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You may think you’ve seen blue before, but chances are you’ve never seen such a mesmerizing hue of the cerulean shade until you lay eyes on Crater Lake.
Thanks to its transfixing colour and a claim to fame as the deepest lake in the entire United States at 1,943 feet, Crater Lake National Park is one of the top attractions in Oregon. The water is fed by rain and snow which makes it one of the cleanest large bodies of water in the world, and there are so few particles that it’s incredibly clear.
The lake itself was formed after the Mount Mazama volcano collapsed following a major eruption nearly 8,000 years ago, and is marked by Wizard Island, a cinder cone that burst out and now juts out of the water. The photo-ops from around the rim are endless, and there are plenty of hiking trails, fishing holes and camping spots to explore throughout the park. From where to go to what to see, here’s a complete guide to visiting Crater Lake National Park.
Where is Crater Lake
Crater Lake is in southern Oregon, and the closest cities are Klamath Falls and Medford. It’s a great stop for those doing a road trip between California and Oregon, and about 90 minutes from Bend. To explore more of the surrounding area head east to the Umpqua Hot Springs, or an hour north where there’s a beautiful chain of lakes around La Pine including Odell Lake, Waldo Lake and Paulina Lake.
While the park is open year-round, some roads are closed seasonally due to snowfall, including the park’s north entrance road and Rim Drive which shut down by November 1 and don’t reopen until at least May.
The Crater Lake Rim Drive
The best way to explore is by hopping in the car and doing the Crater Lake rim drive, which is considered one of the most scenic byways in America. The 33-mile loop only takes about one hour, though you’ll want to budget at least a few hours to enjoy all the incredible photo ops.
The road is usually open from July to mid-October, and top stops include:
- Discovery Point: This is where gold prospector John Hillman stumbled across the ‘Deep Blue Lake’ in 1853.
- Watchman Overlook: One of the most popular viewpoints at Crater Lake, with a phenomenal view of Wizard Island.
- Pinnacles Overlook: A quick detour off Rim Drive leads to a viewpoint of colourful, 100-foot high spires eroding from the canyon wall.
- Cloudcap Overlook: With bragging rights as the highest paved road in Oregon, this part of the highway is nearly 8,000 feet high and has fantastic panoramic views.
- Pumice Castle Overlook: This spot gets its name from the burnt-orange pumice rock that juts out from the cliff and has eroded into the shape of a medieval castle.
- Phantom Ship Overlook: Wizard Island gets most of the attention, but this smaller island on the southeast end of the lake is still picture-perfect, and looks like a small sailboat.
- Vidae Falls: This blink-and-you-might-miss-it roadside pullout leads to one of the prettiest Crater Lake waterfalls, where a spring-fed creek drops 100 feet down a series of terraced ledges.
Globe Guide tip: Drive in a clockwise direction so the pullouts are on your right which makes it easier to park, and get there early in the morning to beat the crowds.
Best things to do at Crater Lake
Most visitors do a combination of the Rim Drive with a couple of hikes, and there are other activities like biking, boat tours and star gazing worth including on your Crater Lake itinerary if time allows. In colder months you can go snowshoeing or winter camping, while summer means swimming and fishing (you don’t need a license, just bring gear).
Some of the best Crater Lake hiking trails are:
- Watchman Peak: One of the most popular hikes in Crater Lake National Park, Watchman Peak leads to a fire lookout above Wizard Island, and only takes about an hour round trip. It’s fantastic during sunset.
- Discovery Point: This two mile hike traces the rim of Crater Lake, passing through whitebark pines and hemlocks. It’s rated as moderate, and has great views of Wizard Island.
- Plaikni Falls Trail: This mild two mile route winds through an old-growth fir and hemlock forest to the base of Plaikni Falls, which is surrounded by moss and rugged bluffs. The flat, hard-packed pathways make this trail wheelchair accessible.
- Pacific Crest: Join the legions of folks who trek along this trail that links Canada to Mexico. Two road crossings section of the PCT wind through the park, and many hikers doing the whole trail make a detour to the West Rim to see the lake–can you blame them?
- Cleetwood Cove: See next section below.
Can you swim in Crater Lake?
One of the most fun things to do around Crater Lake is hike down to Cleetwood Cove, which is the only trail in the park that leads to the water and also where boat tours depart from.
The trail has a series of switchbacks winding through a forest of hemlocks and red fir trees, and there are fabulous lookout points of the clear water which turns a brilliant turquoise hue near the shoreline. At the bottom, you can cool off by going for a dip right in the lake! Depending on the season, the Crater Lake water temp ranges from 0°C to 19°C, so while it’s chilly even in the summer months it’s actually quite refreshing.
The hike is 2.2 miles total and only takes about 90 minutes out and back, but be warned: the steep incline and high elevation makes the trek back up equivalent to 65 flights of stairs. Be sure to bring your swimsuit and a towel; there are also washrooms at the bottom where you can change.
Globe Guide tip: Visitors can drink right out of the lake, since there is no silt, sediment or pollution in the water.
The Crater Lake boat tour
One of the most iconic Crater Lake tours is taking a boat ride over to Wizard Island, and there are a few different options available daily during summer.
Take a two-hour cruise around the lake to see natural formations like Phantom Ship up close, book a Wizard Island tour to cruise the perimeter of the lake then explore the island, or shuttle straight over to the island and spend the day hiking, swimming and fishing. Tours can be booked at the park or here ahead of time.
Book a Crater Lake tour
Those who’d rather enjoy the view than deal with the drive can book a tour on the Crater Lake Trolley, which does a full loop of the rim with up to seven stops. A ranger is also on board to share information and answer questions about the park. Tours are offered daily in summer, and typically run from July to mid-September.
Other guided tour options include:
Lodging near Crater Lake
There are plenty of places to stay near Crater Lake, ranging from cozy campsites to historic lodges.
Hotels near Crater Lake:
- Crater Lake Lodge: With a great location in the heart of Rim Village, the views of the lake from the doorstep of this iconic property can’t be beat. Many rooms look right over the water, and there’s also a bar and restaurant on site. Click here to book
- The Cabins at Mazama Village: Found about seven miles south of Rim Village, there are 40 rooms nestled among Ponderosa pines. While they’re a bit dated, it’s convenient to still be right in the park and most have two queen beds with plenty of space to spread out. Click here to book
Campgrounds near Crater Lake:
- Mazama campground: This campground is found near the Mazama cabins within the park’s boundary, and sites are a mix of first-come, first-served and reservations. Each spot has a picnic table, bear-resistant food locker and fire ring.
- Lost Creek campground: This small campground for tenters is located along the road to Pinnacles Overlook, and usually opens in early July and closes by mid-October. Each site has a picnic table and food locker, and reservations aren’t possible so try to get there by mid-afternoon if you’re visiting in the busy summer months.
- Diamond Lake campground: Located only a 10 minute drive from the entrance to Crater Lake National Park in the Umpqua National Forest, there are nearly 238 sites here with amenities including flush toilets, fire pits and drinking water (no RV hookups).
- Thielsen View campground: Try to snag a site on the west side of this campground on Diamond Lake, for great views of the lake and mountain.
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