A few summers ago, I took the train to Montana's Glacier National Park, intending to spend a full week in the backcountry. But when I arrived in West Glacier, there was a line wrapped around the ranger station.
It was just like Lloyd Center Cinemas on the opening night of a summer blockbuster, only it was early in the morning and everybody was either carrying or sitting on an enormous backpack, waiting hopefully for that ticket to paradise, a backcountry permit. A few minutes after the doors opened, Glacier completely sold out.
For two days, I sulked in my tent while SUV after RV thrummed up the Going to the Sun Road. I was going nowhere. The wilderness was full of people just like me.
Not so in Oregon's lone national park. Last August, I made my first trip to Crater Lake, fully prepared to endure another mob scene. But when I picked up my backcountry permit at Rim Village Visitor Center, the queue consisted of two senior citizens buying postcards. I left Rim Village on the footpath that skirts the caldera, paralleling Rim Drive, Crater Lake's version of the Going to the Sun Road.
The experience was not unlike boarding a packed commuter train at Grand Central Station during rush hour, shouldering a 60-pound backpack. People pointed. A few took pictures. Cars honked. I ignored them and focused instead on the silent, stunning grandeur to my right: America's deepest and purest lake.
Nine miles later, I arrived at the Pacific Crest Trail junction and turned my back on that view. Suddenly, there was nothing and nobody. No vistas to speak of, no people to speak to. Just me and a dusty, tree-lined trail. For four days, until I exited the PCT at Mazama Village, a 200-site campground that was filled to capacity, I was completely alone in Oregon's most-visited wilderness. And it was wonderful.
Just the other day, I called Dan Jacobs, Crater Lake's backcountry district ranger, wondering if my experience had been unusual. Not at all, he said, rattling off the numbers. Last year, some 500,000 people visited Crater Lake (most during July and August), but only 1,650 ventured into the backcountry. That's just one-third of 1 percent; twice that number of people visit the park on a typical day in July. This year appears to be no different. On the Fourth of July, Crater Lake's busiest day of the year, Jacobs hiked a seven-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail and encountered only two groups, a couple and a party of eight.
"It's not a Yosemite kind of backcountry that will blow you away," admits Jacobs, who has spent the past decade walking around Crater Lake's 200,000 acres. "It's subtle." Best of all, you don't have to wait in line to appreciate it.
If you'd like Dan Jacobs' recommendations for a backcountry trip at Crater Lake, call him at (541) 594-2211, ext. 340.
For general information about the park, including fees, directions, trail maps, and backcountry rules and regulations, check out www.nps.gov/crla .
Speaking of Grand Central Station, an aside from the Did You Know file: Most New Yorkers are oblivious to the fact that the Metro North line bisects the Appalachian Trail on its run to Connecticut, and that trains will make unscheduled whistle stops for backpackers.