Located in Southern Oregon, Crater Lake National Park is home to the deepest lake in the United States. Due to its depth and lack of sediments and pollution, the water in Crater Lake is a deep blue that is difficult to find elsewhere. Of course, seeing this deep blue water is one of the highlights of visiting Crater Lake National Park.
But, as with any national park, to truly enjoy Crater Lake, you need to do more than just see the lake and take a few pictures. Whether you are interested in scenic drives, hiking or bicycling, there are plenty of things to do at Crater Lake National Park. The best part is that you can enjoy the highlights of this park in as little as a single day.
I’ll be honest, we rarely plan to spend just one day at a designated National Park. Crater Lake was no different. We actually had almost a full week in the area. Unfortunately, a broken windshield and a nearby wildfire limited our time in the park. Still, we enjoyed the time that we had. We can confidently say that even with just one day, you will love this park. That said, you may be wishing you had more time… we certainly did!
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Blue Waters of Crater Lake
One of the most frequently asked questions regarding Crater Lake is, “Why is the water so blue?”. The color of the lake comes from its depth and water purity. Fully explaining this involves a little science, so bear with me. The color of an object depends on its molecular structure. When an object appears red, it’s because the object actually absorbs all colors other than red, which bounces back for us to see.
Water molecules will absorb all colors except blue. Of course, we know that not all water actually appears to be blue. That is because of sediment and pollution. Rivers often appear brown, especially after heavy rain. That is due to dirt being stirred up. Some rivers or lakes appear green due to algae or pollutants.
I’m sure you’ve at least seen photos of the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean. The shallow depth of the water there is just one reason the blue water there is not the same shade as the blue water at Crater Lake.
At 1,943 feet, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States. It is also the ninth deepest lake in the world. Basically, this means there is a whole lot of water to absorb the “other” colors of the rainbow. So, just pure blue light bounces back for the human eye to see.
Additionally, the lake is fed only by snow and rain. There are no rivers or streams into the lake. This limits the sediments, minerals and general pollution of the water. Because of this water purity, there’s nothing altering the blue that we see.
Planning Your Time at Crater Lake
The centerpiece of Crater Lake National Park is, of course, the lake itself. That said, the lake is actually only about 10% of the entire park. So, while much of your time will likely be spent near the lake, there are plenty of other things to see and do. Surrounding Crater Lake, you’ll find mountains and valleys that are just as scenic and awe-inspiring. Additionally, old-growth forests are home to a wide variety of trees and plant life.
If you like to hike, you’ll find a good variety of short-and-easy or longer and more strenuous hikes. Some of these offer views of the lake or even access to the water. Others are away from the lake offering views of the surrounding landscape.
In the summer, Crater Lake Hospitality, the park’s concessionaire, offers boat tours on the water. Or, you can swim or fish at Crater Lake. Of course, all of these activities require a steep downhill walk to the water’s edge for access. Let’s be honest, though, it’s not the downhill walk most people need to be concerned about. It’s the return uphill hike.
If you are interested in hiking or taking a boat tour when visiting Crater Lake National Park, I suggest planning two or three days at the park. If you just prefer less strenuous activities and just want to enjoy the scenic drive and stop at a few overlooks, one day at Crater Lake is plenty.
Of course, the beauty of the lake will draw you in. So, if you have an extra day or two, I suggest taking the extra time. I know we certainly could have spent days just admiring the view!
When to Visit Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake National Park is open year-round. That said, many facilities are closed in the winter due to heavy snowfall. In fact, the park’s website states that “Crater Lake is one of the snowiest inhabited places in the USA.”
This large snowfall forces the park to close the North Entrance and Rim Drive to automobiles in the fall, no later than November 1. Roads open again in the late spring or summer, but generally not before mid-May. It can be mid-June or even July before Rim Drive is fully open.
I would suggest planning your visit for July, August or September for the best conditions and access to the most facilities. Of course, if you want to visit in the winter, I’m sure the park is just magical. I know the pictures look amazing. I probably wouldn’t suggest that for your one and only visit, though.
