Hiking Crater Lake National Park in Oregon
Julie and I have reached the end of our road trip together and tomorrow, our paths will diverge (literally, not figuratively). She will go on to California and I will continue north to Portland.
I’ve wanted to go to Crater Lake National Park for a long time. Bill’s sister and husband live in Portland (just 4 1/2 hours away) and we've discussed it many times. Of course, knowing that we could go there any time also has meant that we have never done it.
But Julie and I needed a last stop for this cross-country trip, a grand finale if you will.
Crater Lake National Park is it. We arrived last night and opted to drive through the park to get a map and understand the layout better for today’s adventures. We told the kids that we wouldn’t be long. That was mostly true.
I wasn’t going to stop at any viewpoints along the way because we would see it today. That is until I got my first view of the lake. I can attest that the Chrysler Pacifica has good handling; I tested that baby as I swerved into the lot.
If I had to define the color “blue,” the color of Crater Lake would be it. A state guidebook that I picked up later defined the color as lapis lazuli and I think that description also fits perfectly. I can say without question: I've never seen its color in nature before.
At 1,943 feet deep, it is also the deepest lake in the United States. I had always thought that honor went to Lake Tahoe, but it turns out that Crater Lake bests it by a few hundred feet.
Crater Lake was formed by a volcano eruption 7,700 years ago that formed a caldera. Four hundred years after that, a second cinder cone volcano erupted; this is what is known as Wizard Island.
Because it is filled by only snow and rainwater – and not rivers and streams – there is no sediment to murk up the water. It is absolutely pristine and clear. Rangers have measured clarity down to 130 feet!
Hiking Crater Lake
There are 16 hiking trails within Crater Lake National Park. The Park’s Reflections Visitor Guide does an excellent job laying out the choices. There are six easy trails with the longest one being 2 miles long. There are 4 moderate trails and finally, six strenuous trails. Cleetwood Cove, the trail that goes down to the lake, is considered strenuous.
We started the day on the Castle Rock trail. While it didn't have a view of the lake, it was a perfect trail: short, shaded, with a water feature and lots of wildflowers.
Where to Stay for Crater Lake
There are a few lodging options within Crater Lake park: Crater Lake Lodge, Mazama Cabin Cottages (open for the summer only), and the Mazama Village Campground (late summer to mid-September).
Note that you can book 365 days in advance and places do fill up.
Towns surrounding the lake that also make good bases include: Fort Klamath, Chemmult, Prospect and Diamond Lake. We stayed in Fort Klamath, a sleepy town that had the vibe that we wanted.
Aspen Inn, Fort Klamath
My friend Julie found us a place at the Aspen Inn in Fort Klamath, a town we knew nothing about. It is a motel, it’s vibe is laid back, family-oriented, clean, but simple. Heidi, at reception, was so welcoming and laid back that we instantly were happy there.
Julie had an A-frame which made my daughter instantly jealous. We had the last room in the motel section. The rooms are up to date, but not fancy. Most importantly, it is very clean and all rooms include a mini fridge and a microwave. I told Heidi that the moms would be needing to get wine and she informed us that it was mandatory that we have actual wine glasses and brandished two with a wine opener. God bless that woman.
The grass out front is well-provisioned with tables and chairs for eating (some covered), a volleyball net, Adirondack chairs, a slack line obstacle course and a bin full of wiffle balls and bats.
How much time do you need at Crater Lake?
You could easily do Crater Lake in one day, although two would give you more opportunities to hike and relax.
One Day Crater Lake Itinerary
Start with an easy hike like Castle Crest or Sun Notch. We did the Castle Crest trail and it was full of wildflowers and gorgeous. There is a creek and brook that winds its way around the loop trail. This is a beautiful, easy and largely shaded trail. We all really enjoyed Castle Crest.
Have a picnic lunch somewhere scenic. We found some hidden spots across the street from the Rim Village Visitor Center parking lot in the trees. Only a few families seemed to know about this spot.
Do the Rim Trail by car or by trolley. The Crater Lake Trolley that leaves every hour from the Rim Village Visitor Center. If you are a small group, you have a good chance of making reservations on the day of travel. We were a group of 6 and were unable to make any of the slots. This was on a Saturday, however, and I think it would have been OK during the week. You can avoid this, however, by reserving a lot in advance. One other note on that: we noticed that many of the seats were bench seats that ran parallel with the long side of the trolley. We both decided that may be uncomfortable to sit on for 2 hours craning your neck to look out the window. Again, we did not actually make the trolley though so I can't definitively say.
Take the Cleetwood Cove hike down to the lake. Most of the Cleetwood Cove trail is shaded, although the last section is not. There are a lot of little rocks on the trail and it often slopes downward (or upward if you are coming from the lake). It is doable if you can walk well, but it is not for the faint of heart. Our kids did great, but my friend and I were very worn out once we got back up to the top. It is equivalent to climbing 65 flights of stairs.
Can you go down to the Lake?
Yes, you can via the Cleetwood Cove Trail hike. Note that this is the only hike that takes you down into the caldera. Historically, you can take a boat ride on the lake, but as of August 2022, this was still not running.
What do you see on the Rim Drive around Crater Lake?
The Rim Drive is beautiful although the driver has to take extra special care at times to watch the road because of sharp drop-offs and no guard rail. For that reason, you may consider a trolley ride (see above).
There are 7 main overlooks that are called out in the park brochure:
Watchman Overlook – this was my favorite viewpoint. You get a great view of Wizard Island and some very weathered, twisted trees
Look for Whitebark pines on this stop
Pumice Castle overlook
This is an unmarked viewpoint (why? Great question) with orange pumice rock. Over time, the rock has changed shape to resemble a castle
Phantom Ship Overlook
There isn’t really a ship, but there is a rock that is shaped like one
These are cool spires that are about 6 miles off the road from the trail
A100-foot waterfall that can be seen from the road
If you come in the southern entrance to the park and take the West Rim drive, this will be your first viewpoint and give you a good idea how it got its name. Imagine being one of the first people to discover Crater Lake!
Seeing each of these would give you great views of the lake from different perspectives.
The End has Come...
It's been an amazing adventure and Crater Lake was a spectacular finish. This unexpectedly has become one of my favorite National Parks (nope, not going to order them. Not gonna do it).
Each park has its own beauty to it... Crater Lake's just pops at you.