The AFT Guide to Crater Lake National Park

The deepest lake in the U.S. and one of our country’s first national parks, Crater Lake is a drive-through (or drive-around in this case) park for most of its visitors. But if you can take your time to explore beyond Rim Drive, you’ll have a chance to more fully drink in the constantly changing blues of the lake and the geological history that surrounds it.

Crater Lake was formed when Mt. Mazama erupted around 8000 years ago. The mountain collapsed in on itself and, over hundreds of years, the crater filled with snowmelt and precipitation, forming the lake.

Crater Lake’s brilliant color is down to its clarity. Without impurities to reflect light, the water appears completely, strikingly blue.

Read notes from our first visit to Crater Lake here.

Where Crater Lake National Park is located:

Crater Lake lies in the Cascade Mountains of southern Oregon, 1.5 hours northeast of Medford and 1 hour 40 minutes south of Bend.

The park comprises land traditionally inhabited by the Klamath people.

Getting to Crater Lake National Park:

The nearest airport is Medford, OR, about 70 miles from the park. Amtrak runs daily to Klamath Falls and between July and September you can take a shuttle from the Amtrak station to Rim Village.

As with most national parks, your own vehicle is the best way to get there and around. There are no restrictions on vehicle size along the Rim Road, but the eastern half is quite windy and narrow and might be difficult to navigate in large RV’s and trailers.

biking at crater lake

Where to stay in Crater Lake National Park:

There are two options for lodging inside the park: Crater Lake Lodge and the Cabins at Mazama Village. Both are open seasonally, from about mid-May to October (dates vary by year.)

Make reservations for either up to a year in advance.

Camping in Crater Lake National Park:

Crater Lake has two developed campgrounds, Mazama and Lost Creek, both open in the summer. Sites are first-come, first-served in June. You can make reservations July through September.

Mazama can accommodate RV’s. Lost Creek is for tent camping only.

You can also camp in the backcountry of Crater Lake. Obtain a permit first, in person from the ranger station within a day of your trip. During summer, you can’t camp with a view of the lake. Check out designated backcountry sites and find more information here.

night sky at crater lake
Parking lot camping outside Crater Lake NP.

How Long to Stay in Crater Lake National Park:

Crater Lake is a small park, and you can have a rich visit with a full day. But if you can spend a few days, you’ll be rewarded with more views of the lake’s ever-changing color and a chance to take advantage of more trails.

When to Go to Crater Lake National Park:

Crater Lake’s high elevation means that winters are long. The Rim Road is often snowbound at least partially until July and typically closes by November.

There are plenty of winter activities for all those snowy months, but if you want to be able to make a complete loop of the lake, time your visit for summer. Lodges and campgrounds are also only open seasonally. July and August can bring smoke from wildfires, sometimes so thick that the lake is not visible. High summer also brings relentless mosquitoes.

Although road closures will mean a different sort of visit, the lake is beautiful with a snowy contrast. Read about our early June visit here.

family biking at crater lake

Best For:

  • Scenery
  • Scenic Drives
  • Biking
  • Winter Sports
  • Swimming
  • Geological History

Pair With:

While Crater Lake is Oregon’s only national park, there are several other NPS sites and state parks in the area. Check out Oregon Caves National Monument, the Rogue Wild and Scenic River or Newberry National Volcanic Monument.

Toketee Falls, 30 minutes from the national park

Activities:

Rim Drive:

Rim Drive circles Crater Lake and offers 30 overlooks and a number of short trails along the way. Scenic highlights include Discovery Point, Skell Head Observation Point, Cloudcap Overlook and Phantom Ship Overlook.

The road is narrow and winding, with a speed limit of 35, no shoulders and substantial traffic during the summer. There are no specific vehicle restrictions, but if you choose to drive a long RV or tow a trailer here, make sure you know what you’re in for.

You can also take a ranger-narrated Trolley Tour along the Rim Road, which takes 2 hours and makes 5 to 7 stops to check out the view. Make reservations in advance here. Trolleys operate from July to September, departing hourly between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. from the visitor center.

biking at crater lake

Hiking:

There are 90 miles of trail in Crater Lake, plus loads more hiking in the wilderness areas surrounding the park. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Watchman Trail:

A trail of just under a mile leads up to an observation station with sweeping views of the lake and a direct look down onto Wizard Island.

