the north side, eventually built up a cinder cone, now called Wizard Island.

Note the word "island". Once the volcano cooled, it formed a vast crater 10 kilometers across. Remember, the Pacific northwest is rainy. Over hundreds of years, water filled the basin left by the catastrophe. Some evaporated, of course, and some seeped away through cracks in the rock. But sources outweighed sinks, and the crater slowly filled with trillions of liters of water. Today, seven millennia after the explosion, the water stays at a constant amount. The rim stands hundreds of meters above a lake of unbelievable, fantastic, crystal-perfect cerulean blue. When calm, the water reflects so well that the far rim is difficult to distinguish from the water (see the image at the top for an example of this… bear in mind the far wall is 10 kilometers, or six miles, away).

The water is deep; at 600 meters (2000 feet) Crater Lake is the 7th deepest lake in the world, and by far the deepest in the continental US. The deep blue comes from the water absorbing all the reds, yellows, and greens from sunlight, leaving only the blue to come back to your eye. The blue color is a natural relaxant, and the calm of the mountaintop was like a physical thing. There were birds, and people, and wind, of course, but the sheer historical and massive inertia of it was like a blanket on my chest.

But echoes of the violence of the event, so many years ago, came back again and again, hinted in the rim wall. Landslides covered the north wall, where once a pyroclastic flow of immense fury stormed out.

At the bottom, just barely resolved by the eye, were huge lumps of a white materials. Crushed by the sense of scale, Mrs. BA ventured that they were tree trunks, but then it became clear these white deposits were enormous, far larger than any trees. What were they? I still don’t know.

We walked around the rim, listening to the wind and the birds, marveling at neon yellow fungus growing in the pines, kicking pumice chips left over from the explosion. We thrilled to look down over nearly sheer drops, hundreds of meters down to the water. Watching tiny white dots of birds circling over the lake surface sent my stomach into little frissons, shivers from an atavistic fear of falling.

Eventually we reached the end of the trail, and so we turned around and walked back to the car. The trip was over. Driving once again down the side of the mountain was sad, a little, but also thrilling. How many people live their entire lives without ever seeing such a thing, or even suspecting it existed? How many, even if they saw it, don’t even glimpse the immense history of the place?

Remember earlier, when I said that even after viewing the lake, incredibly, things got better? It was when I went into the room in the overlook, the one that had the small museum about the volcano. Inside was a large screen television that cycled through the geology of the region over and over again, reliving the millions of years of history, the massive and apocalyptic eruption that must have killed every living thing for hundreds of square kilometers, all those millennia ago. I watched it too, but then stood back and watched the watchers, seeing their eyes light up, their jaws drop, their stunned silence.

They got it. They saw it. They knew. Knowing is always better. You can be overwhelmed by nature, frightened of it. There are forces of appalling devastation, capable of smashing everything humanity has ever made into dust.

The lake in the crater is beauty on a scale that is difficult to convey. But staring out over the lake, seeing the history literally carved into the walls… it brought a lump to my throat. I am continually and perpetually struck by nature’s hand, which uses unimaginable violence and forces almost beyond reckoning to sculpt delicate and subtle beauty.

Knowing that made the lake more profound, more beautiful, and gave it more depth than merely seeing it could possibly have done. Knowing is always better.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Science, Time Sink

Comments (50)

Links to this Post

  1. Time lapse: Crater Lake | Matteo Rossini | October 30, 2011
  1. Crater Lake is mind-blowing… there are some great waterfalls west of there, like Watson Falls and Toketee Falls.

  2. davidlpf

    it is amazing that so many things so beautiful start off soo violently.

  3. The blue of the lake is hard to understand unless you’ve been there. I got a few decent shots when I was there in 2004.


  4. CR

    I’ve known the history of that region for a few years now (in addition to astronomy, I’m interested in geology & meteorology), but your prose really conveys the sense of wonder lacking in so many dry documentaries or “exciting” docu-dramas.
    I shal make a point to visit the area within the next few years, just so that I can have seen it with my own eyes, experienced it with my own being.

    By the way, yes, knowing is better. There are some who think, for example, that knowing what causes aurora makes them less beautiful. I disagree. Knowing that certain conditions have to be just right, plus the viewer in the right place at the right time, makes them all the more spectacular when they occur. And just knowing the scientific background doesn’t take away the “gasp” factor of being thrilled, awestruck by the sheer beauty of the event. Same with Crater Lake, for example.

