Jumping in, I felt an immediate shock of bone-chilling cold taking over body. The water of Oregon’s Crater Lake was chilly, but after a few seconds of swimming around, I began to warm up and feel like normal again.
That’s when I started to appreciate the awesomeness of this experience. Swimming inside an active volcano and splashing around in its impossibly-blue water ranks right up there among the coolest national park experiences I’ve ever had!
Crater Lake National Park is stunning. From the gorgeous bright blue water inside its caldera, to the challenging hikes in its mountains, to the seemingly infinite number of incredible views from the 33-mile Rim Drive that circles the crater, everything about this park is spectacular.
After only two days at Crater Lake, I’d already placed it in my top five national parks in America. I managed to do six(!) hikes in two days in the park, including that one that took me down to the lake itself for some swimming.
If you’re planning to visit Crater Lake, here’s everything you need to know to plan your visit. This article will cover the different things to do at Crater Lake, the best hikes, the history of the volcano, how the water got so blue, hotels near Crater Lake, lodging and camping options, where you can find Crater Lake maps and webcams, and the most complete, mile-by-mile driving guide to Rim Drive that you’ll find anywhere on the internet.
To answer your first question, yes, Crater Lake is still considered an active volcano, though it’s much less active that some of the others in Oregon and Washington. Crater Lake hasn’t erupted in about 4800 years. So go ahead and plan your visit without fear!
1. Mile By Mile Guide to Rim Drive
2. Things To Do at Crater Lake
3. Things To Bring to Crater Lake
4. Best Crater Lake Hikes
5. Hotels & Campgrounds Near Crater Lake
6. Frequently Asked Questions About Crater Lake
Crater Lake National Park Maps
Here’s a basic map of Crater Lake National Park. You can see Rim Drive circling the crater, along with Pinnacles Road (a dead-end) and North Entrance Road branching out.
Want to experience Rim Drive without leaving your couch? Scroll around on Google’s interactive map:
About Rim Drive
Rim Drive loops around the entire lake for 33 miles. It’s a two-lane road with traffic going both directions. The speed limit is 35 or less in most places. You could drive the whole thing in an hour or so without stopping, but of course you’ll want to stop at the viewpoints. So give yourself at least two hours.
Because of its elevation (6500 to 7877 feet above sea level), almost all of Rim Drive is closed to vehicles during the winter, when snow accumulations make driving too dangerous. You’ll see tall wooden poles around the edges of the road – those are markers used to find the road in the winter when it’s covered in several feet of snow.
Portions of West Rim Drive typically open in May and June, while East Rim Drive may not open until early or mid-July. In 2020, East Rim Drive did not fully open until the second week of July, due to snow removal and road construction.
How do you know if Rim Drive is open? Check here for current information on which park roads are open.
Rim Drive was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. It was constructed in 1931-41 to replace the original Rim Road, which was very narrow and treacherous. Much like Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Rim Drive has appeared on multiple lists of the most scenic roads in America.
Beware of some tight curves with no shoulders. This is a somewhat dangerous road if you’re not paying close attention. The danger of rock slides is also very real in several places.
Parts of Rim Drive are narrow enough that you could drive right off the mountain if you take your eyes off the road, so don’t let yourself get distracted by the scenic views. Use the pullouts when you want to get out and admire the scenery. Also watch for bicyclists, who ride on the road as well.
Mile By Mile Guide to Rim Drive
I’m providing specific mile markers to every sight on the road. Let’s call the Steel Visitor Center at the park headquarters on the southern end of the road the starting point for this trip, aka Mile 0.
We’ll be traveling clockwise, following all 33 miles of Rim Drive. Those coming in from the north on North Entrance Road will be joining Rim Drive at Mile 8.7.
Here’s a guide to every scenic pullout and point of interest along Rim Drive at Crater Lake!
PRO TIP: For the best pictures, keep the sun behind you. In the morning, you’d want to drive on East Rim Drive, so that the sun is shining on the lake to your west. In the evening, it’s best to drive West Rim Drive, so you can get the sun shining back on the lake to the east.
Rim Drive Guide:
Mile 0: Park Headquarters and Steel Visitor Center. Here you can find park maps, bathrooms, and a parking lot. There are a couple exhibits and an introductory film.
Miles 1.0 & 1.8: Small pullouts, not much to see here.
Mile 2.1: A slightly larger pullout.
Miles 2.3 & 2.4: Small pullouts.
