Explore the Wonders of Oregon’s Crater Lake

Take a weekend to explore Oregon's Crater Lake National Park, home to the deepest lake in the United States.

Crater Lake National ParkCourtesy Donna Ball/Country magazine
Crater Lake National Park

The first time my then-10-year-old daughter saw Crater Lake National Park, her jaw just dropped. Before her were the deep blue waters of a lake surrounded by jagged peaks—the remains of a mighty mountain known as Mazama.

“You told me this was a beautiful lake, but I had no idea it was this incredible,” Nicki said at the time.

That is the Crater Lake effect. This magical and majestic place is the only national park in Oregon and the deepest lake in the United States. Though Crater Lake isn’t among the most visited national parks, it should be. It is an awe-inspiring weekend getaway. Here are the things that I love to do in this scenic wonder.

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Drive the Rim

Crater Lake’s rim tops out at 8,000 feet, allowing snow to remain until early summer. The best time to visit is in July and August when all the snow is mostly gone, the wildflowers are in bloom and the historic Rim Drive is open. This 33-mile route is the easiest and most popular way to see the national park. It should take up to 40 minutes to complete the drive if you don’t stop.

But you will stop, because beneath the serene dark blue waters sits a dormant volcano that literally blew its top more than 7,700 years ago, leaving behind the caldera we see today.

Over time, lava cooled and sealed the bottom. Rain and snow melt filled the caldera with pristine and fresh water, creating the 1,943-foot-deep lake. The depth and clarity explain why the color of the lake is one of its most noteworthy attributes. As sunlight penetrates the lake, it absorbs all the colors of visible light except for blue, which it reflects back. The deeper and clearer the water, the more magnificent the reflected blue becomes. The hue is so unique that it is referred to as Crater Lake blue.

As you make your way around the lake, get peekaboo views of Wizard Island and Phantom Ship Island. There are a few places to see wildflower fields, too. You could easily spend the day on this leisurely drive. If you’d rather someone else take the wheel, hop on the Crater Lake Trolley, which makes up to seven stops along its two-hour tour of Rim Drive. Plus, a ranger is on board to share trivia and fun facts about the park.

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Hit the Trails

Some visitors want more than a jaunt around the rim. These folks lace up their boots and trek the park’s 90 miles of trails. Ranging from easy to challenging, these paths lead to amazing views.

Pinnacles Trail will have you thinking you are in the Badlands of South Dakota. In this truly unique geologic area, the spear-shaped pinnacles formed when hot ash cooled after the big eruption.

Watchman Peak Trail takes you to a fire lookout above Wizard Island and is known as one of the best spots in the park to watch the sunset.

The rocky climb of the Garfield Peak Trail winds past wildflowers and unusual vegetation. You might even spot a marmot or two. If you are up for a bit of a more adventurous hike, consider the one to Mount Scott, the highest peak in the park. The 4.5-mile round-trip hike is best undertaken in the early morning hours. Another sunrise sensation is Discovery Point Trail. The breathtaking views of a blue sky filled with displays of orange and red are your visual reward for getting up before dawn.

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diving into Crater LakeMatt Champlin/Getty Images
Plunging into Crater Lake of Oregon – a cool, deep, and refreshing swim indeed.

Explore the Water

Just one trail actually leads to the water’s edge—the Cleetwood Cove Trail. It is moderately steep, but only about 2.2 miles long. Cleetwood Cove is the only shoreline where swimmers can enter the lake. The water is about 57 degrees in summer, so be prepared for a chilly reception.

If you’d rather not wade into the water or take a summertime version of a polar plunge, set sail on a boat tour of the lake. Eight tours depart Cleetwood Cove daily. There are a couple of options: a two-hour trip that will take you around the caldera or a longer trip that includes a stop at Wizard Island (the boat tour is the only way to get there). The latter gives visitors a chance to swim and explore the island, which is actually a cinder cone formed during later eruptions. It’s a terrific outing for kids because they can experience one of the lake’s standout volcanic features.

Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel at Crater LakeThomas Winz/Getty Images
Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel eating an almond at Crater Lake.

Birding and Wildlife Watching

Crater Lake and its surrounding forest filled with mountain hemlock and pine are home to an abundance of birds. Spot eagles and peregrine falcons along the rim cliffs or look for American dippers near streams. Wildfire-burned forests attract several species of woodpeckers, including the rare black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers. Common mergansers can be seen on the lake, and calls of songbirds permeate the forests and meadows.

Mammal sightings are far less common, but a wide variety of animals inhabit the terrain around the lake, including bobcats, gray wolves, red foxes, cougars and several species of marten, to name but a few. Expect to encounter several white-tailed deer, since they seem oblivious to visitors.

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Crater Lake Lodge

Even if you opt to stay outside the park or in a campground, don’t miss a visit to historic Crater Lake Lodge. Originally opened in 1915, the lodge takes you back to the rustic charm of the 1920s. If you do choose to stay, it is an experience you will never forget.

Located on the edge of the caldera and overlooking the lake, the lodge has fantastic views of this natural wonder. Rise with the sun in the morning and eat a hearty breakfast before heading out to the trails, or upon your return refuel with an elegant dinner and sip a glass of wine in the dining room.

As a landscape photographer, I have always been drawn to Crater Lake. I was delighted that Nicki recognized its beauty so many years ago. Although I don’t know if our trip planted some kind of seed, today she is a landscape photographer, too. Crater Lake is truly a magical place.

Best Camping and Fishing Spots

Pitch your tent or park your camper in Mazama Campground, which is just 7 miles from the south rim. Each of its 214 sites has a picnic table, a fire ring with a grill, and a bear-resistant food locker. It’s open from June to the end of September. Readily available services in Mazama Village include a gas station, a cafe, laundry facilities, a grocery store, showers and flush toilets. For more information, visit Travelcraterlake.com

Cast a line from the lakeshore at Cleetwood Cove or Wizard Island. NPS encourages fishing of nonnative species, such as Kokanee salmon and rainbow trout. For trophy-sized trout and salmon, head north to Diamond Lake, the largest lake in the Umpqua National Forest. To learn more, go to diamondlake.net.

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Plan Your Trip

July and August are the best months to visit Crater Lake National Park (they also happen to be the peak of wildflower season). Before planning your visit, check with the park for potential closures and hours of operation.

Dennis Frates
Dennis Frates is a photographer in Oregon, specializing in award winning fine art photography including landscapes, seascapes, mountains, deserts, lakes, streams, flowers, trees, beaches and gardens.