  5. dermot

    Wonderfully told. I felt it with you.

  6. Dave Yates

    Great account and photo’s.I fear that too many hundreds have slipped in! 900 megatons is 900 million tons,not 900 hundred million.
    Keep up the good work.

  7. Is teh white stuff at the foot of the wall on the Western or Southern rim? If so, my guess would be old snow from the previous winter.

  8. Kaptain K

    Truely beautiful, both the pictures and the description. Thank you BA.


    If you want to talk about massive explosions, try a few hundred kilometers east – Yellowstone!

    10 km across. Pfffft! The caldera of the Yellowstone volcano is 100 km across!!! And, unlike Mt. Mazama. Yellowstone is STILL active!

  9. Kullat Nunu

    Crater Lake is one of the places I’d like to visit. Resembles Santorini (Thera), a volcanic crater island in Greece.

  10. That is just awesome, awesome.

  11. DrFlimmer

    Very amazing! And very interesting! Thank you. Maybe I´ve got the chance to visit it once! But there are so many things to view all around – and America is far away from Europe!

  12. Grand Lunar

    Very cool!

    I think my parents went to Crater Lake once. I’ll have to ask.

    Anyway, great you got to see such beutiful things like that. Beats the Florida landscape I put up with!

  13. Melusine

    An inspiring post to start the day! Very nice, and beautiful pictures, too. I think knowing only enriches an otherwise passive experience, and helps put our own lives in perspective. I know when I first gazed at the Rockies in Colorado I was humbled by their grandness…my problems seemed small in the face of their geological history. I can’t imagine how someone could look at Crater Lake and not be curious about how that serene beauty came about. It sounds like you a had a great family outing – thanks for sharing.

  14. My Parents took us to Crater lake when I was a kid during a long arduous cross country car trip. I remember it as being one of the best stops inbetween a lont of long car rides from hell.

  15. Nick Theodorakis

    Nice pics. My wife is from Oregon, and we’ve been to Crater Lake a couple of times (and she’s been a few times before she met me as well). I have bunch of Kodachrome slides (now I’m revealing how long ago we went) that I should get scanned someday; some of them are nearly the same views you posted here.

    Nick Theodorakis

  16. Anyone else having difficulty viewing the images in Firefox? They simply don’t appear in the body of the blog posts for me. :/

  17. George

    Thanks, BA, for sharing it. I hope we can see it some day.

    The signs of creative violence is a powerful wake-up that the “music of the spheres” is borne from a cacophony of events.

  18. Roy Batty

    Wow! just that. Wow!

  19. Beautiful photos, and beautiful reporting. I love crater lake ever since I went there as a child.


    Throughout your descriptions you kept saying how the “Crater formed” and while the name of the lake IS crater lake, it is technically not even a crater at all. It is a Caldera, which is the result of a mountain collapsing into the magma chamber.

    Just FYI.

  20. Stuart

    When I was there years ago, I managed to catch the last boat tour of the day, which leaves from the north side of the lake (after hiking very fast down a mile-long switchback path). It was a nice trip. At “shallow” parts, you could see the bottom — but because the water is so clear, the bottom was still probably pretty deep! It would have been nice to take an earlier boat to have time to explore Wizard Island.

    I was told that “Crater Lake” doesn’t actually refer to the lake in the caldera, but the lake that sometimes forms at the top of Wizard Island. But that seems kind of silly.

  21. Kevin Coble

    I lived in the area (Klamath Falls, OR) for 22 years, and have seen Crater Lake many times. The beauty of the lake in the summer is equaled, in my opinion, by the snowy vista of the winter. Cross-country skiing around the rim is an experience I would recommend to all. All the wonders of the lake, without the people. The snow absorbs all the sound, leaving a quiet wonderland for those brave enough to endure the cold for the experience!

  22. Phobos

    Excellent post, Phil. Thanks for sharing the trip.

  23. Chris G

    This brought back memories of when I visited in 1972. I was pleased to see that it doen’t appear to have change too much!


    CRATER LAKE — The search for a missing 8-year-old boy continued today at Crater Lake National Park.

