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Bicycling around Crater Lake National Park: Rim Drive's roller-coaster ups and downs show the lake in a new light on every visit.

Light frolicked with the water, and ghostlike images danced across vertical cliffs as I perched high above the transparent lake, watching ducks floating on the azure surface. Suddenly the ducks disappeared right before my eyes. Just as quickly, they popped back up, ready to charm me again.

Crater Lake National Park is tucked away in the Cascade Range of southern Oregon. The only national park in the state, it also contains one of the area's two routes on the AAA's list of the Ten Most Beautiful Drives in North America. As an avid bicyclist, I also claim it as one of Oregon's--if not the nation's--best bicycling routes.

Rim Drive's 33 miles encircle the deep blue lake. Its roller-coaster ups and downs have shown me the lake in a new light on every visit.

Bicycling is the best way to enjoy its incomparable sights and sounds, but motorists can follow the same route for a spectacular drive around the deepest lake in the United States.

I've seen a bald eagle gliding over the intense blue water, wings stretched as wide as a man is tall. I've watched deer grazing and heard elk bugling in the fall. Signs posted along Rim Drive's numerous turnouts describe the region's flora, fauna and geology. There are always views of the gleaming lake as I climb and descend, gaining and losing more than 3,000 feet in altitude by the time I complete the loop.

I began a recent trip at the south entrance at Rim Village, one of the most popular spots in the park. It has a spectacular view of the lake, a visitor center, a gift shop-cafeteria complex and Crater Lake Lodge.

With my first glimpse of the lake I wondered, as I do every time, how something so beautiful came to be.

About a half-million years ago, molten rock spewed from the growing Mount Mazama, eventually forming a mountain, estimated at 12,000 feet high. Time passed, the mountain cooled and glaciers moved through, periodically masking the flanks of the massive cone. Proof of this transformation is in the U-shaped valleys, carved by rivers of ice, that I see today.

About 7,000 years ago, the mountain emptied from within and collapsed, leaving a vast, bowl-shaped basin. Researchers believe that its ash was scattered up to 6 inches deep over eight states and three Canadian provinces, covering more than 5,000 square miles.

Once the volcanic activity subsided, the basin filled with rain and snow. Over time, the lake expanded to its current size--nearly 6 miles wide and 1,932 feet deep, the seventh-deepest lake in the world.

I rode clockwise a mile to Discovery Point, gazing at the jagged spine of 8,156-foot Hillman Peak. Rising 2,000 feet above the lake; the peak's summit is the highest point on the crater's rim. I made my way over gently rolling hills to the four-mile mark at Wizard Island Overlook. Named for its resemblance to a sorcerer's hat, the island is an infant cinder cone formed in Mount Mazama's basin before the water came. Its summit rises 760 feet above the lake. A later volcano, Merriam Cone, is hidden nearly 500 feet below the surface.

Continuing around the lake, I passed a series of turnouts offering wonderful views of Mount Thielsen to the north. With a profile likened to the Matterhorn, the mountain's sharp spire is called the lightning bolt of the Cascades because of the countless strikes it has attracted.

Though I didn't climb it this time, I remember hiking to the summit one warm summer day, scrambling up the last 80 feet of nearly vertical rock to a view that went on forever--or at least to the Three Sisters and Diamond Peak.

At a junction just over six miles into the journey, I stayed to the right, following East Rim Drive as it climbs then descends to Steel Bay around the nine-mile mark. The bay was named for William Gladstone Steel, who first read about Crater Lake as a schoolboy in 1870. It was 15 years before he visited, but in 1902, Crater Lake became a national park after Steel's personal appeal to President Theodore Roosevelt.

After nearly 11 miles, I arrived at the head of Cleetwood Cover Trail. The mile-long path zigzags through fir and pine scattered widely enough to allow stunning lake views during the 650-foot descent to a boat landing. The trail is the only access to the lake shore for anglers going after rainbow trout and kokanee salmon and for souls hardy enough to brave a dip in the frigid water.

From late June through mid-September, boats at Cleetwood Cover ferry tourists around the lake. The fantastic two-hour trip inside the basin brings rare views from the lake's surface. As rangers describe the area's history and geology, the boat takes visitors close to Phantom Ship, an island named for the trick of light and shadow that seems to make it appear and disappear. A short hike through Wizard Island's rough lava and loose cinder is also an option.

I pedaled on through ever-changing views of the lake, past lava and pumice flows stained rusty red when hot lava oxidized ash deposited by earlier eruptions. At 18 miles, I came to the road that veers right to Cloud cap, the rim's highest overlook, at 7,865 feet.

It was a mile-long climb to Cloud cap, but well worth it for the view. The intense blue surface was circled by subtly tinted cliffs and fringed with ancient hemlock, fir and pine. From here, some say, Llao Rock looks like a giant manta ray. I tried to picture this, with the lava dome as its body and the sluggish flow to either side as its wings. Phantom Ship in the southwest did, in fact, resemble a ship. Sixteen stories tall, it is the eroded remnant of a 400,000-year-old volcano dike--a blade of molten rock that solidified after being injected through a fracture in the rock.

As I zoomed down to Kerr Notch, Kerr Valley scooped out by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago, lay below. The road to Lost Creek Campground runs through the valley. After more than 25 miles, I began the climb to Sun Notch, gaining views of Upper Klamath and Agency lakes. In the distance, Mount Shasta's snowy peak glistened.

At Sun Notch, I found a short trail through dense forest and a flower-filled meadow to the basin rim and the best view yet of Phantom Ship. From there, the road veered south, away from the rim to Vidae Falls, a small cascade that drops some 100 feet. In the early summer, the area is a riot of color, with wildflowers blooming red, pink, blue, yellow, orange, white and purple.

After seven hours, I came to a final junction at the park headquarters and turned right, continuing up the winding road toward the visitor center, my starting point. It was the end of my ride--this time--but I knew it wouldn't be long before the mystical beauty of Crater Lake pulled me back again.

To find out more about Crater Lake, write Crater Lake National Park, P.O. Box 7, Crater Lake, OR 97604.
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Author:Ikenberry, Donna
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Jul 7, 2002
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