Cleetwood Cove Trail:

This is the only place to legally access the lakeshore. Descend for a steep 1.1 miles to the shore; be prepared for slippery conditions and bring lots of water—there’s little shade and the high elevation can dehydrate you. There are no bathrooms along the trail or at the lake, so go at the trailhead before you set off! The trail is typically open from late June through October.

Mount Scott Trail:

Reach the highest point in the park via a steep 5-mile roundtrip trail and enjoy stunning views of the caldera from the top.

Castle Crest Wildflower Trail:

A half-mile interpretive trail guides you around a meadow below Castle Crest Ridge, with spots to stop and learn about Crater Lake’s flora.

Plaikni Falls:

A stroller- and wheelchair-friendly mile-long trail leads to a pretty waterfall surrounded by wildflowers.

Rogue Gorge:

Not strictly inside the park, but only about 10 minutes away, this family-friendly 2 miler will take you to a 250 foot lava tube where you can watch the Rogue River disappear underground.

Boat Tour:

Crater Lake Hospitality offers two types of boat tours, one with a stop on Wizard Island and one without, plus two daily shuttles to Wizard Island.

The boat tour is the only way to experience the lake from the water. The main cruise is a 2-hour, ranger-narrated tour of the lake’s perimeter. All boats leave from Cleetwood Cove, which is accessed via a steep 1-mile hike. Children must be at least 3.

Book tickets in advance here. Half of the tickets are reserved for same-day sales; visit the Mazama Village Campground Registration Desk, the front desk at the Lodge, or the Cleetwood Cove Kiosk at least 2 hours before the tour’s departure to get them.

family at crater lake

Swimming:

Cleetwood Cove is the only place it’s safe and legal to access the lakeshore. Visitors can wade or swim—be prepared for very cold temperatures! Swimmers must stay within 100 yards of shore.

Bring warm, dry clothes to change into after swimming. Leave behind any flotation devices or special gear, including watercraft, tubes, life jackets, snorkel gear, wetsuits, goggles, etc. Crater Lake is one of the clearest bodies of water in the world; keep it clean and uncontaminated!

Exploring Wizard Island:

Wizard Island is evidence of Mount Mazama’s desire to reassert itself—2500 years after erupting, the island was pushed up into the center of the lake by volcanic activity.

Now the island offers a chance to explore Crater Lake from a different vantage. You can take a half-day tour that includes both a cruise around the lake and a 3-hour stop on the island, or go straight to the island on one of the twice-daily shuttles.

Once on the island, you can tromp to the summit on a moderate 2.2-mile roundtrip trail. You can also swim and fish from the shore.

Biking:

Rim Drive is open to cyclists and makes for a challenging and beautiful 33-mile ride. Go clockwise to knock off the steepest elevation gains at the beginning. During busy times, you’ll be competing with traffic and the road does not have a shoulder.

Twice a year the park hosts a “Ride the Rim” event, typically on consecutive Saturdays in September. The eastern portion of Rim Drive, between North Junction and Steel Visitor Center, closes to vehicles and hundreds of bikers fill the scenic drive. Find more info. on the event here.

Mountain biking is only allowed along the unpaved and vehicle-free Grayback Drive.

family biking at crater lake

Winter Activities:

From November through May, Crater Lake is typically covered in snow and makes a beautiful backdrop for winter sports.

Ranger-guided snowshoe walks run on weekends and holidays from December through April. The gear is free; participants must be at least 8 years old. The walks are popular and fill up; you must book in advance by calling the park’s visitor center at 541-594-3100.

The park is also open to cross-country skiers and snowshoers. Popular trails are listed in the park’s newspaper by the season; check here for an up-to-date edition. None of the ski trails are groomed.

If you’re feeling particularly intrepid, grab a backcountry permit and set out for a multi-day ski or snowshoe trip around the entire lake. March and April are the most popular months for the trip and it takes an average of 3 days. Find more info here.

