Story and photos by Alaina Hower
In the Spring I drove across the country for the fourth time and took a route with new interstates to traverse and different National Parks to visit. My traveling companion and I were headed to Central Oregon, so we needed to be fairly North to begin with. We made our way to Interstate 90 West on the Eastern side of South Dakota. I-90 would take us all the way to Missoula, Montana where we would take smaller roads and head a little South to go through Idaho and into Oregon. It was our second day of driving and we were shooting for Murdo, South Dakota for the night. It is just East of Badlands National Park, which we intended to visit on our third day of travel. In South Dakota the speed limit is 80 miles per hour and it is stark and flat for as far as the eye can see. We crossed the Missouri River as the day was fading and reached our destination by nightfall.
The following morning we got up bright and early to get started on the 700 miles we had charted out ahead of us for the day. We crossed from Central into Mountain Time shortly after we left Murdo, and quickly got to the entrance of Badlands National Park. Here the terrain became really beautiful and visually stimulating after the last two days of flat unchanging scenery. The road dropped off from the high plateaus and plunged us into winding roads through tall spires and cones of sand and dirt, each one a different color than the last. Fossilized soils and minerals cause the different colored bands to appear so distinctly in the formations here in this mixed grass prairie. It is too wet to be a desert and too dry to be a forest, but many grasses thrive here and the fauna is diverse. Prairie dogs, pronghorn or antelope, and bison are perfectly happy in this harsh country. We were dazzled by the rock formations and stopped many times to drink in the rushing prairie winds and to admire the Spring wildflowers in this new and different terrain. I had never been to South Dakota, and I certainly need to return and visit all of the other National Parks and Monuments in the area. Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Wind Cave, Devils Tower, and The Black Hills are all in close proximity once you are in this part of the country.
We pressed on quicker than I would have liked, but we had more places to go and people to see. After arriving in Oregon two nights later we were able to pause. We were home and could take our time now. After a few days we drove a couple hours South and visited Crater Lake National Park. I didn’t realize, but most of the roads in this park were still closed with ten or more feet of Winter snowpack on them, but we were able to come in the Southern entrance and drive to the top. This road is open most of the year so you can at least go up and look at the magnificent sight at the top of the mountain. We climbed up steep switchbacks along huge canyons carved out years ago by glaciers and then later lava. Large spires and pinnacles of ash rise up in the deep chasms along the drive to the peak. Evergreen trees are prominent and the higher we got, the more snow there was. This area receives on average about 40 years of snowfall annually and most of the roadways around the entire lake are only open from June until October. Mount Mazama used to be an active volcano reaching heights of about 12,000 feet. An eruption of cataclysmic proportions nearly 8,000 years ago caused the mountain to collapse in on itself and form the massive caldera that exists today. With a depth of 1,943 feet, Crater is the deepest lake in the United States and it is the deepest in the world among all lakes whose basins are entirely above sea level. Considerable amounts of snow and plenty of rainfall keep the waters clear and full year round. No streams or creeks run into the lake, so those pollutants aren’t a factor, making its waters incredibly clear. There are many hikes of varying difficulty you can take to view this natural wonder nestled in Southern Oregon or you can drive around the whole lake and stop at every pull off to see it from all angles.
I’ll come back to this place again and see more that it has to offer. The Native Americans who lived here at the time of the eruption viewed this mountain as sacred and it certainly felt mystical to me. If you have the chance, take the detour through Oregon and go visit this park and any other you can get to. It’s worth the time and money, and memories like these last a lifetime.