Check That One Off The List: Backpacking to Crater Lake
Crater Lake - Indian Peaks Wilderness Area
text and photography by Ryan Stikeleather
Do you have a “bucket list”? I do and it’s kind of out-of-control. It started off as this sweet, innocent list of countries (Iceland, New Zealand, Norway) typical stuff. But, it has slowly been sucking up anything related to the outdoors: National Parks like the Grand Canyon and Olympic (and yes, I am very aware that I live relatively close to the Grand Canyon), or a monadnock (don’t worry, I had to look that one up too…my vocabulary is not that impressive) like Shiprock in New Mexico. Of course I have lots and lots of hikes/backpacking trips on my bucket list. I finally got to check Crater Lake off my list.
Just The Facts
- Trail: Cascade Trail N1
- Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult
- Elevation Gain: 2025 ft
- Distance: 7.8 mi. (15.6 round trip)
- Trail Use: Hiking, Backpacking
- Trail Condition: Well maintained, and clearly marked
- Bring Your Dog: Yes (must be on a leash at all times)
- Access: Open Year Round (snowshoeing in the winter)
- Trail Map:Backcountry Zones
- Entrance fee $5 permit for backcountry camping
Wait, I thought Crater Lake was in Oregon? Crater Lake National Park—which I’ve visited and whole-heartedly recommend—is located in Oregon, but I’m talking about an extraordinary location in Colorado.
Every year, my wife and I, plan at least one big backpacking trip. We want to backpack every weekend, but that never happens. So, we settle for one week and lock down a plan for our “daily life disconnect”. No phones, no internet, no work stress…just clean air and mountain detachment. And this year (finally) our destination was Crater Lake.
The day of the hike, we got up at the crack of dawn, and decided a drive through Rocky Mountain National Park would be a great way to start the trip. This isn’t the fastest route, but it’s the most scenic. Plus, it’s rare to drive through the park with almost nobody around. And, if you’re going to get up that early, you might as well enjoy it.
Anyhow, It turned out better than we had planned. While in the park, we saw the largest bull elk we’ve ever seen. I don’t think “large” works, he was colossal. I’m sure he will make quite an impression on the lady elk in the fall.
But our morning drive was not finished. As we made our way out of the park and through the town of Grand Lake, we spotted—all along the roadside—osprey nesting platforms. We counted at least eight or nine osprey flying to and from their nests. One flew right over the top of our truck, it looked close enough to touch.
Permits Not So Plenty
Before our hike could get started, we needed to stop by the Sulphur District Ranger Office to collect our camping permit. All backcountry camping within Indian Peaks Wilderness Area—divided into backcountry zones, or BZ—requires a permit, and something we almost didn’t get in time. Well, something I almost didn’t get in time. There are only twelve camping spots at Crater Lake and they fill up fast. Double check your trip plans with your hiking buddy (this was my wife) and make sure you are on the same page (we weren’t). Because of my snafu, we had to stop and get a new permit for the correct dates.
The stop at the ranger station was quick and painless and with our new permit in hand, we headed off to the trailhead. But, before we even made it, we got a bonus wildlife surprise. Two hundred yards from the Monarch Lake trailhead, we spot a moose cow and her calf crossing the road before quickly vanishing into the curtain of forest foliage. Imagine if I hadn’t screwed up our permit…we would’ve missed them. Some things happen for a reason.
I’ve failed to point out that our hiking party has another member, our Bernese Mountain Dog pup, Deja. Deja is—and has been from the moment we met her— a fluffy ball of puppy energy who adores nothing more than to play. Play, play, play…she loves it! And for her, a long hike is just playtime with a change of scenery. But, hiking is a harder job—especially when you’ve got your own personal doggie backpack. Plus, she had to be on a leash the whole time, a true test of her puppy mettle. And, turns out, ours too.
