Crater Lake’s vibrant sapphire blue water, snow-capped jagged peaks, and puzzling mysteries are just a few of the things that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to explore this beautiful National Park in Oregon each year.
This complete guide to Crater Lake National Park will cover the top hikes, where to stay, when to visit, how to get around, the best things to do in the park, and of course, some fun facts sprinkled in!
Complete Guide to Crater Lake National Park
Quick Facts About Crater Lake
- Location: Oregon, USA
- Established: 1902
- Size: 183,224 acres
- Annual Visitors: 527,259 (2022)
- Fee: $30/vehicle in the summer, $20/vehicle in the winter, or FREE with an annual pass
- Visitor Centers: Rim, Steel
Fun Facts About Crater Lake
The lake has no direct inlet or outlet, yet it is a body of fresh water.
Crater Lake experiences about 53 feet of snow every year. In the winter of 1922-1923, the area saw a staggering 73 feet of snow.
Crater Lake has only frozen once and that was in 1949. It rarely freezes because of its high volume of water.
Mount Mazama, the peak that collapsed 7,700 years ago and formed Crater Lake, once stood 12,000 feet tall. Following its collapse and about 460 years of precipitation, Crater Lake became the deepest lake in the United States and the ninth deepest lake in the world, measuring a staggering depth of 1,943 feet.
Pine pollen is commonly found floating on the surface of the lake during the months of June and July. The yellow puffs are harmless and will eventually sink to the bottom.
The surface temperature of Crater Lake only warms up to about 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit. The average temperature 300 feet below the surface is 38 degrees Fahrenheit.
After the caldera formed, eruptions from new vents built the base of Wizard Island. The island continued to grow and three other volcanoes formed underwater as the caldera filled with precipitation. The final eruption, which occurred on the east side of Wizard Island, was about 4,800 years ago.
Crater Lake contains about 4.9 trillion gallons of water. About 34 billion gallons are gained and lost each year. Evaporation and seepage keep the lake from filling beyond its average depth of 1,943 feet.
One of the mysteries of the lake is the Old Man. The Old Man is a 30-foot mountain hemlock log, three feet of which is visible above the surface. The Old Man floats around the lake, and all kinds of theories and lore surround this ancient log. Click here to learn those theories and lore.
Do you ever wonder why Crater Lake’s water is so blue? NPS describes it in this way: “The water is so blue because there is hardly anything else in it – just water. We’ve all seen the colors in a rainbow when normal white light passes through a raindrop and breaks into the individual colors of the spectrum. All those colors are in sunlight. Water molecules, just plain water with no sediments, algae, pesticides or pollution, will absorb all the colors of the spectrum except the blues. Those wavelengths will bounce back and make the water appear blue. The key is to have relatively pure water and lots of it. There has to be enough molecules to absorb all the other colors. (There are 4.6 trillion gallons of water in the lake, so it works really well.)”
Top Hikes in Crater Lake
- Distance: 3.6 miles
- Type of Trail: Out & back
- Elevation Gain: 1,010 feet
- Difficulty: Strenuous
Along this iconic trail located behind the Crater Lake lodge, you will wind up and around steep, narrow switchbacks to the top of the nearly 8,000-foot crest, Garfield Peak.
The 1,010 feet of elevation won’t seem as strenuous as it appears on paper because your mind will stray from that brutal workout and instead focus on the broad views of the lake, valley, and peaks that materialize around every corner.
At the top of the peak – the end of the trail – you will be rewarded from all of that elevation gain with a panoramic perspective of the entire sapphire lake and the surrounding landscapes.
To understand the elevation at which you’ll be standing when you’re at the top, take a look at Phantom Ship Island, located on the right side of the above image. The island is 100,000 square feet though it may appear to be no larger than a postage stamp from your vantage point. You’ll feel like you’re on top of the world!
- Distance: 2.2 miles
- Type of Trail: Out & back
- Elevation Gain: 700 feet
- Difficulty: Strenuous
The Cleetwood Cove trail is the gateway to the only legal, unguided swimming spot in Crater Lake.
The descent is steep; it drops 700 feet in just one mile through a series of sharp switchbacks so don’t attempt the descent if you’re not prepared to make the journey back to the top.
The NPS compares the ascent from the lake to the trailhead to 65 flights of stairs. Toss in air temperature, potential wildfire smoke clouding your vision and clogging your throat, and trail dust swirling around the air, and the challenge suddenly heightens astronomically.
