Crater Lake Unpacked: Your Guide to Everything to Do at Crater Lake
Klamath County’s Crater Lake National Park—without even a hint of hyperbole—is truly one of the most breathtaking natural wonders in the world. For first-time visitors, the very first encounter with its unreplicable blue waters and unfolding expansiveness as you crest toward the rim is like something from a fairytale. For returning visitors, this feeling of awe and wonder never ceases to exist. In short, a visit here is unforgettable. But when it comes to actually making the most of your visit, it helps to have a little guidance.
Here, we’re unveiling how to have a totally immersive experience in Crater Lake National Park. From iconic must-do’s (like driving the Rim) to underrated gems, consider this your all-encompassing guide to the park. Whether you’re visiting for a weekend or just a day, these are the things you shouldn’t miss when exploring Crater Lake National Park.
Cruise the 33-Mile Rim Drive
First up: No trip to Crater Lake is complete without driving around the rim of Mount Mazama’s famous caldera lake. Clocking in at 33-miles, with 30 scenic pull-off points, the Rim Drive is hands down the most iconic and easy-to-tackle experience in Crater Lake National Park. The best time to drive around the rim to avoid any lingering snowy conditions is in the summer months from June to August. To avoid crowds, though, the shoulder season cusps of May or September are worth a gamble.
In terms of must-see spots along the route, there are dozens!
At Mile 6.6, traveling clockwise from the Steel Visitor Center at Mile 0, Watchman Overlook is one of the most popular spots to stop along Rim Drive with deliriously gorgeous views of the lake, especially at sunset.
Mile 8.7 is where the North Entrance Road meets Rim Drive. It’s also where the famed Pacific Crest Trail makes its way past Crater Lake. And best of all, the view here, from Miriam Point Overlook, is exceptional, boasting panoramas of Mount McLoughlin and Mount Scott, Llao Rock, and Wizard Island.
At Mile 14.6, Palisade Point is the lowest point on the rim of Crater Lake at 507-feet in elevation above lake levels. But the views are lofty as ever. The low-walled overlook offers sprawling views of Crater Lake, Llao Rock, Hillman Peak, and Garfield Peak.
Mile 19.6 marks the Mount Scott Trailhead, one of the best hikes in the park (more on that shortly!).
Mile 23.5 features great views of Phantom Ship, a small rocky island that, on foggy days, looks like a mast-spined ship.
At Mile 31.4, the Castle Crest Wildflower Garden Walk offers a half-mile splash of color during the months of July and August.
Of course, these are only a small sampling of what’s on offer along Crater Lake’s Rim Drive. The real joy is cruising at your own pace, stopping where you feel like stopping, and taking it all in on your own schedule.
Crater Lake Boat Tour
Don’t be turned off by the inherently touristy nature of a boat tour. Because in Crater Lake, this experience far and away meets and exceeds the hype. During the summer months, there are eight daily boat tours that circumnavigate the caldera for 2 hours at a time. A park ranger is aboard each cruise to provide interesting facts and history lessons about the lake. And the up-close-and-personal views of key landmarks like Wizard Island, Phantom Ship, and the Old Man—a 30-foot mountain hemlock log that has floated upright in the lake for over 100 years—are second to none. Keep in mind: accessing one of these boat tours requires a 2.2-mile round trip hike from the rim to the water’s edge 700-feet below using the Cleetwood Cove Trail, the only legal trail to access the water.
Go Swimming in Crater Lake
If you’ve already hiked down the steep Cleetwood Cove Trail to the edge of the water for your boat tour, you might as well dip a toe (or torso) in the icy blue waters of Crater Lake while you’re there, right? In fact, from the shoreline at the base of this trail is the only place in the park where visitors can legally and safely swim. The water will be bitingly cold, but oh so worth it.
Think Crater Lake itself is the only water feature in Crater Lake National Park? Think again. The park is positively star-studded with beautiful waterfalls of a variety of shapes and sizes. Some of these falls can be found without having to work hard at all. Vidae Falls is a roadside, spring-fed waterfall that spills down over 100 feet of forested ridge and is viewable from the Crater Rim road. On the south flank of Crater Lake, Annie Falls is a 53-foot cascade that can be seen from 200 feet above from the Annie Falls picnic area. And Duwee Falls is the largest officially-named waterfall in Crater Lake National Park at a reported height of some 100ft or more. For a slightly longer waterfall walk, the 2-mile out-and-back Plaikni Falls Trail to the eponymous Plaikni Falls is well worth the 45-minute stroll. Upon arrival, the waterfall spills over a glacier-carved cliff surrounded by walls of petrified volcanic ash.
Hike One of the Top Trails in Crater Lake
There are plenty of world-class hiking trails in Crater Lake National Park. Here are three of our favorites:
Mount Scott Trail
Offering one of the best views in the entire park, this 5-mile out-and-back to the highest point in the park is a must. With well-maintained trails and a relatively gentle elevation gain of 1,250-feet, the hike itself is both manageable and unforgettable. The 360-panorama from the 8,929-foot summit is out of this world.
Wizard Island Summit Trail
There aren’t many places in the universe where you can hike up a volcano inside a volcano. But that’s exactly what you get with the Wizard Island Summit Trail. To get there requires a boat shuttle, of which there are two each day that make a three-hour stop on Wizard Island. Once you arrive on the island, the hike itself is a moderately heart-pumping 2.3-mile out-and-back that spirals up the cinder cone summit of Wizard Island. “One-of-a-kind” doesn’t do it justice.
Garfield Peak Trail
It’s no surprise that the Garfield Peak Trail was named one of Klamath County’s top 7 hikes with amazing views. Because the panorama from atop this lofty rim peak is nothing short of mesmerizing. Starting from behind the Crater Lake Lodge (a great place to unwind with a snack or beverage after your hike!), the trail steeply climbs about 900-feet in 1.7-miles, making it a leg-burner yet photograph-earner. Less than 4-miles round-trip, this hike is the definition of short but oh so sweet.
Spend a Night Under the Stars
Once the day’s adventures are done, there’s nothing better than laying your head to rest in a grove of vanilla-scented ponderosas or towering whitebark pines. Crater Lake National Park is home to two campgrounds which offer excellent access to starry night skies and memories you won’t soon forget. Situated in an old-growth forest at 6,000-feet, Mazama Campground offers 214 pristine campsites. Meanwhile Lost Creek Campground is a quieter, far less trafficked escape with 16 primitive tent sites. In addition to the developed campgrounds, there’s also a huge network of dispersed backcountry camping sites throughout the park.
Whatever you choose to do and explore in Crater Lake National Park, you’ll one-hundred percent be rewarded. Once you’re done, be sure to swing through Klamath Falls for a warm shower, hot meal, and cold beverages!
Written by Ethan Shaw for Matcha in partnership with Discover Klamath Visitor and Convention Bureau.