Established May 22, 1902 by Teddy Roosevelt himself, Crater Lake National Park’s most famous feature (but certainly not the only feature of the park) is Crater Lake itself. At 1,943 feet, it’s the deepest lake in the United States and one of the 10 deepest on earth. Through a combination of its low temperature, isolation from other sources of water, and being encased in igneous rock, Crater Lake’s clarity is astounding and can only be fully appreciated from its banks. It’s time to start planning your Crater Lake National Park trip.
Written by park rangers
Best time of year to visit
If you could pick the single best month to visit Crater National Park, after Labor Day is your best bet. The crowds seemingly vanish overnight and the daytime weather is typically still remarkable. But the best time of year to visit Crater Lake depends on what you want to do at the park.
About 70 percent of visitors to the park come between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The summer months at Crater Lake are almost always 70 to 80 degrees and sunny, and make for excellent viewing of the lake. If you plan on visiting Crater Lake in the busy summer months, arriving before 9 a.m. will drastically reduce the number of people you’ll see around the park. While summer storms can happen (bringing both rain and snow), the most common obstruction to seeing Crater Lake in the summer is if the smoke from nearby wildfires obscures the view. At its worst, the smoke can sometimes reduce visibility to mere yards and make seeing the lake nearly impossible.
Storms are much more frequent during the off-season, as the annual average snowfall in the park is more than 40 feet (yes, feet—not inches). Since the elevation of the rim is 6000 to 8000 feet, snow clouds that come through the park can completely hide the lake from view, sometimes for days at a time. However, winter weather offers visitors the chance to snowshoe or cross-country ski around the caldera. Once the rim road closes for the season, winter is also the only time you’re able to camp around the rim. You can find information on winter backcountry camping on NPS.gov.
How many days for Crater Lake
While much of Crater Lake can be enjoyed in a single day there are some unique experiences that may take more than one day to fully appreciate. The first involves being lucky enough to see Crater Lake in the early morning hours after an exceptionally calm night, when the water perfectly mirrors its surroundings. Another is getting to see the night sky in an area devoid of most light pollution. Unless you’re staying in the park, it would be very difficult to experience both of those in a single day.
Here’s how to do Crater Lake National Park in one day:
- Enter from the south entrance around 8 a.m. and start off by hiking the Godfrey Glen Trail to see the pinnacle formations.
- At 9 a.m., the Steel Visitor Center will open so you can stop in to see the park film and get an overview of the area’s history
- Before it gets too busy, take the opportunity to stop along Rim Drive to see the Sinnott Overlook. Then head to the viewpoints and trails on the west side of the lake.
- If you have the stamina for it, venture down Cleetwood to experience just how clear the water is.
- Finish your drive around the east rim, where you can stop at Kerr Notch and Sun Notch for views of Phantom Ship.
- End your day by stopping at Beckie’s for a well-deserved slice of pie.
If you’re looking for where to fly into to visit Crater Lake, you’ve got options. The closest major airport to Crater Lake National Park is Portland (PDX) , though it’s a five hour drive away.
If you don’t mind a layover, Medford (MFR) is the closest airport to the park, about 65 miles away. Medford is near Ashland, home to the Oregon Shakespeare festival. Another option is flying into Redmond (RDM), on the north side of the park. As a bonus, you’ll pass through Bend, famous for its craft breweries, on the way to Crater Lake.
For those planning a longer road trip, a popular option is flying into San Francisco (SFO) and out of Seattle (SEA) or vice versa. Those who opt for this route have the option of passing through numerous national parks along the way.
There’s also the option of connecting to Crater Lake from Amtrak, or taking the Crater Lake Trolley. You can find information about those on the Crater Lake Trolley website.
Crater Lake National Park visitor centers
Crater Lake operates two visitor centers, both located on the south side of the lake. The Steel Visitor Center is in the Park Headquarters area and features a film to introduce you to the park. In the summer months (between May and October), the Steel Visitor Center is open between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. The rest of the year, it’s open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.. Parking in the headquarters area is limited for oversized vehicles.
The Rim Visitor Center is open from May through September from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Both visitor centers are staffed by National Park Service personnel to assist visitors with any questions they may have about the park. Park bookstores operate out of both visitor centers.
Unlike other national parks, many of Crater Lake’s interpretive displays are not located in its visitor centers. For these, visit the Sinnott Memorial Overlook, located directly below the Rim Visitor Center. Built in the 1930s, this overlook was carved directly into the caldera wall. Hours for this overlook change frequently and its opening date is highly dependent on the amount of snow the park receives. Note that in order to reach the Sinnott overlook, you must descend a steep stone staircase.
Places to stay near Crater Lake National Park
Spending the night in the park, while possible, is limited to a few locations.
The only full service hotel in the park is the historic Crater Lake Lodge which opened its doors in 1915. Since then, it’s undergone many renovations and a complete rebuild starting in 1991. The initial characteristics were well preserved and the historic grandeur of the lodge’s Great Hall is worth a visit, even if you’re not staying the night. If you’d like to stay at the lodge, make your plans early as it fills up fast. The rooms are very basic and priced at a premium—though being in a national park, you’re likely not spending much time in the room. The Mazama Cabins located near the park’s south entrance offers the only other non-camping option in the park. You can find booking information on travelcraterlake.com.
There are two campgrounds within Crater Lake National Park: Mazama Village and Lost Creek. Mazama is larger and run in partnership with the park. It has a camp store, showers, and hookups available for RVs. Reservations can be made online. Lost Creek is a small, 16-site campground on the remote east side of the park on Pinnacles Road. It’s entirely first come, first serve, and there are no services available.