According to the NPS, the majority of search and rescue operations in Crater Lake National Park stem from visitors being unable to ascend the trail once they’re done swimming at the lake. Also, the trail is comprised of crushed pumice, which is similar to fine sand, so the trail surface can become very slick when wet with rain or snow.
This shouldn’t discourage you from making the descent if you’re healthy and in decent physical shape; it’s just a warning to those who are on the fence about the decision.
So enough about the dangers of it. You understand that now. The trail itself – mostly the descent – is super enjoyable. As you make your way to the bottom, the lake will slowly come into view. You’ll know exactly how much further you have left to go based on how close you are to the lake.
Once you’re at the bottom, you’ll glimpse the dock where the Wizard Island boat tours and shuttles take off. Continue to the left past the boat dock and navigate the rock scrambles until you find a spot where you’d like to swim, sunbathe, take photos, or simply enjoy a nice view of an active volcano.
Keep going past the crowds; the “beach area” is seemingly endless!
And even though the water is quite cold, I’d strongly recommend at least dipping your toes in to say you were in an active volcano! If you’re feeling extra brave, consider plunging beneath the surface; the feeling will be exhilarating!
- Distance: 2.0 miles
- Type of Trail: Out & back
- Elevation Gain: 100 feet
- Difficulty: Easy
Veer from the crowded Rim Drive into a quieter section at the southeastern end of the park, Pinnacles. Up until the trail construction in 2011, very few knew that this waterfall existed. And to this day, it continues to be a fairly well-kept secret.
This mildly elevated, easy trail off Pinnacles Road winds through an old-growth forest, leading hikers to a snowmelt-fed, 20-foot waterfall.
There is a small section with flat rocks at the end of the trail, ideal for setting your pack down, soaking in the spray, munching on a snack, and relishing the wildflower-framed falls.
- Distance: 0.8 miles
- Type of Trail: Out & back
- Elevation Gain: 10 feet
- Difficulty: Easy
At the southeast boundary of the park and the end of Pinnacles Road is a very mild but breathtaking trail, Pinnacles.
Crater Lake National Park, though known for its stunning sapphire caldera, also contains volcanic spires. These sand-colored pumice spires, known as pinnacles, rise up and fill a deep canyon carved by Wheeler Creek.
The trail meanders around the rim, granting you impressive views of the unique spires and deep forested canyon. Some compare these tall, sharp spires to Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos. Though there are much fewer of them in Crater Lake, and they aren’t that brilliant shade of orange, Pinnacles is still worth the stop!
- Distance: 1.6 miles
- Type of Trail: Out & back
- Elevation Gain: 420 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
This trail right off the Rim Drive is quite popular in the late summer and early fall months. Since it is one of the shortest and easiest trails to a summit and a fire lookout on the lake, you won’t be alone.
The path snakes up to a summit with a two-story fire lookout and spectacular 360-views views of the lake, Wizard Island, and surrounding peaks and valleys.
Where to Stay in Crater Lake
Lodging (Inside the Park)
Crater Lake Lodge, overlooking the Rim Village, has 71 rooms that are available to book between mid-May and mid-October. Check the dates as they may change each year.
The Cabins at Mazama Village has 40 rooms, which are also available to book seasonally.
Lodging (Outside the Park)
Mazama Campground is located 7 miles south of Rim Village and has 214 sites that are available seasonally.
Lost Creek Campground is located on Pinnacles Road and has 16 tent-only sites that are available seasonally.
Since over 95% of the park is designated wilderness, many backpackers flock here to camp year-round.
In the winter, Rim Drive closes to vehicles and becomes a winter oasis for snowshoers and skiers; camping is permitted along the rim.
In the summer, backpackers cannot camp along the rim and must follow dispersed camping regulations.
Backcountry permits can be obtained for free and in person at the Ranger Station at Park Headquarters. Located just behind Steel Visitor Center, the backcountry office’s business hours are 8:00 AM – 4:30 PM year-round.
Getting Around Crater Lake
Access the park from the north, west, or south. You’ll need a personal vehicle or bike to navigate the park; there is no shuttle system.
The 33-mile looped Rim Drive that circles Crater Lake is the main drive in the park and is fully cleared from July through October.
Pinnacles Road is a fork off Rim Drive and is usually cleared in late July.
Spring, Winter, and Fall
If you are visiting in the early spring, late fall, or winter months, you must be prepared for snowy conditions due to the park’s high elevation.
The Rim Drive closes to vehicles between November and May. The West Rim section of Rim Drive may open up as early as May or June, but annual snowfall levels will settle that decision.
