The Klamath people of south central Oregon have long revered Crater Lake as a sacred site. It was once extensively used as a site for vision quests, rites of passage that involved fasting and extended stays or feats in the wilderness — such as scaling the crater walls.
A local legend, passed down orally from generation to generation since the time of the Klamath’s ancestors, the Makalak, points to clues about the lake’s origin. The Makalak myth tells of a cataclysmic conflict between the gods of the sky and the underworld that took place on the summit of Mount Mazama, a volcanic peak that once existed where the lake now lies. The battle destroyed the mountain in a rain of fire that shook the earth.
The tale correlates with geologists’ summations of the crater’s origins. They estimated that about 7,700 years ago, a 2,100-foot-deep caldera was formed when Mount Mazama collapsed. Additional volcanic activity formed the lake’s islands, such as Wizard Island, a cinder cone, and other geologic features. The depression gradually filled with water from precipitation and snowmelt, forming Crater Lake. Strangely, the lake has no inlets or outlets. This accounts for the lake’s exceptional purity. Prior to the introduction of trout and salmon in the 19th century, it had no extant fish populations.
White explorers from California first came to the Crater Lake region in search of gold, but found none. Hence, the “discovery” of the lake in 1853 went all but unnoticed. Because of its place in Klamath society, local tribes did not habitually speak of their sacred lake. Widespread interest in the lake would not take hold until more than a quarter century later, when William Gladstone Steel, who had been inspired to protect the lake as a boy, became the champion of its conservation.
Steel argued and lobbied for Crater Lake’s protection over the objection of local ranchers and mining interests. Crater Lake would be established as a national park in 1902. Steel, who would serve as the park’s second superintendent, would also be instrumental in the building of historic Crater Lake Lodge.