Visitors to Crater Lake National Park can take a boat tour or shuttle to Wizard Island and spend the day hiking and exploring. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): Crater Lake National Park is the fifth-oldest national park. // © 2016 Creative Commons user scpgt
When asked to sum up what makes southern Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park so special, superintendent Craig Ackerman, who has worked at the park for almost eight years, didn’t hesitate in waxing poetic.
“It’s a combination of scenery — a deep turquoise-blue lake that’s surrounded by mountains and cliffs that are up to 2,000 feet high, colored in combinations of grays, yellows, pinks and browns,” Ackerman said. “When winter comes and there isn't any wave activity on Crater Lake, the lake looks exactly like a mirror. Everything in perimeter of the lake is perfectly reflected, as well as the clouds, and that’s why it has earned its nickname ‘Mirror of Heaven.’ And if you were to see that, I think you would agree.”
It can be difficult to imagine that this tranquil mirror, or Crater Lake, lies where Mount Mazama, a steep composite volcano, once stood. Almost 8,000 years ago, the formidable volcano erupted with tremendous force. Mount Mazama also collapsed within itself to reveal a profound caldera, filled over time with rain and snowmelt. Today, Crater Lake has a maximum depth of approximately 1,943 feet and is considered to be the deepest lake in the U.S.
But the lake is only one of the reasons visitors head to the spectacular national park, which was established May 22, 1902, by President Theodore Roosevelt and is the country’s fifth-oldest national park. Following are tips and advice on how to best see the park in all of its au naturel glory.
What to Do
Summer and Early Fall: Smaller eruptions that took place in the several hundred years after Mount Mazama’s explosion created additional natural wonders, including a volcanic cinder cone called Wizard Island. Visitors can get a closer look at the island through Volcano Boat Cruises, which, this year, will operate daily from June 24 to Aug. 14. (Due to scheduled construction in August at the Cleetwood Cove parking lot, the boat season has been shortened.)
Visitors can choose to take a Standard Lake Cruise, which lasts approximately two hours, or a Wizard Island Tour, which requires about a half-day. However, it’s important to note that simply getting to the lake and its boat dock entails a somewhat strenuous hike: The Cleetwood Cove Trail drops some 700 feet and can take up to 45 minutes to descend. Then, there’s the just-as-arduous return hike, too.
The two cruise options travel counter-clockwise around the lake’s perimeter, and a national park ranger shares insight into the park’s cultural and natural history while onboard. The Wizard Island Tour, however, also includes a stop at the island, where passengers can explore and hike for three hours. To skip the lake tour altogether, a boat shuttle to and from Wizard Island is available.
There are quite a few hikes to choose from, including the approximately 5-mile roundtrip Mount Scott trail. According to Ackerman, his favorite hike starts at about 7,500 feet elevation and then climbs up to 8,929 feet to the summit of Mount Scott, an ancient and extinct volcano. At the top, hikers take in sweeping views of not only Crater Lake, Wizard Island and the rest of the park, but also more than 100 miles to the east and to the north, where the Three Sisters complex volcano can be spotted in the distance.
Other popular hikes include the Watchman Peak trail (1.6 miles roundtrip) — Ackerman notes that every evening in the summer, rangers lead a free hike to the peak to watch the sunset over the cascades — and an easy hike on Castle Crest Wildflower Trail (also 0.8 mile roundtrip). The approximately 3.4-mile roundtrip hike to Garfield Peak hike can be taxing, but the 360-degree views at the top make the trek worthwhile.
For an activity that’s more relaxed but still displays loveliness at every turn, take a scenic drive via the 33-mile Rim Drive, a loop that tracks Crater Lake’s caldera rim and is lined with wildflowers. The historic highway is full of pull-off spots for photo ops and takes roughly two to three hours to complete. Starting July 1, those who would rather not be at the wheel can take a two-hour Crater Lake Trolley Tour onboard a 25-passenger historic trolley with several stops at panoramic outlooks.
Be advised that the road is very narrow, and the North Entrance and West Rim Drive are generally open from early June to late October, while the East Rim Drive and Pinnacles Road open later in early July and also close in late October.
Since fish are not native to the lake, fishing is actually encouraged. No fishing license is required, nor is there a limit to number of fish caught. Swimming in the lake is permitted from roughly mid-June to mid-September each year.
Winter: Crater Lake National Park’s winter season can begin as early as mid-October and may linger all the way through June. The park receives an average snowfall of almost 533 feet per year. In December 2015, the park broke its snowfall record for that month with 197 inches (about 16 feet) of snowfall recorded.