It is important to note that when the weather is bad, the lake may not be visible. This could be due to rain, snow or even smoke. We experienced this first-hand when we visited in July 2021. Thankfully, on our first day visiting Crater Lake National Park, we had just about perfect weather. Unfortunately, two forest fires in the area led to extremely smoky conditions just two days later.
On top of poor air quality, the views of the lake just weren’t great. Of course, weather can dampen any trip anywhere, so you just have to accept the conditions that you have. For a park such as Crater Lake, which is so dependent on visibility, I’d do anything you can to build in extra days and keep your itinerary flexible. I’d hate for your one and only day at Crater Lake National Park to not even allow good views of the lake.
How to Spend One Day at Crater Lake
When visiting Crater Lake, your priority should definitely be to see the lake. So, even if you plan to spend more time hiking or exploring the surrounding area, your first day will likely be similar to other visitors who only have one day at the park.
West Rim Drive and East Rim Drive connect to form one 33-mile loop around the lake with numerous pullouts and overlooks. The speed limit is only 35 mph, so you’ll definitely need at least one hour for the drive. You’ll definitely want to add some time for stops to view and photograph the lake. So I’d say give yourself at least two or three hours for the scenic drive.
As you drive around the lake, you’ll have numerous opportunities for views of the lake, offering different views of the caldera, Wizard Island (the large island in Crater Lake) and other features. For the most part, you’ll need to stop and get out of the car to actually see the lake. There are a few places where you can see the water as you are driving.
Along the scenic drive, you’ll find a few exhibits on the formation of the lake, the geography of the area and access to a couple of trailheads and waterfalls. I suggest you stop often and take tons of pictures!
Generally, Crater Lake Trolley offers tours in the summer. While the trolley tour does not offer the same flexibility that driving your own car does, it does provide the opportunity for you to simply sit back, relax and enjoy the views.
A trolley tour can also be a good idea if you are driving a large RV that might have difficulty navigating the winding park road.
Unfortunately, the concessionaire did not offer trolley tours during our visit due to COVID-19. If this is something that you are interested in, check the park website for more information. Advanced reservations are recommended.
You’ll find Rim Village on the south side of Crater Lake, near the intersection of West Rim Road and End Rim Road, not too far from the south entrance station. Here, you’ll find just about all of the guest services you might need: a cafe, gift shop, visitor center and the Crater Lake Lodge.
Also located at Rim Village is the Sinnott Memorial Overlook. You will find a fantastic view of the lake and a few exhibits.
Be prepared for this area to be very busy, especially midday in the summer. This is a hub of services, so the area can be quite congested.
Pro Tip: Parking as you enter Rim Village may seem very limited. Continue driving, though, and you’ll find many more parking spaces towards the “back.”
There are a number of great hiking trails at Crater Lake. Some trails offer views of the lake, while others give you an opportunity to explore the other 90% of the park! Unfortunately, due to poor air quality, we didn’t get to hike quite as many trails as had initially planned.
While smoke from nearby forest fires collected right around the lake and Rim Village, other areas of the park, thankfully, remained mostly clear. This provided us the opportunity to explore Pinnacles Road, off the southeast side of the loop drive, and do a couple of short hikes.
Pinnacles Road Trails
The park’s newsletter lists The Pinnacles as an easy 0.8-mile roundtrip hike. That said, you can see the formations just a short walk from the parking lot. Honestly, the trail is so flat, I would hesitate to even call it a “hike.” But it does lead to an interesting geologic formation and is well worth your time.
A better hike along Pinnacles Road is Plaikni Falls. This two-mile roundtrip hike is fairly easy but does have a little bit of elevation gain, especially near the end. Most of the trail is fairly wide and shaded, making it a good choice for those with kids or who have limited mobility. The park even claims that the first 3/4-mile is “accessible to wheelchair users with assistance.”
The waterfall at the end is nice and you’ll find a few wildflowers and, perhaps, some butterflies as well. Overall, we enjoyed this short hike, which definitely gives you the opportunity to see something other than the lake when visiting Crater Lake National Park.
Other Hiking Trails
We had hoped to hike a few other trails but decided against them due to air quality. First on our list was Watchman Peak, for views of the lake, which are reported to be especially nice at sunset. Others we considered were Discovery Point, Annie Creek and Sun Notch.