I’m not sure why, but the first mile-and-a-half is often hard for me. I guess I’m not use to my pack weight, or maybe I’m sluggish and need to loosen up. Lucky for me, this hike starts nice and gentle with a comfortable (almost flat) trail before slowly rising as you enter the wilderness area. In fact, there isn’t much sustained climbing for the first four miles, a super easy start for an eight mile hike.
'Tis the Season
Without a deadline, we resolved to take our time. Ok, I took my time. Why rush it? We were surrounded by spectacular scenery, and I wanted to take it all in.
Wildflower season—which usually lasts from late June through early August—is reason enough to get out and hike. After a rain filled spring, the warmer weather encourages the high country to erupt into brilliant color. They were everywhere; along the hillsides and open valleys, near pools and ponds, in the shady spots and always in the sun. It’s hard to look up at the trail when you’re constantly distracted by all the colors at your feet.
I’m sure my wife could tell you every single wildflower we saw… but that might take a while. Let’s see how many I can remember:
- Colorado Columbine
- Chiming Bells
- Indian Paint Brush
- Mariposa Lily
- Fire Weed
I know I’m missing more, but the point is there were hundreds.
Here A Bear, There A Moose
After a few hours of hiking (stopping for photographs), hiking a few more yards (stopping…again…for more photos), we had another wildlife spotting. I was blissfully looking around (yes, for more photos) when my wife froze. Fifty yards off the trail was a large bear enjoying his lunch. I didn’t even have a chance to figure out why we had stopped before he bolted away. Man, was he fast! I only saw his shaggy brown backside as he disappeared into the thick forest, but it was easy to see he was not tiny…every bit—if not more—of 500 lb. We were both wide-eyed and more than a little shocked. I’m glad he was more scared than curious, because that was a close encounter that was to close for us.
After our bear meet-and-greet (and a safer distance up the trail) we stopped for lunch—just before the trail crossed into a grassy open field. We relished our Clif Bar and beef jerky, chatted about the bear and the stunning, ever changing scenery and wildflowers. Deja got a much needed break—in the shade—and delighted in the chance to cool down.
Just as we started back on the trail, we spotted another moose cow and calf by a small pond. That’s four moose in just a few hours. I have only seen, maybe, three moose in the wild in the twenty years I have lived in Colorado, and in a matter of a few hours that number had more than doubled…still hard to believe.
Did I mention we are hiking along a very energized Cascade Creek and that we crossed this creek seven times? Bridges are great, but I’m not known for having cat-like balance. But, not to worry, each bridge is solid and wide enough even for the stability hindered, like myself.
Cascade Trail —as you might have guessed— follows the creek the entire time. Cascade, however, feels too delicate a word, too subdued compared to the raucous symphony this creek provides. The chorus from the water crashing over and around the rocks is impossible to ignore. Six thundering waterfalls can be seen during the hike, but the last three (collectively called Cascade Falls) steals the show.
These final waterfalls are so voluminous, and the thick ground cover surrounding the falls is so lush and verdant, that it felt more like being in Hawaii than Colorado. Both my wife and I felt that if you bailed on the trip and turned around here, it still would’ve been the best hike we’ve ever had. It was hard to leave the power and splendor of the falls, but the trail was calling.
Mother nature—doling out more treats—had another goody for us. As we start to hike again, we see another moose. This time, a young bull moose. Come on! This is starting to sound made up. I still can’t believe our luck.
Lone Eagle Peak
After Cascade Falls, the trail really started to flex its muscles. The leisurely slopes were quickly replaced with a steady ascent of switchbacks peppered with large rocks and boulder steps. Our pack weight slowed our pace and our legs pleaded for us to stop. My wife is a rockstar, by the way. She blazed the trail the entire time, keeping the pace and pushing us forward. Teamwork makes everything better.
A light rain started to fall as the sky turned from blue and happy to overcast with rumbles of thunder. We reached the last bridge crossing, only maybe a mile left and we would be at Crater Lake. We were close and ready for our first glimpse of Lone Eagle Peak.