Mile 2.6: Rim Village. Here, you’ll want to pull off Rim Drive for a bit to check out Rim Village. There’s another visitor center here, a gift shop, a café (open 10-6), and your first glimpse of those amazing Crater Lake views. You’ll also find access to the Garfield Peak and Discovery Point Trailheads for hikers, as well as the Crater Lake Lodge hotel and restaurant.
From Rim Village, you can easily spot Wizard Island, one of the park’s defining features. It’s a 316-acre cinder cone near the western side of the lake that rises 755 feet above the lake.
PRO TIP: The bathrooms are Rim Village are open 24 hours, and you can refill your water bottles from the bathroom sinks, which deliver clean, safe drinking water.
Mile 2.7: A small pullout with good views of Wizard Island.
Mile 3.6: A very large pullout with great views of Wizard Island.
Mile 4.2: Small pullout.
Mile 4.7: A great overlook with some of the best, straight-on views of Wizard Island and Crater Lake.
Mile 5.6: A nice overlook with excellent views of the western side of the park, the forested side opposite the lake. There aren’t as many pullouts with views of this side of the park, so I suggest pulling over here for some pics.
Mile 6.6: Watchman Overlook, one of the most popular spots to stop along Rim Drive. This is a must-stop for views of the lake. It’s especially popular at sunset. You can also hike the Watchman Peak Trail here to get the best aerial views of the lake. The hike is less than 1 mile each way, although it’s 420 feet uphill.
Mile 7.2: Pullout with views of the forested mountains to the north.
Mile 7.7: Pullout next to a rocky section of hillside with large rocks and snow piles on the ground, even into July.
Miles 8.2, 8.4, 8.7: Overlooks with good views of the lake.
Mile 8.7: North Junction. This is where North Entrance Road meets Rim Drive. There’s a large parking lot with great viewpoint called Merriam Point. Stop here for sure! You can drive up North Entrance Road if you like, but there’s not a lot to see. I did see deer twice there. The famed Pacific Crest Trail crosses over that road.
Miles 9.1 & 9.4: Small pullouts, not much in the way of views here.
Mile 10.2: Small shaded picnic area. Nice spot to eat.
Mile 10.3: Pullout with great view of the lake.
Mile 10.4: Pullout with views of the forest.
Mile 11.4: Pumice Point. I consider this a must-stop if you want cool pics on some rock ledges.
Mile 12.8: Decent-sized pullout.
Mile 13.1: Cleetwood Cove. There’s a very large parking lot here with bathrooms. This is where to park if you want to hike the Cleetwood Cove Trail (1.1 miles each way) down to the lake. You’ll see lots of families here in their bathing suits as they prepare to head to the lake.
Mile 13.3: Pullout with good views.
Mile 14.6: Palisade Point. A lookout with really good views. If you come on a sunny morning, you’ll see the reflection of the mountain in the lake, which is very cool.
Mile 15.0: Small pullout. This one has no barrier or wall, so be careful. If you ever wanted to do a Thelma & Louise plunge right into the crater, this is the spot.
Miles 15.5 & 15.6: Pullouts with decent views.
Mile 16.3: Large pullout with awesome views! This spot has the best views on the northeast side of the lake. After this, the road starts descending into forested terrain.
Mile 19.5: White Bark Pine pullout. No lake views here, but there are several picnic tables and bathrooms.
Mile 19.6: Mount Scott Trailhead parking lot. It’s one of the coolest hikes in the park! Arrive early before the heat of the day creeps in.
Mile 19.7: Cloud Cap Overlook. This is the biggest overlook on the eastern side of Rim Drive. Follow the signs on the 1-mile road to the large parking lot. A lot of people stop here for lunch while soaking in the views.
Miles 20.9 & 21.1: Pullouts with views of Pumice Castle. Pumice Castle is a small series of hardened lava vents formed during the big eruption. They look like orange spires sticking out of the side of the mountain.
Mile 23.0: Small pullout.
Mile 23.5: Phantom Ship Overlook. Phantom Ship is a tiny island in the lake that gets its name because if you’re down in the lake on a foggy day, it almost looks like a ship.
PRO TIP: For the best photos of Phantom Ship, stop by the overlook in the morning, because in the evening the island will be backlit and you’ll only see shadows. If you do find yourself here in the evening, proceed a few miles west to Sun Notch, which will have views looking back at Phantom Ship to the east.
Mile 23.5: Pinnacles Road. This is a 7-mile detour from the main road that is definitely worth taking. You’ll find three points of interest on Pinnacles Road: Lost Creek Campground; Plaikni Falls, an easy 1-mile (each way) hike to a waterfall; and Pinnacles Overlook, where you can see “fossil fumeroles,” or 100-foot tall rock needles formed from volcanic ash.
