Sacred Destinations
An illustrated guide to sacred sites, religious art & architecture, and historic holy places of the world.

Crater Lake, Oregon

View of Crater Lake from the southern rim. Photo © Sacred Destinations.

Crater Lake, Oregon
Photo Creative Commons License Art Bromage.

Crater Lake and Wizard Island at sunrise. Photo Creative Commons License Allen SB.

Crater Lake, Oregon
The extraordinary clear blue waters of Crater Lake. Photo Creative Commons License LLaintner.

Crater Lake at twilight
Crater Lake at twilight. Photo Creative Commons License Art Bromage.

Aerial view of Crater Lake
Aerial view of Crater Lake. Photo Creative Commons License Tim Sylvester.

Wizard Island, Crater Lake
Wizard Island. Photo Creative Commons License Martin LaBar.

The rim drive around Crater Lake. Photo Creative Commons License Art Bromage.

Snow at Crater Lake
Photo Creative Commons License Phil Eager.

Interactive satellite map of Crater Lake. For a larger view,
see our USA Interactive Map or Google Earth download.

Crater Lake is a spectacular mountain lake in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Widely renowned for its great depth and beauty, it is also a sacred lake revered by the Klamath Indians.


Crater Lake was formed around 4680 BC when the volcanic Mount Mazama blew its top in spectacular fashion. The eruption, estimated to have been 42 times more powerful than Mt. St. Helens' 1980 blast, reduced Mazama's approximate 11,000 foot height by around half a mile.

The mountain peak feel into the volcano's partially emptied neck and magma chamber, and Crater Lake was formed in the new crater.

Crater Lake has long been revered as sacred by the Klamath tribe of Native Americans, whose myths embody the catastrophic event they witnessed thousands of years ago. The central legend tells of two Chiefs, Llao of the Underworld and Skell of the World Above, pitted in a battle which ended in the destruction of Llao's home, Mt. Mazama.

An 1886 article in The Oregonian newspaper reported:

There is probably no point of interest in America that so completely overcomes the ordinary Indian with fear as Crater lake. From time immemorial no power has been strong enough to induce them to approach within sight of it. For a paltry sum they will engage to guide you thither, but before reaching the mountain top will leave you to proceed alone. To the savage mind it is clothed with a deep veil of mystery and is the abode of all manner of demons and unshapely monsters.

This account, and others like it, is now regarded as factually inaccurate. Although the Klamath Indians regarded the lake with much respect, awe and fear, many did (and do) approach the lake. In fact, Crater Lake was a major site for vision quests.

The 1920s researcher Leslie Spier was told of a Klamath man who, "having lost a child, went swimming in Crater lake; before evening he had become a shaman." The quest for such spirits required courage and resolution:

He must not be frightened even if he sees something moving under the water. He prays before diving, 'I want to be a shaman. Give me power. Catch me. I need the power.'

Another ritual at Crater Lake was to undertake strenuous and dangerous climbs along the caldera wall. Some would run, starting at the western rim and running down the wall of the crater to the lake. One who could reach the lake without falling was thought to have superior spirit powers. Sometimes such quests were undertaken by groups. Rocks were often piled as feats of endurance and evidence of spiritual effort. Such rock-pile sites are usually built on peaks or ridges with fine views of the lake.

On June 5, 1853, Crater Lake was seen by white men for the first time. Three gold prospectors came upon it and one remarked in his journal, "This is the bluest lake we've ever seen." They named it Deep Blue Lake. Crater Lake has been impressing visitors ever since. In 1886, Captian Clarence Dutton, who made the first measurements of the depth of the lake, observed:

It was touching to see the worthy but untutored people, who had ridden a hundred miles in freight-wagons to behold it, vainly striving to keep back tears as they poured forth their exclamations of wonder and joy akin to pain.

Similarly, Mark Daniels, General Superintendent of the National Parks, remarked of Crater Lake:

The sight of it fills one with more conflicting emotions than any other scene with which I am familiar. It is at once weird, fascinating, enchanting, repellent, of exquisite beauty and at times terrifying in its austere-dignity and oppressing stillness.

In 1902, Congress decided that Crater Lake and its surrounding 180,000 acres were to be "dedicated and set apart forever as a public park or pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States." The passing of this act was the culmination of a 17-year effort, championed by Crater Lake's primary promoter, William G. Steel.

Today, Crater Lake remains a sacred site for power quests and other spiritual pursuits, both for members of the Klamath Tribe and those interested in Native American spirituality. And for just about everyone, the spectacular lake is a place of religious-like awe.

In 2005, Crater Lake appeared on the Oregon quarter.

What to See

With a depth of 1958 feet, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States and the seventh deepest in the world. At an elevation of 7000 to 8000 feet at the caldera rim, it is the deepest lake in the world that is entirely above sea level.

Relief Map of Crater Lake
Relief map of Crater Lake. Click to enlarge.

The lake's surface is six miles wide. There is no inlet or outlet to the lake: it is supplied with water from the great amounts of snow that fall every year. (Crater Lake National Park is one of the snowiest areas in the Pacific Northwest.) The water of Crater Lake is some of the clearest fresh water found anywhere in the world.

Crater Lake contains a prominent island known as Wizard Island, which was formed during the eruption over 7,000 years ago. A smaller island is called the Phantom Ship.

Look also for the "Old Man of the Lake," a hemlock log that has been floating upright in the lake for more than 100 years. Wind currents enable the Old Man to travel to different locations around the lake.

There is much to do in Crater Lake National Park in addition to admiring and contemplating the lake itself. Day hikes, fishing and scuba diving are among the activities enjoyed by visitors.

Quick Facts

Names: Crater Lake; Crater Lake National Park
Type of site: Sacred lake
Faith: Native American
Location: Southern Oregon, USA
Coordinates: 42°56′N, 122°08′W
Contact: (541) 594-3000
Hours: Open daily
Cost: Free
When to go: Mid-summer (esp. July and August). The national park is snowy from October to June.
Records: Deepest lake in the United States; seventh deepest lake in the world; deepest lake in the world entirely above sea level.

Article Sources

  1. Official Website of Crater Lake National Park
  2. Crater Lake in Indian Tradition: Sacred Landscapes and Cultural Survival - Crater Lake National Park (1997)
  3. Linda W. Greene, Historic Resource Study: Crater Lake National Park, Oregon (Denver: USDI-NPS, 1984).
  4. Harlan D. Unrau, Administrative History, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon (Denver: USDI-NPS, 1988).
  5. Stephen L. Harris, Fire Mountains of the West: The Cascade and Mono Lake Volcanoes (Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1988)
  6. Leslie Spier, Klamath Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1930).

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