How to Get the Most Out of Crater Lake
Crater Lake National Park is the 5th oldest national park in the United States and is a must see for any adventurer. Compared to all the other parks we have visited, it took the least amount of planning. While planning is still a vital part of any trip, it didn't require reservations 6 months in advance unless you wanted to stay at the lodge.
1. Getting There
Crater Lake National Park is located in southern Oregon. The park was at the end of a 3-park trip including Yosemite and Redwoods so we drove from Los Angeles, which is not recommended unless you love road trips. The easiest way to get to Crater Lake National Park is to fly into a near by airport, renting a car and driving in. There are three airports located in driving distance including Klamath Falls Airport (60 miles away), Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport (80 miles away), and Portland International Airport (4 hours away).
There are three ways into Crater Lake National Park, the most convenient being from the west and south on Ore. 62, which runs through the southwest corner of the park. To get to the park's west entrance, drive northeast from Medford 75 miles on Ore. 62. To get to the park's south entrance from Klamath Falls, travel north on U.S. 97, then northwest on Ore. 62; the total distance is 60 miles. To get to the park's summer-only north entrance from Roseburg, take Ore. 138 east. If you are arriving in the winter, call ahead to park headquarters to road information (tel. 541/594/3000).
2. Determining Length of Stay
Crater Lake National Park is not a huge park and centers around the lake, which makes it easier to explore in a short trip. We believe that 3 days is ample time to explore the park in its entirety and feel that you aren't missing anything.
3. Climate and Weather
Crater Lake basically has two seasons and we have only visited in the summer, although winter looks beautiful from pictures! The main tourist season lasts from mid-June through September (we visited in August). The busiest months are July and August. Despite soaring temperatures in most of the state during the summer, the upper elevations remain cooler and the lake's rim can get up to 80°F (27°C) in summer.
In the winter, snowfall averaging 44 feet a year buries the park, making it virtually impassable to everyone save skiers and snowshoers. Roads along the lake rim are left unplowed and are open to non-car travelers exclusively. The winter season generally includes fall and spring, stretching from late October to mid-June or even early July.
4. Where to Stay
Lodging is very limited in and around Crater Lake National Park. Within the park itself are Crater Lake Lodge, The Cabins at Mazama Village, Mazama Campground and Lost Creek Campground.
Crater Lake Lodge is absolutely stunning and sits on the edge, overlooking the lake. The lodge, which was originally opened in 1915 spent years in disrepair before being remodeled in 1994. While rooms are small and pricey, they do offer significantly more amenities then a campground. The rooms go quickly and can be booked a year in advance by calling 866-292-6720 or visiting https://www.travelcraterlake.com/lodging-camping/crater-lake-lodge/.
The Cabins at Mazama Village are basic but clean with queen or full beds, bathroom with stall showers and electricity. They can be booked at the above website.
Both Mazama Campground and Lost Creek Campground are only open in the summer. Mazama Campground has 214 sites, which include a picnic table, fire ring, and bear-resistant food locker. In June, the sites operate on a first-come, first-served basis. In July, August, and September, 75% of sites can be reserved in advanced by calling 866-292-6720 or online at https://www.travelcraterlake.com/. Mazama Campground offers flushable toilets and a coin shower, both of which were dirtier when compared to Redwood National Park.
Lost Creek Campground opens in early July and closes in mid-October and offers 16 first-come, first served tent only sites. The site has no showers and portable toilets. In addition, there is no potable water so be sure to bring your own. We stayed one night in each campground.
The two closest lodging options outside the park are in Union Creek, which is 25 miles west of the park and Fort Klamath, which is 25 miles south.
5. Where to Eat
Like lodging options, dining is extremely limited. Crater Lake National Park has three places to dine and one grocery store open during the peak season, Rim Village Café & Gifts, Annie Creek Restaurant, Crater Lake Lodge Dining Room, and Mazama Village Camper Store. We enjoyed a pizza a Annie Creek Restaurant when we arrived at the park. We would highly recommend trying to get a rocking chair on the balcony of Crater Lake Lodge to enjoy a cocktail and appetizer while looking over the lake. If you plan to visit Crater Lake Lodge Dining Room between June and September, make a dining reservation.
Since we were camping, we packed a Jetboil and had several dehydrated food options. Although after camping for 12 days, we were ready for real food!
6. Time to Explore
Crater Lake offers a variety of sites to see for everyone on your trip!
A must do is exploring around the lake by enjoying the 33-mile scenic rim drive. If you only have one day to spend at the park, we highly recommend the Rim Drive, as it allows you to see the best parts of the lake. There are more than 30 lookouts around the lake, each of which give you different vantage points. The best sites and lookouts along the Rim Drive include:
Wizard Island - A floating ancient volcanic cinder cone in Crater Lake.
The Watchman - Find the Watchman Observation Station and Watchman Trail on the summit of Watchman Peak.
Phantom Ship Overlook - Enjoy the view of Phantom Shop from this lookout.
Lady of the Woods - The figure of a woman is carved from a large volcanic boulder in the park.
Alternatively, if you want to take a break from driving, you can hop on the Crater Lake Trolley. A ranger will take you on a guided tour of the lake that includes 5-7 stops. Tours start in front of the Community House near Crater Lake Lodge.
We are big hikers, so this was a must do during our time at Crater Lake. The Pinnacles is a can't miss stop for an easy in and back out 1-mile total trail. The 100 feet spires are called fossil fumaroles and formed under layers of volcanic ash after the volcano, which formed the lake erupted.
Mount Scott Trail is a very rewarding trail to the highest point in the park, which offers panoramic views. The summit of Mount Scott is supposedly the only place where you can fit all of Crater Lake in one camera view! The trail rises gradually and switchbacks through open pumice fields and forests that treat the hiker to spectacular scenic views. From the summit one can take in views of the caldera in its entirety while also seeing Mt. Thielsen and Three Sisters. To the east you will enjoy views of the Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge and Tamsey Peak and off into far eastern Oregon. In late July to early August, alpine wildflower viewing is at its peak. The distance is 5-miles out and back with a 1,250 elevation gain.
Cleetwood Cove Trail is the only trail that leads down to the lake, where you can take a 5-hour lake and Wizard Island Boat tour. The trail is a very steep 1.1 mile hike so it is important to assess the physical abilities of everyone in your group. We highly recommend the boat tour, as it is the only way to see the geological features within the lake include The Devil's Spine as well as being able to explore Wizard Island and get up close and personal with Phantom Ship. While it is cold waters, we also recommend a swim, because how many people can say they have taken a dip in the clearest lake in the world! Be sure to get reservations in advanced, either by calling 888-774-2728 or getting tickets at the Mazama Village Cabin/Campground Registration Desk, Crater Lake Lodge Front Dest and at the Cleetwood Cover Kiosk. Tickets sales start at 8:00 am and yes there can be a line so plan accordingly. We decided to do the boat tour on a whim and were able to get tickets for the following day. However, we made sure to be in line at 7:30 am.