Early spring, late fall, or winter visitors can navigate the park on foot by snowshoeing or skiing.
The Rim Drive is usually fully cleared from July to October. Summer visitors can navigate the park by vehicle or bicycle.
Summer visitors who are driving Rim Drive, allow two hours to circumnavigate the lake. This will give you plenty of time to stop at all of the sightseeing overlooks. If you are planning on hiking some of the trails along the Rim Drive, give yourself at least one full day to explore.
When to Visit Crater Lake
Mid-July through mid-September is the best time to visit Crater Lake National Park.
Crater Lake is open to visitors year-round but activities and resources are limited in the winter months and shoulder seasons. Here’s what you need to know about visiting the park each season.
This is the most popular season to visit.
From mid-July through mid-September, you are guaranteed that most roads, trails, facilities, campgrounds, and lodging will be open.
That being said, you won’t be alone in the park. Tourists flock to the park during this short timeframe to avoid the snow and bask in all of the open amenities.
Early fall is a great time to visit the park.
Tourists will be dwindling and roads, trails, and facilities may still be open as late as September or October.
Prepare for closures if you will be visiting the park from mid-October through late November. Snow can begin falling as early as October while fall colors are just starting to peak. It can be a spectacular contrast to witness.
Visiting the park in the winter is a gamble but it could pay off significantly.
Experiencing the park in the winter could be incredible but it is not for the light-hearted or the faintly prepared. Your plans need to be flexible, and you need to be aware of current conditions before venturing into the park.
While the north entrance road and Rim Drive are completely closed to vehicles, the west and south entrances are plowed daily as needed and are open to vehicles throughout the year.
The 3-mile road from the visitor center that leads to the rim is often closed to vehicles when park rangers deem it unsafe.
Visitors can snowshoe, ski, sled, or snowboard and bask in the views and absence of tourists.
Camping is even allowed along the caldera rim in the winter, which is a huge perk!
Spring is also a gamble, and you should be prepared for winter conditions.
Up until sometime in May, Rim Drive is closed. The West Rim can open as early as mid-May or as late as late June while the East Rim won’t fully open until July.
If you are planning a spring visit, you need to be prepared for snowy conditions just as winter visitors would. May and June are transition months as winter is slowly turning into summer, but it is a slow transition.
Drive to Rim Village in May and June, view the lake, walk along the plowed sections of Rim Drive that aren’t yet open to vehicles, or go snowshoeing!
Best Non-Hiking Activities
Travel the Rim Drive
The 33-mile Rim Drive is littered with a plethora of trails, scenic overlooks, rest stops, and picnic areas.
Allow two hours to circle the 33-mile Rim Drive that circumnavigates Crater Lake so that you can stop at all of the scenic overlooks and pull-offs to fully experience the park.
If you don’t have time to hike all of the trails along Rim Drive or pull off at all of the overlooks, here are the overlooks and short trails that I would recommend bringing to the top of your list.
Must-See Overlooks and Trails on Rim Drive
- Watchman Overlook
- Phantom Ship Overlook
- Palisade Point
- Discovery Point
- Vidae Falls
- Rim Trail (even if it’s just a small section)
- Cleetwood Cove
Swim in Crater Lake
While this activity does require a hike, it’s well worth the trip down!
Cleetwood Cove is the only spot in the lake where swimming is allowed; do not enter the lake at any other point.
Hike the steep and strenuous 1.1-mile trail to the bottom, claim a spot along the rocky shore, and take a dip!
Whether you want to spend all day swimming and sunbathing at the bottom or just dip your toes in to say you’ve been in an active volcano, you won’t regret your adventure in North America’s deepest lake.
Take a Guided Boat Tour Around the Lake
Crater Lake Hospitality offers daily cruises, tours, and shuttles around the lake and to Wizard Island in the summer.
Choose from a leisurely 2-hour cruise around the lake, a cruise around the perimeter of the lake with a visit to Wizard Island to swim, hike, and sightsee, or a shuttle straight to the island to swim, fish, and hike without the leisurely cruise.
→ Read Next: 8 Epic Things to Do at Crater Lake
What to Explore Around Crater Lake
Before or after exploring Crater Lake National Park, I’d highly recommend adding these nearby places to your itinerary:
- Redwood National and State Parks
- Oregon Caves National Monument
- Columbia River Gorge waterfalls
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Umpqua Hot Springs
- Samuel L. Boardman State Scenic Corridor
- Silver Falls State Park
- Smith Rock State Park