Editor’s note: I, too, have visited Crater Lake a number of times, but it is fascinating to read Christian’s account of visiting during these times. For more of his stories here on The Royal Tour, visit his index here!

Every visit to a national park is a unique experience. I roll over memories in my mind of national parks often, ensuring each memory stays fresh. Even so, after visiting Crater Lake five times, the details of individual trips start to run together. Whether I hiked to Crater Peak alone in June of 2018 or August of 2019 is a fact that may continue to elude me, but my trip to Crater Lake in July of 2020 won’t soon be forgotten.

One of my favorite things about national parks is hearing people speak a variety of languages. I’m usually incredibly proud that people come from around the world to experience our national treasures. For all of the issues the United States has, I’m immensely proud that a group of American visionaries have chosen to preserve some of our most precious landscapes, and we continue to share America’s best idea with people from around the globe. My most recent trip was conspicuously lacking a variety of languages – after all, international travel is also lacking – and there were a lot more face masks than usual.

All masked up!

My wife and I drove up to Crater Lake as a stopover on our drive from San Jose, CA to Portland, OR. We showed up at the park travel weary – and ready to settle in for the night. But where do we settle for the night?

Some of our close friends were staying in a cabin in Crater Lake, but we didn’t want to stay in the same cabin as them based on the current understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic. We wondered if we could set up a hammock beside their cabin, or a tent behind it, without arousing suspicion from a park ranger. Ultimately we decided we didn’t know what to do and decided to have a couple of hard seltzers while we waited for our friends to show up at their cabin to troubleshoot with us.

After having only one hard seltzer, my mood improved quickly. It became clear that I hadn’t eaten lunch, and I proceeded to get a heck of a lot less concerned with where we were going to sleep that night. In my enhanced mood, we chatted about how Crater Lake was formed. We discussed how there was a huge volcanic eruption about 8,000 years ago that created the basin in which the lake sits today. After erupting, the mountain collapsed in on itself. It took hundreds of years of snowfall and rain to fill the basin, creating the lake as we now see it. The oral traditions passed down by local Native American tribes indicate that tribal ancestors probably witnessed the event.

The most iconic view of the lake, a sunken volcano basin.

My wife and I also talked about how we were excited to see our friends, but even outdoors, that we should try to stay six feet away from them. Making an effort to stay distant from friends is usually anathema to our family’s national park ethos. But it’s 2020 after all, and we shouldn’t expect things to be normal.

When our friends showed up to their cabin, they let us know that they had booked us a campsite nearby. This was great news because, even on a Sunday, all of the campsites were full by the time we arrived. We had a great time chatting and joking by the fire at campsite E-42. I had another hard seltzer, accidentally burned the quesadilla that I was trying to make fireside, doused it in hot sauce, and had dinner anyway. All’s well that ends well.

The next morning we met up and headed out to the east rim. The East rim is less developed, and we had hoped that it would be less crowded than the more popular West rim. Our efforts paid off. Even in a park that gets about 750,000 visitors per year, we had the trails mostly to ourselves.

We did the Castle Crest Wildflower Trail first. We were a little bit underwhelmed at how many of the alleged wildflowers were actually in bloom because much of the surrounding trail was still coated in melting snow. It’s amazing to me that even in July, there are mounds of snow around the trail, hiding the flowers that are yet to bloom. The average snowfall in Crater Lake is about 43 feet; although it usually all melts by early August, in years after unusually heavy snowfall some of it remains year-round.

There’s more to Crater Lake than just the lake.

We also braved the Sun Notch Trail. I’ve hiked this trail before, but this was a much different experience than last time. One of the reasons it felt different this time is because last time I was on this trail much of the park was on fire. The park was so thick with smoke that I could barely see the lake, and there were no stellar jays flittering around the old growth forests. It also felt different this time because everyone hiking was wearing a face mask, and trying to pass someone on the trail is now a mixture of warm camaraderie and a fear of transmitting a deadly disease.

We parted ways with our friends, and my wife and I headed to the visitor center to get a stamp in our national parks passports. Normally we get great joy from watching the interpretive videos played in the visitor center. In the interest of full disclosure, I fall asleep during these videos about a third of the time, but don’t take that to mean I don’t enjoy them. Don’t tell the park rangers, but sometimes I only watch the videos to rest and seek respite from the summer sun. Due to the pandemic, however, we chose to stay outside. We got our stamp from a park employee who gave them out through a window.

Crater Lake has its own zip code, which I find fascinating because I’m an admitted mail geek (in addition to being a national park geek). I wrote a couple postcards from the visitor center, put my face mask on, dropped them by the park’s post office, and we headed homebound along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway.

The vista points were less crowded than usual, but still too crowded for my cautious wife to get out of the car to see them. I appreciate her and those like her who have been working since the start of this pandemic to keep everyone safe. Even so, I look forward to the days when I can smile mask-less at Brazilian passersby on the trail and share the camaraderie of a beautiful place without the underlying fear of an ongoing pandemic.

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