Between the lodges at Lake of the Woods and Shelter Cove, another lakeside resort 130-odd miles up the trail, is the hump of Crater Lake.
Of course, there’s a lodge there, too — and a rather fine one. Along with Timberline Lodge on Mt Hood in northern Oregon, the Crater Lake Lodge is one of only two grand historic hotels on the Pacific Crest Trail. With their great timbered halls and walk-in stone fireplaces, not to mention their usually glorious terrace views, they are landmarks of a bygone era — and highlights of any hike along the PCT.
To either side of Crater Lake, the forest is indistinguishable. Giant woods of pines march on, broken now again by lava fields, meadows, small lakes and streams. For this year’s hikers, though, there’s an all-important difference. To the south, the air is thick with smoke. To the north, it’s clear as could be.
From Lake of the Woods, at mile 1770, the smoke is manageable. On the climb up to Crater Lake, as the trail passes Mazama Village where most hikers camp or resupply before climbing to the famous Rim Trail, the sun even breaks through its cotton-like chrysalis and the sky turns a faint white blue. For the first time in a week, I distinctly see my shadow.
But arrive at the summit, and stand on the lip of the crater anticipating one of the most iconic wilderness landscapes in the world, and … well, there’s nothing there. Crater Lake, with its famed cerulean waters, has vanished. In its place: a vast smog pit.
The smoke from the fires burning to the south and west, from Burney and Mt Shasta through Seiad Valley and Ashland, has come here too. As I hike the Rim Trail, up and down along the crater’s serrated edge, I catch occasional glimpses of Wizard Island, nearly 2000 feet below. But the far walls of the caldera, and the lake itself, are largely invisible.
Rodeo easily finds a room at the lodge. With the smoke, cancellations have been legion. For several days it becomes home base. She spends her time ferrying hikers between Mazama Village, the Rim and the post office; many would otherwise spend several hours hitching or hiking between these disconnected spots.
I hike, then return to the lodge for drinks and an evening of cards or Scrabble. We hope for a break in the weather and It comes, briefly, in the late afternoon of our second day. The sun breaks free of the cloud cover, the haze suddenly thins, and there it is — the lake, surrounding sheer cliffs, the whole panorama. It is faint, but magnificent even so. And it is gone again by morning.
A dozen miles north, all this abruptly changes. As the trail crosses highway 138, at mile 1845, the smoke has gone, By the time the PCT passes Mt Thielsen, the highest point on the Oregon trail, the sun is shining and the air is sweet. Such a difference: blue sky rather than grey-white, pretty much for the first time since Mt Shasta, more than 300 miles back.
At Windigo Pass, at mile 1876. I take expert recommendations and veer off the PCT onto the old Oregon Skyline Trail via Crescent Lake — more scenic, more lakes, less elevation. Best of all, perhaps, it ends at my next stop, Shelter Cove Resort on beautiful Odell Lake, with cabins, restaurant and grocery.
Its waters glisten with sun. Seagulls cry. The air is brisk and breezy. I drink it down in great gulps, as though I cannot get enough.