How to make the most of Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake National Park, the caldera of Mt. Mazama, is a park of superlatives.
It’s America’s Deepest Lake – one of the deepest lakes in the world.
Considered the cleanest water in the world, its 2000 ft depth, combined with a sunny day, makes the water neon blue.
Thought to be the most significant volcanic eruption in North America, the explosion of Mt. Mazama created this beautiful lake and the surrounding area.
The 33-mile Rim Drive is on America’s Most Scenic Byways list.
The lake is on the Seven Wonders of Oregon list.
It was a highlight of our recent Pacific Northwest Road trip.
5 things to do at Crater Lake National Park
The Steel Visitor center is small, with a few interpretive exhibits and a 22-minute film on park history. (The Steel is closed in 2022 for a major remodel.)
Mazama Visitor Center is open to take the place of the Steel Visitor Center in 2022. At the Mazama Center, you can talk to a ranger, sign up for the Junior Ranger program, pick up a park newspaper, fill your water bottle, and use a restroom.
The Rim Visitor Center is at Rim Village. It’s open during the high season (late May/June – mid-October).
Sinnott Overlook has a nice interpretive display, a short video, and a parapet with views of the lake. The overlook is open based on weather conditions. The rangers at the Mazama Visitor Center will have current hours.
|Steel Visitor Center||Closed 2022 for remodel||Closed through 2022|
|Mazama Visitor Center||Closed major/national holidays||Daily 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.|
|Rim Visitor Center||Closed Sept 26 – June 2|
(Fall, Winter, Spring)
|Daily 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.|
|Sinnott Memorial Overlook||Closed mid-October to late June due to snow||Late June – mid-October (hours vary)|
The Lodge first opened in 1915. The Great Hall is open to visitors.
There is also a small exhibit about the history of the Lodge to the left of the entrance hall.
Behind the Great Hall is a deck with rocking chairs overlooking the lake.
It’s a fabulous place to catch the sunset if you can find a seat.
The lake is the star of the show.
Try the 33-mile Rim Drive that encircles the lake, stopping at the 30+ scenic pull-outs.
The drive will take 2+ hours if you stop at 8-12 pull-outs.
Plan your direction to take advantage of the sun. In the morning, take the East Rim Drive to keep the sun to the west. In the evening, drive the West Rim.
Our top suggestions for stops:
- Rim Village (mile 2.6)
- Wizard Island View (mile 3.6)
- Wizard Island again (mile 4.7)
- View of the west side of the park (mile 5.6)
- Watchman Overlook (mile 6.6)
- North Junction – view of Merriam Point (mile 8.7)
- Pumice Point (mile 11.4)
- Cleetwood Cover (mile 13.1)
- Palisade Point (mile 14.6)
- View the North side of the lake (mile 16.3)
- Cloudcap Overlook – 1-mile drive to the overlook (mile 19.7)
- View of Pumice Castle (mile 20.9)
- Phantom Ship Overlook (mile 23.5)
If driving is not your cup of tea, Rim Drive Trolley Tours are available from late June-September. You will want to make a reservation. The cost runs $25-36.
The trolley stops at 5-7 pull-outs. A ranger on board narrates and entertains the crowd.
If a boat ride is more your style, that is an option during the high season (late May-Sept).
Boat tours run $20-$57, depending on your age and the length of the tour. Tickets go on sale 24 hours in advance, be sure to make a reservation.
Also, be aware that you must hike the 1.1-mile Cleetwood Cove Trail. The trail is considered strenuous (700 ft elevation gain), and rangers suggest you give yourself 30 minutes – 1 hour to descend the trail. That’s an hour going down. You will also have to climb back up.
Can I swim in Crater Lake?
To touch the water, you will hike down (and back up) the steep Cleetwood Cove Trail. Swimming is allowed if you can get down and back!
Cleetwood Cove is the only legal (and safe) place to access the water.
Only people in regular clothes are allowed in the water. No scuba or snorkel gear, floaties, boats or boards of any kind, life jackets, fishing gear, or boots.
So, in other words, your body is covered by a bathing suit, shorts, and tee-shirt, or similar clothing. The rules apply to children too.
|Rim Drive (DIY)||Free|
|Cleetwood Cove Swimming||Free|
|Trolley Tour||Adults $36|
Children 6-13 $25
Children 5 and under free
|Standard Lake Tour (boat)||Adults $44|
Children 3-12 $30
Children 2 and under not permitted
|Wizard Island Tour (boat)||Adults $55|
Children 3-12 $37
Children 2 and under not permitted
With over 23 designated hikes, you will find something for every ability. The park newspaper will have up-to-date trail information.
During the high season, rangers lead afternoon and sunset hikes.
My favorite hike is the Pinnacles Trail. At 0.8 miles, Jody would argue this is more a path than a hike. But the landscape is fascinating. Moon-like. And I believe one-of-a-kind.
And to be clear, just because a hike is short in length does not mean it’s easy. Elevation gain is a real thing at Crater Lake.