Things to do at Crater Lake National Park
Despite being established in 1902, Crater Lake was designed to be visited by car. Rim Drive, which circles the lake, is 33 miles long and holds the distinction of being the highest paved road in Oregon. There are many pull offs to stop at, offering easily accessible views of the lake.
While the views from the rim road are must-sees, you have different options depending on what vehicle you’re in.
If you’d like to drive yourself, the full 33-mile loop is usually open late-June to mid-October, with the open and close dates being dependent on snowfall. If you choose this option, some of the popular stopping points include Rim Village (which houses the Crater Lake Lodge, the Sinnott Memorial Overlook, and the Rim Visitor Center), Discovery Point, Watchman Overlook (the closest viewpoint to Wizard Island), North Junction, Cleetwood Cove (which offers the only lake access via a 2.2-mile, highly strenuous hike), Mt. Scott (the highest point on the rim), Kerr Notch (which offers great views of the Phantom Ship formation), and Sun Notch (which offers an ADA-accessible trail to an overlook of the lake and Phantom Ship).
If you’re skittish about heights, drive the road in the clockwise direction as you’ll be on the inside lane the entire time.
Many visitors bike their way around the rim. If you visit early in the season, it’s possible to access the road while it’s being plowed out,prior to cars having access to it. If you’d like to bike with kids or simply don’t want to worry about cars, the park offers two annual car-free days on the 24-mile east rim drive. Learn more on NPS.gov.
If you wish to leave the driving to someone else, take a trolley tour. The Crater Lake Trolley will take you around the rim with a park ranger on board to tell you about the park. Information and prices are available on craterlaketrolley.net.
In the winter months, the only road in the park that remains open is the road connecting Hwy 62 to Rim Village. During storms, even this stretch may be forced to close, but visitors can still snowshoe, ski, and camp around the rim.
Crater Lake National Park Hikes
Crater Lake offers its visitors a wide variety of views—some that are easy to get to and others that are more remote.
Any list of the hikes at Crater Lake National Park would be incomplete without mentioning the Cleetwood Cove Trail. Located on the northern edge of Crater Lake, off East Rim Road, this 2.2-mile trail is the only method of accessing the water in the park. You have to go down first, so you might not appreciate the 700-foot vertical descent deceptively masked in a number of switchbacks until you have to turn around to go back up. Taking this trail is a requirement if you’re taking part in the boat tours or shuttles to Wizard Island. As the most popular trail in the park, parking is extremely limited, so make sure you arrive early. If you’re so inclined, bring a fishing pole as you’re welcome to fish in Crater Lake (but not in any of the park’s protected streams), since all fish in the lake itself are invasive.
Another popular trail in the park is the hike to Watchman Overlook. Both Watchman and Mount Scott serve as fire lookout posts, and for good reason. The views are some of the most unimpaired in the park, with a great vantage point to view Wizard Island or look off into the Umpqua National Forest to your east.
Another popular trail taking you to the park’s highest peak is the Mount Scott Trail. With an elevation of almost 9,000 feet, this trail gives you a wide view of the park and surrounding area.
If you’re looking for things to do aside from viewing the lake, the Plaikni Falls Trail will take you to a waterfall on the relatively quieter east side of the park. The initial segment of this trail is ADA compliant, though due to the terrain, the area leading up to the actual falls is not.
Godfrey Glen Trail, which is roughly halfway between the south entrance and the Steel Visitor Center, is the best options if you’re bringing your pet along to Crater Lake. It’s an easy, relatively flat trail, and since it’s at a lower elevation, it tends to melt out a bit sooner. The trail offers great views of the park’s pinnacle formations. You can find more info on bringing pets at nps.gov.
Places to eat
If you’re looking for restaurants near Crater Lake National Park, your options are going to be pretty limited. Within the park, there are only a few places that serve food.
The Crater Lake Lodge in Rim Village offers upscale full service dining with spectacular lake views. If you don’t want to have a full dinner, you can order soup and other light offerings in the great hall or take drinks out on the patio.
The Rim Village Cafe, also located in Rim Village, serves sandwiches to go.
The Annie Creek Restaurant, near the south entrance off highway 62, is another sit down dining option for burgers and pizza.
The Campground Store, located at the Mazama campground, sells your typical convenience store supplies, including snacks and beverages. It’s a great place to grab an ice cream on your way out of the park.
But perhaps the best place to eat during your visit to Crater Lake is Beckie’s. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot is located about a mile south of the junction of highways 230 and 62 in the Union Creek Campground and Resort. Don’t rely on your cell phone to get you there as it’s out of range, surrounded by the Umpqua National Forest. Beckie’s is a quintessential place to visit after a long day at the park, and it’s home to some of the best burgers you’ll find anywhere. More importantly, however, is their selection of pies made fresh daily. Try the very berry and pecan—they are available year round. An added reason to visit Crater Lake in September is to be there for huckleberry season, which you can also try in pie form at Beckie’s.
Other places to eat include Prospect Historic Inn (45 minutes from visitor center toward Medford), South Shore Pizza (10 minutes past the north entrance in Diamond Lake Resort), and multiple restaurants in Klamath Falls. An hour from the park’s south entrance, this is the closest area with a multitude of restaurants to choose from. Recommended options are Thai Orchid, the Klamath Basin Brewing Company, and Los Potrillos.
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