If you are looking to get down to the lake, you’ll have to hike the 2.2-mile roundtrip Cleetwood Cove Trail. This strenuous hike descends 700 feet from East Rim Drive, on the north side of Crater Lake, down to the lakeshore. Whether you just want to get in a nice, strenuous hike or are looking to swim, fish or take a boat tour, this trail provides the only access to the water at Crater Lake.
Typically, Crater Lake Hospitality offers eight boat tours daily on Crater Lake. Some of the tours even allow for a stop on Wizard Island. When we first planned our trip, we expected to spend one day hiking down to the lake and enjoying a boat tour.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the park canceled boat tours for the summer of 2021. Hopefully, the next time we visit boat tours will be up and running again. Getting out to Wizard Island is high of our list of things to do when we return to Crater Lake National Park!
Check out the park’s website for more information on boat tours.
Where to Stay
If you are looking to stay inside the park, there are a couple of campgrounds and backcountry campsites. Or, you can stay at Crater Lake Lodge, which sits right on the lakeshore. Since our visit to Crater Lake was part of a longer RV road trip, we opted to stay outside the park.
We were able to take a quick walkthrough Crater Lake Lodge, though, and I would love to stay there in the future! It’s pricey but offers fantastic views that would be worth the expense for us!
Broken Arrow Campground
For this trip, though, we camped at Broken Arrow Campground, which is just about 10 minutes outside the north entrance to Crater Lake National Park. This US Forest Service Campground sits near the shore of Diamond Lake, a popular boating and camping destination.
While the campground does not have any hookups, it immediately became one of our top campgrounds in all of our travels. There is just something about being tucked into the trees, without a lot of noise or traffic that makes the camping experience better.
There are a number of bathrooms scattered around the campground and a central shower house. While the showers are nothing to get excited about, they were adequate for a few days.
Initially, I was concerned that the drive into the park would be longer than we typically like. We were pleasantly surprised to find it was only about a 10-minute drive to the entrance, though. Another 10 minutes and we were admiring the blue waters of Crater Lake.
Seriously, we would stay here again in a heartbeat!
Where to Eat
Inside the park, you’ll find a cafe at Rim Village and a restaurant and small grocery near the Annie Spring entrance on the south end of the park, at Mazama Village. Due to the congestion and long lines at Rim Village, we relied on Mazama Village when we didn’t bring a picnic with us.
The Annie Creek Restaurant offers a few sandwiches and wraps, along with beer and other drinks. While the menu isn’t extensive, it was much less crowded than Rim Village! There is even a gift shop next door that you can visit before or after your meal.
If you prefer to pick up a few things to take with you, the grocery store at Mazama Village sells a few premade sandwiches, chips and drinks. This would be a great option if you are short on time or just want to take something for a picnic lunch or dinner.
Final Thoughts on Crater Lake National Park
When we initially planned our visit to Crater Lake National Park, we had hoped to spend one day on the scenic drive, one day doing a boat tour and another day or two hiking. Unfortunately, things don’t always work out like you plan.
The park did not offer boat tours during our visit and wildfires caused smoky conditions that affected the air quality and visibility. Ultimately, we had one nice day in the park and a couple of days dodging smoky conditions.
While there is much more to Crater Lake National Park than just the lake, the lake definitely is the highlight. And, you can easily complete the scenic drive around the lake in as little as half a day. So, even just one day at Crater Lake provides time for a couple of short hikes and a fairly complete visit.
If you have additional time, you can enjoy some longer hikes, check out the surrounding national forest or even visit other nearby parks like Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California. We also like to build in extra time to just relax and look for unexpected things to do.
Stay tuned for Grant’s upcoming article on Lava Beds National Monument.
Thankfully, we fully anticipate being able to return to Crater Lake National Park in the future. In fact, since we knew in advance that the park had canceled boat tours, we planned a return visit before we even got there.
Of course, now we want to do a boat tour, stay in the lodge, return to one of our favorite campgrounds and see the park in the winter. There really is no shortage of things to look forward to when visiting Crater Lake National Park.
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