Here is a list of (truly) easy hikes. If you’re short on time at Crater Lake taking these less than 2-mile walks will allow you to see the most.
|Plaikini Falls||2 miles – 3.2 km|
|The Pinnacles||0.8 miles – 1.3 km|
|Castle Crest||0.5 miles – 0.8 km|
|Lady of the Woods||0.7 miles – 1.1 km|
|Godfrey Glen||1.1 miles – 1.8 km|
|Sun Notch||0.8 miles – 1.3 km|
Ranger programs are offered daily.
Ask at the Mazama Visitor Center for current information.
Talks are usually at Rim Village, the Mazama Campground Amphitheater, or the Lodge.
I highly recommend the Junior Ranger Program (~6-12-year-olds) if you have children.
Get an education at Crater Lake National Park
Pick up a copy of the ‘Crater Lake Reflections Visitors Guide’ as soon as you arrive and read about current events.
There will be background and scientific facts, a detailed list of hikes, info on services, etc.
In addition, you will find updates on current happenings.
One fall issue mentioned a bird banding program, an upcoming bike ride on the East Rim, and ongoing research projects.
Crater Lake National Park: A History by Rick Harmon
Images of America Crater Lake National Park by Margaret LaPlante
Crater Lake: The Story Behind the Scenery
Crater Lake Gem of the Cascades by Rod Cranson
Wild and Beautiful Crater Lake National Park, photos by Charles
Steve Westover’s mid-grade fantasy Crater Lake series gets excellent reviews on Goodreads.
Check out the National Parks education page for a selection of short videos on ecological issues in the park.
The drama, Wild, is based on Cheryl Strayed’s book by the same name. Reese Witherspoon makes an appearance at Crater Lake. There are several other movie scenes set in Southern Oregon.
Watch The Crater Lake Monster for serious kitsch – filmed in 1977; Rotten Tomatoes gives it 11% – you have been warned!
Try this gorgeous puzzle to extend the memories
Everything you need to know about visiting Crater Lake National Park
Where is Crater Lake?
Crater Lake National Park is in south-central Oregon.
It’s due east and a hair south of Roseburg, OR
From Portland, OR, it’s about a 4-hour drive.
|Klamath Falls, OR||60 miles|
|Ashland, OR||77 miles|
|Bend, OR||105 miles|
|Eugene, OR||126 miles|
|Portland, OR||231 miles|
|Sacramento, CA||342 miles|
|Boise, ID||399 miles|
|Seattle, WA||405 miles|
Getting to Crater Lake
First, the park doesn’t have a “street address.” You’ll get an accurate location by searching for ‘Rim Village’ or ‘Mazama Village.
North Entrance: Closed November – late June (weather dependant)
South and West Entrances: Off Hwy 62 and open year-round. During winter, chains or snow tires may be required.
The West (Medford): Take Hwy 62 to the West Entrance.
The South (Klamath Falls): Take Hwy 97 to Hwy 62 to the South Entrance.
The North (Eugene/Portland): Take I-5 to Hwy 58 to Hwy 97 to the North Entrance if it’s open. If the north entrance is closed due to snow, you’ll take Hwy 97 to Chiloquin, then hit Hwy 62 to the South Entrance.
From Roseburg: Hwy 138 east to the North Entrance, if it’s open. Or use Hwy 230 to Hwy 62 and enter at the West Entrance.
When is the best time of year to go to Crater Lake?
The park is at 7000-8000 ft. elevation – meaning lots of snow for more months of the year than you will believe.
We went in October, and as I mentioned in our PNW Itinerary, that was too late.
We missed the snow, but several attractions were closed for the year, and the weather was horrible. We froze, even with winter wear, and the hikes were miserable in the rain.
However, no crowds, so pick your poison!
My ideal month to visit the park is September. You have a shot at warmer, clear weather, but after school starts, the crowds thin out.
Winter will be magical if you are willing to brave the drive with snow tires or chains.
“Winter” can easily span from late September to early June in the highest areas of the park.
But you will adore Crater Lake in winter if you’re into snow camping, snowshoeing, cross-country, sledding, or skiing.
The park is open 365 days a year, and the west and south entrances are plowed daily if needed.
Like all major National Parks, summertime is brutally crowded at the park. The most popular months are mid-July – early September.
If warm weather and access to all the hiking trails are a priority for you, you will want to hit the high-season window. Some trails may be closed in June and early July due to snow.
The park facilities will be open and in full swing. Be ready to exercise patience.
An official spring is elusive. Crater Lake often goes from snow-time to summertime with a very short window of warm weather.
The month of May can deliver 20+ inches of snow and June 4+ more inches. The snow pack on some trails lasts well into June.
Personally, I would not visit the park in May or June.
Cost of entry to Crater Lake
$30 entrance fee per vehicle, $20 in winter – good for 7 days.
Motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians pay less. See current prices here.
Or, get in free with an America the Beautiful pass.
Accessibility in Crater Lake
Overall, the park is accessible.