Due to icy and snowy road conditions, only Highway 62 and Munson Valley Road (the road to Rim Village) remain open in winter. The rest of the park is accessible only via cross-country ski or snowshoe, with the exception of the park’s North Entrance Road to North Junction (where the entrance road hits Rim Drive). Here, visitors can use snowmobiles on the groomed trail. Ski, snowshoe and snowmobile rentals, in addition to guided snowmobile tours, are available at nearby Diamond Lake Lodge.
On weekends during the winter season (starting late November until the beginning of May), rangers lead free snowshoe walks while sharing wisdom about the national park and its flora and fauna. Reservations are required, and participants must be at least 8 years old.
Where to Stay in the Park
Crater Lake National Park Lodges, affiliated with Xanterra Parks & Resorts, offers the only in-park lodging. The company operates Crater Lake Lodge, which is located in Rim Village, and The Cabins at Mazama Village (also known as Mazama Motor Inn). In addition, there are two campgrounds, one managed by Crater Lake National Park Lodges and the other by National Park Service (NPS), as well as backcountry camping opportunities.
Since some 480,000 people visit Crater Lake National Park every year on average, book as early as possible. According to Andy Stiles, general manager of Crater Lake National Park Lodges, reservations are accepted one year in advance and sell out quickly, and their busiest time of year is July through August. Due to high demand, no travel agent commission is offered.
Crater Lake Lodge: The historic Crater Lake Lodge, though renovated to uphold modern hotel standards since its 1915 opening date, still retains much of its original rustic atmosphere. Seasonally open from mid-May to mid-October, the lodge’s 71 rooms have no phones or televisions. What’s more, some rooms have a tub but no shower, and requests for rooms with both cannot be guaranteed. Rooms start at about $180 per night. According to Stiles, the lodge dining room’s elk chops with a huckleberry glaze dish is not to be missed.
The Cabins at Mazama Village: Set among soaring ponderosa pine trees, The Cabins at Mazama Village is also seasonally open, starting in late May until early October. Forty cabins are available, each with two queen beds, stall showers and heating/air-conditioning, but without televisions or telephones. Check-in is located inside the nearby Camper Store, which also has limited groceries and camping supplies for sale. Each cabin runs about $152 per night.
Mazama Village Campground: Located along Annie Creek’s southwestern edge, Mazama Village Campground begins its season in mid-June and ends around late September/early October, weather permitting. There are 214 tent and RV sites available. Amenities include running water, flush toilets, fire rings, picnic tables and bear lockers. Showers, washers and dryers and wood bundles are also available for a fee at the Camper Store. Reservations are recommended.
Lost Creek Campground: For first-come, first-served and tent-only camping, clients can try their luck at Lost Creek Campground. Operated by NPS, the quiet campground has 16 tent-only sites and is generally open from late May through early October, weather permitting. The same free amenities found at Mazama Village Campground are provided.
Backcountry Camping: Extra-adventurous clients can get a true taste of the national park’s beauty by nixing car or RV camping in favor of backcountry camping. Sites include Dutton Creek, Lightning Springs, Bybee Creek, Red Cone and Grouse Hill. Permits are required at no cost.
Park ranger Ackerman notes that once the snow melts around June to early July, mosquitos come out for only about three weeks. Afterward, visitors can lie down at night without a tent or any worries about pestering bugs.
“The only thing that’ll bother you is that, at about 3 a.m., you’ll wake up and think it’s daylight because the stars are so bright that you could read a book,” said Ackerman, who has slept on a cot — sans tent — in the national park during July.
Where to Stay Outside the Park
Sheri Doyle, owner and travel agent at Pacific Northwest Journeys, suggests the reasonably priced and historic Prospect Historic Hotel to clients when in-park accommodations aren’t available. The property has bed-and-breakfast or modern motel-style accommodations, both of which are especially great for families.
Doyle also warns her clients not to attempt a visit to the park as a day trip from Portland.
“It’s a good five hours each way, so it’s not a feasible day trip,” said Doyle, who has been selling trips to the park for 25 years. “Consider visiting Crater Lake as a day trip from Bend (approximately two hours each way), where you’ll also be able to enjoy a wide variety of outdoor activities — not just hiking — or Ashland (about 90 minutes each way), where you can also attend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.”
Other recommended options include Union Creek Resort, about 23 miles away from the lake in Prospect, and The Aspen Inn, about 25 miles away from the lake in Fort Klamath.
When to Go
Summer is the busiest season for Crater Lake National Park, but the very best time of the year to go is around mid-July to early September, according to Ackerman.
“The days are beautifully warm — it rarely gets above 80 degrees — and nights are cool,” Ackerman said. “The mosquitoes are gone by then and the flowers are out, and if we had any kind of snow, the streams are still running and full, and the small waterfalls are rushing. It’s just a great time: You can walk through the forest and the afternoon sun warms the trees, so you can smell the scent of the evergreens on your hikes.”