  25. I fixed the 900 megaton typo. Thanks.

    And that’s awful news about the little boy. That’s right when we were there! That place is huge and very dangerous. I hope they find him soon.

  26. myronwls

    I’ve visited Crater Lake many times over the years and it is always wonderful no matter the season.

  27. J. D. Mack

    I am not having any trouble seeing the images in Firefox.

  28. DCB

    I learn so much from this blog and discover there are many like minded people who come here which is very pleasing. I honeymooned with my first husband in 1953 at Crater Lake. I don’t remember a visitor’s center which would have been good because this is the first I have known that it is NOT a crater but a caldera. Other vistas that have awed, inspired and totally stopped me in my tracks? Yellowstone definitely, the Grand Canyon and glaciers in Alaska where I live. Thank you for an informative and REAL blog. It is nice to know there are truly people who know how to think.

  29. Greg Fuchs

    When we toured Mt. St. Helens they said the entire human population of the world could fit in the crater – and it’s only about 1 mile across!

  30. icemith

    That’s another spot to visit on our next trip to the States, hopefully about Aug/Sept. next year. Thanks Phil for the excellent idea. Wow, that is some place not to miss.

    And thanks for the information as to how these lakes were formed. The size of Crater Lake far out-strips the local crater lakes I grew up nearby in North Queensland in Australia :- Lakes Eacham and Barrine and a not-so-well known Euramo (!). The first two have had tourists visiting for decades. They are set in thick rainforest, national Parks no less, but surrounding them is extensive farmland. Have a look in Google Earth on the Atherton Tableland. There are many examples of volcanic activity all around. I was actually born on the side of an extinct Volcano, in nearby Atherton.


  31. Ron Scott

    Thanks for sharing, Phil… Crater Lake is truly awe-inspiring. Next to the Canadian Rockies it is the most astonishing natural phenomenon I have ever seen in my life. Here are some pictures we took on our camping trip there in 2003:

  32. daverytech

    Nice pics! Hope you got a chance to see a play in Ashland as well.

  33. Chip

    I recently lost a rare car, rear-ended and totaled on the highway, but nobody was hurt. Your essay put things in perspective. Crater Lake is terrific. Thanks for a great essay.

  34. I just put that on my must visit someday list.

  35. BB

    I don’t know why, and I’m embarassed to say it, but that island creeps me out. I recoiled when I saw it in the second photograph, and I just can’t get over its creepiness.

  36. As the far rim is 10km away, does that mean if you stood at Crater Lak with a poweful enough telescope watching a boat sail to the other side, you would actually be able to see the boat getting below the horizon?

  37. BB

    Maurizio: If the sailboat were less than 6.8m high, and your telescope were less than 1m above the surface of the lake, then yes. Standing at the top of the rim: definitely not.

  38. sirjonsnow

    I can’t help but keep wonder what Mrs. BA and the Little Astronomer have there for lunch. That is a plate your daughter is holding, right? And I just now noticed your dog – would that be the Hairy Astronomer? 😉

  39. DennyMo

    “A column of rock and ash over a kilometer wide punched up through the atmosphere, reaching heights of 15 kilometers or more.”

    “When the central peak collapsed, the height of the mountain was nearly halved, dropping from 11,000 feet (3300 meters) to about 7000 feet (2100 meters).”

    Statements like these always bother me. Could someone point me to a reading resource that explains how we “know” that the mountain used to be 11,000 feet tall? How do we “know” that the column of rock and ash was a kilometer wide and reached 15 km into the sky? Sure, it’s a reasonable guess at what happened, but it seems to place a lot of (dare I say) faith in assumptions which can’t be proven or disproven… Thanks for the clarification.

  40. Ron Scott

    DennyMo, a good scientist is never wrong. You know why? Because they don’t make definitive, absolute statements. It is understood and implied that these things are guesses and could be proven wrong by new information at any moment.

    IANAG, but what we see in the geology surrounding the Mazama site is consistent with what we see in other volcano sites with similar geology today. By making comparisons between Mazama and other volcanoes at other stages of their lifecycle, we can make informed, likely accurate guesses about what Mazama was like.

    The figures may be wrong, but it’s not likely that they are, and the consequences if these guesses are incorrect are relatively minor.

