Driving to Distraction

It's the Great American Road Trip minus the Corn Palace and the drive-thru redwoods; three blacktop adventures to craters, canyons, and caves that will subdue the backseat Cheez-It wars.

Apr 24, 2001
Outside Magazine


As I helped my kids pack for a road trip from our home in Portland to the twin southern-Oregon wonders of Crater Lake National Park and Oregon Caves National Monument, an item in the paper caught my eye. The day before, a reliable witness had reported seeing Sasquatch during his family's visit to the Oregon Caves. "I know what a bear looks like," I read, quoting the man for 12-year-old Tom and nine-year-old Mary, "and that was no bear." The kids looked up thoughtfully.

"Is there only one Bigfoot?" Mary asked. "Or do they have families?"

"Mary, there isn't any Bigfoot," Tom said, with a big brother's air of authority. "Sasquatch is only a myth."

"...I smelled a pungent, overpowering odor...," I read.

"Give me that newspaper," my wife, Patricia, said with a glare.

We set out on a sunny July morning, driving east on U.S. 26 beside the flank of Mount Hood along the Chain of Fire, the magnificent row of volcanic peaks that runs the length of Oregon. The landscape opened; the loamy aroma of fir gave way to the sharp perfume of sage and manzanita. We stopped for a picnic on the banks of the trout-rich upper Deschutes River that borders the Connecticut-size Warm Springs Indian Reservation. The dry heat penetrated our rain-soaked Willamette Valley bones.

After lunch, we continued south on U.S. 97, resisting the temptation to stop at the excellent High Desert Museum near Bend, which we'd explored on previous road trips. Two hours later, we stood on the northwestern rim of Crater Lake, and the fidgety discomfort of the car trip's last hour evaporated. Mary and Tom gazed out at the vast crystal waters.

"You mean the top of the mountain just blew off?" Mary asked.

"The volcanic explosion was 42 times more powerful than the Mount St. Helens eruption," Tom informed her.

Mary considered for a moment. "Lucky thing," she said.

For the next few days that blue eye beamed at us; the lake formed an oceanic presence that somehow seemed larger than the ocean. We gloried in the view from our room at the rambling, recently restored Crater Lake Lodge. Apart from the lodge, which often books up a year in advance, the park didn't feel at all crowded. Seems that most visitors settle for driving in, taking a few snapshots, and then drilling back to Interstate 5.

We wanted to explore the park in greater depth. We drove between surreally huge leftover snowdrifts—banked 12 feet high on either side of Rim Drive—to a spectacular overlook hanging above the Phantom Ship, a basalt formation that, in profile, bears a striking resemblance to the cloud-ship in Peter Pan. At park headquarters, three miles from the rim, we scrambled over the boulder- and trillium-festooned Castle Crest Wildflower Trail.

The next morning we rose early to take the boat tour leaving from Cleetwood Cove. The steep, mile-long Cleetwood Trail is the only route between the crater rim and the water. Seen from the lake surface, the caldera's basalt and lava walls shimmered, and the water changed color with each shifting wind and drifting cloud. Wizard Island, a volcanic plug that, in an eon or so, could grow into another fire-spewing peak, jutted up like Merlin's cap. Normally you can disembark at the island to fish, picnic, and hike, but high winds prevented our boat from docking that morning. Tom, who'd packed his rod and reel, was briefly disappointed. The captain redlined the return route to the cove, and sheets of ice-cold lake water spumed over the bow, leaving us all shivering but ecstatic.

Exiting the park, we drove 150 miles southwest to the coastal mountains and Oregon Caves National Monument. The serpentine marble caverns are a striking complement to the caldera. After absorbing so much dazzling light at the lake, our eyes welcomed the caves' ghostly darkness.

We checked into the comfortable and slightly eccentric Oregon Caves Lodge, which features a surprisingly good restaurant (with a real stream trickling through it) and, even more surprising, a retro soda fountain serving national-class milkshakes. None of the 22 rooms has a TV. Up in these silent, remote hills, a TV would be as out of place as a Wal-Mart. In the morning we followed our tour guide into the phantasmagorical depths, wearing hard hats for protection and heavy coats (don't forget yours) against the prevailing 40-degree chill. The two-hour tour—a guaranteed kid-pleaser—took us slithering and scrambling over winding, spectrally lit paths and into giant rooms furnished with stalactites and stalagmites. Parents always forget which formation points up and which points down. Kids always seem to remember.

We emerged from underground into warm, clear sunshine. There were two ways back to the lodge, a quick ten-minute downhill stroll, and a steeper, more scenic route. The kids readily assented to the high road. Normally, Tom or I walk point in our family hikes. But that day, Mary insisted on taking the lead. When we stopped for water, I asked her why.

"So I can be the first one to see Sasquatch," she replied. She thought for a moment and then added, "I guess I won't mind if Tom smells him first."

CRATER LAKE LODGE, built in 1915, was extensively restored six years ago and is open from mid-May through mid-October. Double-room rates range from $115-$160; loft rooms, which have two queen beds, cost $225 for four people. Reservations should be made at least six to eight months in advance of a summer arrival; call 541-830-8700. Crater Lake National Park information: 541-594-2211; www.nps.gov/crla.

BOAT TOURS of Crater Lake depart from Cleetwood Cove, a ten-mile drive from the lodge, several times daily from late June through mid-September, weather permitting, and last about two hours. For more information, check with Crater Lake Lodge.

OREGON CAVES NATIONAL MONUMENT is located 20 miles east of Cave Junction, Oregon. From I-5 at Grants Pass, head southwest on U.S.199 to Oregon 46. For information, call 541-592-2100; www.nps.gov/orca. For reservations at Oregon Caves Lodge ($95 for one or two people, $15 each additional person, kids 6 and under stay free), call 541-592-3400.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Got Wanderlust?

Escape your daily grind with Outside’s best getaways.

Thank you!