Several paths: the Rim Promenade, Pinnacles Trail (my favorite), Godfrey Glen, Sun Notch, and Plaikni Falls are accessible to wheelchair users.
The visitor centers and facilities are accessible.
Certain pull-outs on Rim Trail Drive have accessible paths.
The park is actively improving accessibility, so you will want to check the website for updated information.
How many days do you need in Crater Lake?
If you just want to take a gander at the lake, a few hour’s detour off I-5 will suffice.
You will need to spend a long day or two to participate in ranger talks, boat rides, or extensive hiking.
And, of course, you could camp and hike for a week or more and not run out of things to see and do.
See specific itineraries below.
Other tips for Crater Lake:
Bring food. (see ‘where to eat’ below)
Bring layers of clothing – even in the summer. You don’t have to search far to find someone standing in the Crater Lake snow in shorts and a tank top. In June!
Cell reception in and around the park is limited. Be sure to have an alternative map or GPS.
Go with a full tank of gas. Gas is available seasonally at Mazama Village. The next closest gas station is in Prospect, 33 miles west, or Chiloquin, 34 miles south.
Pros: Historic Lodge, on-site.
Cons: Costly, hard to book, few amenities.
If you make an educated decision to stay at the Lodge, you won’t be shocked when you arrive. The rooms are crazy expensive, $250-600 per night. They are bare-bones and well-used.
I witnessed one guest so upset by what she found in her room she was near tears; it was apparent she did not read any reviews ahead of time.
If you check a few travel forums and online discussions, you will see warning after warning to lower your expectations.
We chose to stay there anyway for the unique experience.
There are also STRICT rules about cooking or eating in your room. There’s a steep fine if you’re caught preparing food in a guest room.
With that caveat in mind, if you decide to stay at the Lodge, and I would at least once in your life, make reservations WAY ahead of time. A year ahead wouldn’t be too soon.
Pros: Less expensive.
Cons: It’s camping. (Obviously, Brittany is not writing this post!)
Outside the park:
Klamath Falls is my first choice if you plan to drive back and forth to the park for a few days. At 60 miles, it’s a manageable day.
Ashland, at 77 miles, is another good choice.
In the park:
The Rim Village cafe serves sandwiches, salads, and snacks.
Annie Creek Restaurant – family-style food in Mazama Village.
Crater Lake Lodge Dining Room offers breakfast and lunch for guests. Dinner is open with reservations. The current dinner menu is ~$52 per person.
I highly suggest you bring your provisions.
Cooking is prohibited in the Lodge accommodations. No mini-fridges or microwaves. (Or irons!). And they mean it – or risk a hefty fine.
Think cold food and a cooler.
Outside the park:
Jo’s Deli and Grocery Store is in Fort Klamath (6 miles outside the park).
If you’re staying in one of the surrounding towns – like Klamath Falls – you have many options at the beginning and end of your day.
Crater Lake Itineraries:
2-Days at Crater Lake
Two days in the park is a perfect amount of time unless you’re an avid hiker or want to camp for the sake of camping.
Start at the visitor center and note any special events, guided hikes, or tours you want to participate in. Plug these into your schedule first.
Will you use the trolley tour (in summer) or take a boat tour?
Are you staying at the Lodge? Do you plan to make dinner reservations.?
After plugging in your primary (scheduled) events, spend the morning on the East Rim Drive. Take short hikes and explore the viewpoints as time allows.
Once the sun starts to go down on the west side of the world, you’ll want to work your way around the West Rim Drive.
Many of the viewpoints have picnic facilities.
In summer, you can take a ranger-led sunset hike up Watchman Trail. Watchman is a moderate 1.7-mile hike.
If you’re sleeping in the park, spend the evening exploring the Lodge. The Great Hall, sunset on the patio, and a small history exhibit are open to anyone.
Pick up anything you missed.
Finish the Rim Drive, take a longer hike, or make your way down Cleetwood Cove trail to dip your toe in the water.
The second day is great for a boat tour if you didn’t take one yesterday.
After driving the Rim Trail, seeing the view from the lake will be even more meaningful.
What if I only have one day to spend at Crater Lake?
Focus on the lake.
Stop at the visitor center to get the latest information, so you don’t waste time chasing down a closed park feature.
If you can get reservations on a boat tour, you’ll see the most scenery in the time spent.
Fill in the time around the boat tour with a short hike or 2 – Pinnacles offers the most unique landscape with its moon-like pinnacle formations.
If the boat tour is not an option, take the Rim Drive and stop at our suggested viewpoints. See the list above.
Can you make a day trip to Crater Lake from Portland?
It’s a 4 1/2 hour drive (assuming no traffic out of Portland – which you should not assume). If you want to enjoy life, I would say no. Do not attempt this as a day trip.
Where can you take a day trip to Crater Lake from…?
An excellent choice for a day trip would be to come from Ashland, OR, or Klamath Falls, OR.
Medford and Grants Pass are within a 2-hour drive but not as charming as Ashland and Klamath Falls.
A bit further, Eugene, OR, Bend, OR, and Roseburg, OR are feasible options.