  41. icemith

    I’m sure a young geology student who had never seen Mt. St Helens as it is now, and visited the area, would have little difficulty in estimating its pre-explosion height just by observing the slope of the remaining lower part of the mountain, and extrapolating up to the original peak.

    It seems that the classic conical shape generally is consistent, being a manifestation of the outpouring of lava that solidifies and does not tumble any further as the slope is stable up to a critical angle.

    If there is no significant side fissure upsetting that slope, it would be a perfect cone-shaped mountain. And I guess that that angle would be fairly consistent. Check other volcanos around the world.


  42. Katie Berryhill

    Your writing made me want to go there…NOW! Hmmm…don’t have anything scheduled for the kids’ next spring break…

    And FYI to Tristan: a caldera is a volcanic crater (crater is a more general term, but still accurate). In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary (what I like to call “the big book of words”) lists the depression at the top of a volcano as the first definition of “crater.” Keep in mind that volcanoes have been known far longer than meteorite/asteroid impacts. Interestingly, the OED also lists a caldera as the depression at the summit of an “extinct” volcano. I’d never heard that distinction before, which would (strictly speaking) mean that Yellowstone, Mount St. Helens, etc. do not have calderas. Hmmm…getting a bit too picky there, methinks.

  43. Melusine

    @Katie: You have access to the OED – I’m jealous!

    The USGS categorizes Crater Lake as filling a caldera. I was curious about the distinction, too:

    A caldera is a large, usually circular depression at the summit of a volcano formed when magma is withdrawn or erupted from a shallow underground magma reservoir. The removal of large volumes of magma may result in loss of structural support for the overlying rock, thereby leading to collapse of the ground and formation of a large depression. Calderas are different from craters, which are smaller, circular depressions created primarily by explosive excavation of rock during eruptions.

    Crater Lake is pictured here with other calderas. I think crater is used loosely for any depression, but it’s good to know the difference in case I ever getting around to seeing one…maybe next year when I go to Hawaii.

  44. Melusine

    Wow, I’ve posted two posts today with links and html and they didn’t get hung up by the spam filter! Maybe the blog comments can stay here after all…. :-)

    [runs away]

  45. Phil,

    I loved this post, it really struck a chord with me. I hope you don’t mind, but I linked to it on my blog ( I write about life split between the tech world by day and country bubba-hood by night, and the night before I read this post I’d just seen the Milky Way stretching once again across our country Texas skies.

    What I posted about, though, was the great picture of your wife, daughter, and dog in front of the lake. Specifically, how the dog seems captivated not so much by the spectacle of the lake as by the glory of the sandwich.

    If it’s a problem having the photos on my blog just let me know, I’ll take them down. I did credit you for them and link back here, though.

    Jeff the Blogging Novice

  46. W. Bumgardner

    Crater Lake is so amazing, I feel privileged to have it in my state. As kids, we always speculated on what would happen if Mt. Hood or St. Helens erupted … and then St. Helens did!! Seeing the ash cloud roiling above the mountain on May 18, 1980, I can’t imagine one 40 times larger. It was 50 miles away and looked like the maws of hell itself. I don’t know that a nuclear blast would be as spectaular. We went hiking at Johnston Ridge last year, utterly devasted by the pyroclastic flow in 1980, and had trouble getting through the brush and wildflowers overgrowing the trail. Life has a way of restoring itself.

    And a tragedy is playing out right now at Crater Lake, a young boy is missing and being searched for.

  47. I grew up in Klamath Falls, about an hour south. A friend’s dad was a park ranger there, and he let a group of us spend a night in the rangers’ cabins in the middle of winter. We got up early and drove up to the rim (fortunately on a clear morning), and huddled on the deep snow with nobody else around and just watch the sunrise. Nothing in my life will ever compete with the stillness, beauty, and solitude of that experience.

  48. Vaish

    Knowing is always better indeed. Ignorance maybe blissful, but foolish.

  49. frosgrok

    I disagree about knowing is always better:

    You look across a bay one night and see a lovely fairyland of lights. The wind at your back would, you just know, take a boat to this sweet Avalon.

    Next day you drive around the bay, the smell is of an outhouse in hell, the view is of tar covered metal and blackened sweaty men. It is a crude oil refinery, circa 1970.

    Perhaps we define “better” differently.


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