We broke out of the pine forest and started to maneuver over the tops of large granite boulders (cairns guided the way across), we finally caught sight of Lone Eagle. At almost twelve thousand feet, the impossibly pointy peak juts out of the mountainous backdrop and stopped us dead in our tracks with awe. Lone Eagle Peak is one of the main reason we wanted to hike to Crater Lake. Our hard work has definitely been rewarded.
Lone Eagle stands proudly over two lakes, Mirror Lake and Crater Lake. Both deliver stunning views of the peak, to stand beside and bask in its glory, but Crater Lake appears to offer the better campsites (at least the most).
We explored the area a little before settling on campsite #9. There are four or five other campers in the nearby sites, but each site is secluded enough that we don’t feel right on top of each other. By now, the rain had stopped giving us the perfect opportunity to set up camp.
Deja couldn’t wait to get her doggie backpack off and gleefully rolled in the pine straw and dirt. Without warning, the harbingers of itch (a.k.a. mosquitos) zeroed in on us. I really wasn’t expecting many mosquitos above 10,000 feet, but they were there and—as always—annoying.
With camp set, the three of us crawled into the tent—as another light drizzle turned into full-on rainfall. We sat there—mosquitos trying to stab us through the mesh—wondering if we would end up tent-camping or float-camping. After a day full of sights and sounds, we used the rain as an excuse to take a quick recharge nap.
The rain finally ceased and with our power naps over, our empty bellies moaned and groaned from our seeming lack of attention. So, we slipped out of the tent and made dinner. The sky was still overcast and didn’t look ready to clear anytime soon. Not what you want to see if you are looking for a brilliant sunset.
Up And At ‘Em
Well, we didn’t get a sunset, or a moonrise, or a starry sky, but we did get tent full of wiggly puppy. Our tent had plenty of room for the three of us, but Deja felt the best spot was near (by “near” I mean “on”) our heads. Deja got exactly what she wanted, so she slept great. We awoke to blue skies and fresh mountain air. And another gnawing, empty stomach call for sustenance. There’s nothing more enjoyable than camping breakfast. Let me tell you, Mountain House makes a mean Biscuit and Gravy freeze dried breakfast…my mouth is watering just thinking about it.
The majority of the day was dedicated to taking pictures, exploring and being generally in awe of our surroundings. We wandered back down to Mirror Lake, looking for animal trails to follow. The still, clear water perfectly reflected the peaks and cliffs as well as rocks and trees along the shore. It’s a good thing I brought my camera!
The day ended with us sitting on the banks of Crater Lake, watching fog and low-hanging clouds form, then vanish around the slopes and jagged mountain tops. The setting sun broke through the dark storm clouds, bathing the ancient rock in a warm blaze of golden yellow light. This is what drives me to the mountains. No matter how much work it takes, or how tired—and sore—my feet may get, being in remote places like this is what makes me happy.
Leave No Trace
As stunning and dramatic as this location is, you’d think everyone would want to keep it this way. Well, sorry to say, that isn’t the case. We found more “human” evidence—illegal camp fires, trash, a yellow highlighter—around our campsite than I think I have seen before. Pack It In, Pack It Out…Leave No Trace these aren’t cute little sayings or catchy phrases…they were created to remind us that keeping our environment clean isn’t an option, it is our responsibility. If you want to venture out into the wilderness, the only thing you should take with you are memories and the only thing you should leave are boot prints.
Until We Meet Again
Eventually, we had to leave our campsite. We packed up and then took one more stroll down to the lake to watch the moon setting above the cliffs to the west. An ideal way to remember an idyllic location.
We hiked back down reliving all the magical moments from the past two days. Stopping to take more photographs, not really wanting to leave it all behind. We even saw three more bull moose. Ok, I don’t want to oversell, but this, by far, is the best hike ever.
- Gorgeous Scenery
- Bridge Crossings
- Osprey: 8-9
- Moose: 8
- Bear: 1
- Elk: 1 (but really big)
It’s not easy to get all these things into one hike, but this hike had all these wilderness goodies packed into 16 mi. (round trip) and three days of outdoor paradise.