There are no gear rentals within the park, but outfitters outside the park rent showshoes and cross-country ski gear.

kids at crater lake

Wildlife:

While the park is home to black bears, mountain lions, bobcats and deer, they are rarely spotted along Rim Drive. But you can probably spot smaller mammals, such as pikas and marmots, and lots of birds as you explore.

snowy crater lake

Beyond the Lake:

While most of the park’s activity centers around the lake itself, both the Pumice Desert and the Pinnacles area are well worth a visit.

Pinnacle Valley:

The Pinnacles, in the southeast section of the park, are 100-foot spires formed by ancient volcanic vents filled with pumice. The softer rock surrounding the vents has now eroded away, leaving these spiky formations behind.

You can view the Pinnacles from an overlook, or take an easy, accessible 0.8-mile walk along the rim of Pinnacle Valley from the end of Pinnacles Road.

Pumice Desert:

North of the lake, there’s a 3000-acre area covered in pumice spewed during Mt. Mazama’s eruption. The area is now a designated Research Natural Area where scientists study plant succession in harsh environments.

There are very few plants that grow here and it takes them a long time to establish, so it’s important to stay off the dry meadows of this area. But you can view the unique landscape from the road.

If you’re entering the park from the north, you’ll go through Pumice Desert before reaching the lake. If entering from the south, you can branch off from Rim Drive to visit this section of the park. The north entrance and Pumice Desert are inaccessible during the winter.

Bringing Kids:

Crater Lake is very family-friendly. A few guided activities have age restrictions, including boat tours, shuttles to Wizard Island and ranger-guided snowshoe walks.

Be aware that Crater Lake is at a high elevation, which means you’ll need to bulk up your sun protection and drink lots of water. You might feel more tired when hiking; be sure to take plenty of breaks.

kids at crater lake

FAQ’s:

The following are questions we received from our readers about visiting Crater Lake National Park.

Where else should you stop if road tripping from a major airport or city with a baby?

The two closest major airports are in Medford and Bend. Here’s a blog post with tips for exploring Bend with a baby and here’s one about doing Medford with kids.

What are the best places to stay besides the lodge?

There are lots of options for lodging in Klamath Falls, about 60 miles from Rim Village, including chain hotels and lots of budget options.

What are the best camping locations?

Mazama is the main campground in Crater Lake, with 200 sites, most of which can be reserved. Lost Creek is smaller and quieter, with 16 tent sites.

There are also lots of places to camp in the nearby Umpqua National Forest. Check out campgrounds and reservation info here.

Is there a walking/biking track around the lake?

There is not, and the road does not have a shoulder to ride on. But the Cleetwood Cove trail runs down to the lakefront and plenty of trails will get you high above the lake for a view down. Bikes are welcome on Rim Drive, but you’ll be sharing the road with cars unless you come when the road is plowed but still closed to traffic.

Are you allowed to fish in Crater Lake?

Yes! You can fish from Cleetwood Cove and Wizard Island, as well as any of the park creeks except for Sun Creek and Lost Creek. You don’t need a license, but there are restrictions on bait and fishing near boat docks. Find more info here. The lake supports rainbow trout and kokanee salmon.

Is it accessible during winter?

Rim Village is open year-round, so you can view the lake any time. But you’ll only be able to drive around it from about July through October. Check out the above section on winter activities for more about visiting in the off-season!

Tips From Our Readers:

“It is beautiful year round! Go as soon as it’s safe!”

“Be prepared to hike back up from the lake if you hiked down.”

“Be aware you might get there and have it be totally blanketed by clouds.”

“Stay at the lodge in the park and bring bug spray.”

“Sunrise at the lake is amazing.”

“The Cleetwood Cove hike to be able to swim is 10000000% worth it!”

“Bring serious bug spray.”

“Go in the summer.”

“A MUST is to hike down to the bottom and jump in!”

“Don’t go in late summer/wildfire season. We could barely see the lake because of smoke.”

“Check the air reports before you go. It can be filled with smoke/fog during a lot of the summer months.”

“Bring a sled in July! This was our top memory. We weren’t expecting snow and used the lid to a plastic bin we were storing camping gear in.”

“The mosquitoes are unreal. Bring more repellant!”

“Definitely don’t miss the trail down to the water. It’s steep but worth it!”

“Take the tour to Wizard Island. Jump in the lake if you can.”

“Check weather, visibility and road closures before you go.”

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