Among the delights of dining at southern Oregon’s Crater Lake Lodge are the dazzlingly delicious look-out-the-window views of Crater Lake, America’s deepest and purest lake. But those views can also be a distraction, something that makes it difficult to appreciate the sumptuous meals served up at the lodge’s dining room.
Located in Rim Village in southern Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, the Crater Lake Lodge and its relatively compact dining room – it holds 75 people at a sitting – are open only between mid-May and October. That’s because most years the park receives nearly 530 inches of snow. During the winter, the lodge is shuttered, literally. Most years the lingering snow obscures the lake views from the dining room until June or, sometimes, July.
The menu intentionally features locally-sourced Northwest foods, typically with some year-to-year variations. One of those variations, elk chops, prepared in a style suggested by a local member of the Klamath Tribes, is proving so successful it’s expected to become a fixture.
I’ll admit I’m partial to elk. It’s my favorite wild game. For many years my long-time running partner, who is a doctor and a hunter, shot an elk during hunting season. I eagerly hustled over to his kitchen on the day he used his surgical skills to carve the elk into steaks, chops, medallions and other cuts. And, when he asked – and he always did – if I’d like to take home a roast, why it would have been rude to refuse.
Since my friend doesn’t hunt, or run, anymore, I’d feared my elk eating days were history. So, when the lodge’s most recently revised menu listed elk chops, I was game to try.
I’ve savored many meals at the Crater Lake Lodge dining room, but the elk chops were incomparable. Cooked medium rare, they were topped with a huckleberry walnut glaze and served with wild rice and perfectly prepared zucchini. After a few bites, even before a sip of my Oregon pinot noir, I felt giddy and intoxicated.
Before the entrees, my friend and I had shared an appetizer, a mushroom bruschetta that featured Oregon mushrooms, tomatoes, shallots, garlic and basil served on sourdough crostini with shaved Parmesan. We’d also devoured our salads – her’s a Caesar and mine a Crater Lake tossed delight of organic greens with green apples, roasted hazelnuts and “Oregonzola” crumbles with a Marionberry vinaigrette. By the time the main course arrived, we were both semi-stuffed. One of my three elk chops along with my friend’s leftover New York strip went into a carry-home box, not a doggy bag because I wasn’t sharing with my border collie Libby.
Despite the name, the New York strip comes from an Oregon ranch, where the cattle are grass fed. Cooked medium rare, it was flavored with whole cracked pepper and sea salt, and topped with fresh herb garlic butter and served with mashed potatoes and fresh asparagus. I had a few test bites. It was scrumptious, but it wasn’t elk.
Other years I’ve tasted and shared many of the lodge’s other entrees, including wild Alaskan salmon, bison meatloaf, Northwest style citrus duck, Oregon lamb chops and roasted pacific halibut, and mostly raved about them all. The prices are not inexpensive – appetizers cost from $8.25 to $14.75 and entrees range from $25 to $42 for the elk chops.
Lodge guests have priority for dinner reservations, but it’s relatively easy to find seats at lunch and breakfast.
As an alternative to eating in the restaurant, friends and I have settled in the Great Hall next to the dining room. After time spent hiking – and the park offers several scenic and varied short walks, we’ve gathered and ordered selections of appetizers to share, along with beverages, soups, salads and desserts. Sometimes we take beers or glasses of wine outside, plop in comfy rocking chairs, and enjoy the scenery, including the often dazzling sunsets.
Working Up an Appetite
I’ve learned there are many ways to work up an appetite, whether taking a trolley ride around the lake, joining in a ranger-led program or taking a hike or two.
For folks with an appetite for being active outside, the menu of trail offerings include bubbly Annie Creek Canyon, dramatic lake views along the way to Garfield Peak, peaking out the park’s high point atop Mount Scott, a historic lake overlook at The Watchman, the showy Castle Crest Wildflower Garden, dramatic Plaikini Falls and the park’s most popular hike, the 1.1-mile downhill trek along the Cleetwood Cove trail to the lake’s edge, the launching point for concession lake boat tours.
Reservations are required for boat tours, with options to stay an hour or more on Wizard Island, so named because the island reminded William Steel of a wizard’s hat. Steel is the person remembered as “The Father of Crater Lake” for his years of badgering Congress and presidents to establish Crater Lake National Park. Eventually, they did in 1902. It was also Steel who convinced Portland developer Alfred Parkhurst to build the lodge, which sits on the rim 1,000 feet above the lake. It opened in 1915 and, despite its lack of amenities, the lodge has drawn a steady flow of visitors.
The National Park Service bought the lodge in 1967 and had it listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. Believing the cost to renovation the sagging lodge was too costly, the Park Service declined to halt its deterioration. After announcing plans to demolish the lodge, which had no foundation and see-through gaps in its walls, the public outcry caused the agency to reverse its decision.
Then, in the spring of 1989, just before its scheduled opening, structural engineers determined the building was unstable and a danger, too unsafe to open. After two years of planning, construction began in 1991. Sadly, most of the building was so badly deteriorated that it couldn’t be saved or reused, although the Great Hall was carefully dismantled and later reconstructed. Parts of the original lodge were incorporated into the new building. The $15 million renovation was completed in the fall of 1994 and the lodge reopened May 20, 1995.
The night it reopened, my friend and I stayed as overnight lodge guests. We reserved a late dinner. It proved later than planned because the diners at the early seating enjoyed those out-the-window views so much they stayed for extra glasses of wine and desserts. As time passed, lodge managers kindly offered us appetizers and a complimentary bottle of wine. More than an hour later, the wine bottle emptied, and freshly filled glasses at the table, we were finally seated. I don’t remember anything about the meal.
I will remember this year’s unforgettable elk chops. Others raved about their choices, but especially about the elk chops. When Chef Michael Tighe, sous chefs Quentin Washburn and Archie Hardison and their staff were introduced, the applause was loud and genuine.
Just thinking about the meal makes me want to plan another visit. I hear elk calling. – Story and photos by Lee Juillerat, RFT Contributor