Miles 24.3 & 24.4: Small pullouts, not noteworthy.
Mile 25.4: Small pullouts with nice views of the meadow to the south.
Miles 26.0, 26.4, 26.8: Small pullouts.
Mile 27.4: Sun Notch. Here’s another point of interest worth stopping for. It’s a very short half-mile loop walking trail with several views of the lake between the trees. You can see Phantom Ship from here.
Mile 28.7: Crater Peak Trailhead. There’s a picnic area here with bathrooms.
Mile 28.8: Vidae Falls. A small roadside waterfall. Not spectacular, but worth a quick stop.
Mile 31.4: Castle Crest Wildflower Garden Walk. This half-mile loop reveals a modest display of wildflowers in July and August.
Mile 32.0: You’re back to the start at Steel Visitor Center. (Note: Rim Drive is actually only 32 miles if you drive straight around; the official 33-mile figure includes the 1-mile road to Cloudcap Overlook.)
If you haven’t yet visited Mazama Village, this is a good time to take the road south a few miles to the village. At Mazama Village, you’ll find the Annie Creek Restaurant (open 11-2 and 5:30-8:30) and gift shop. There’s also a Mazama Village Store for snacks and supplies.
PRO TIP: There’s a water bottle filling station outside the Mazama Village Store. There’s also a gas station here, the only one inside the park.
More Things To Do at Crater Lake
In addition to the scenic drive, here are some ideas for additional activities and things to do at Crater Lake.
Crater Lake Boat Tour to Wizard Island
The park offers daily boat tours in the lake, plus a shuttle to Wizard Island. Sadly, these boats are not operating during 2020 due to the current health crisis, but they will return when and if life ever returns to normal.
To board any of these Crater Lake boat tours, guests have to descend the Cleetwood Cove Trail to the dock. The boats do not have bathrooms.
Trolley Tour of Rim Drive
Want to skip the driving? From July through September, you can take a trolley tour of the entire Rim Drive. These narrated tours allow you to see the whole road, with 5-7 stops at the major scenic viewpoints. Tours are two hours long and are wheelchair accessible. (These tours are also canceled in 2020.)
Swimming in Crater Lake
There’s only one place in Crater Lake where it’s legal to hike down to the lake, and that’s the Cleetwood Cove Trail. As noted earlier, you can swim here for free if you’re willing to make the hike (1.1 miles each way). There’s little shade once you get down there, so bring sunscreen. And be prepared to make the strenuous walk (700 feet elevation gain) back up!
Fishing is legal in the lake and all of the park’s streams except Sun Creek and Lost Creek. No license is required. No live bait may be used. Bull trout (a protected species) must be returned if caught.
Crater Lake itself had no native fish, but various species were introduced between 1888 and 1941. Today, kokanee salmon and rainbow trout are the most plentiful.
Lots of cyclists tackle Rim Drive. If you want to ride, you’ll have to bring your own bike. Be careful, as there are no bike lanes, and you’ll be battling plenty of car traffic as you ride.
Play in the Snow
There are still a handful of spots in the park that often have snow in late July. The Watchman Peak Trail is one of them. Also, take the Rim Trail running from Watchman Overlook to the north. That’s where I got to make snow angels on the ground!
Is There a Crater Lake Webcam?
Yes, there is. In fact, it makes our list of the best national park webcams in the country! The webcam refreshes every 60 seconds and shows the current view of the lake and Wizard Island. If you’re visiting the park and want to get a sneak peek of what viewing conditions are like today, check out the cam here.
Crater Lake Weather and Snow
As noted, Crater Lake’s high elevation means that it gets several feet of snow per year. In the winter, you can still visit Mazama Village and Rim Village, but the rest of the main park roads will be closed. The lake itself isn’t even visible 50% of the time during winter because of cloudy conditions.
The park gets an average of 505 inches (42 feet) of snow per year. Average temperatures are only about 70 F (21 C) even in July and August (though it will feel hotter if you’re hiking some of the exposed mountain trails like Mount Scott.)
Find the latest weather forecast here.
Things To Bring to Crater Lake National Park
If you’re visiting Rim Drive and Crater Lake, here are a few things you should consider bringing.
I visited Crater Lake in the middle of July, and it was still very chilly and windy in the morning. I was glad I brought a knit cap, but a nice wind jacket like this Little Donkey Rain Jacket would’ve been so much better. Having a waterproof jacket is ideal in case it rains during a hike. Choose one of the bright blue jackets rather than the plain grey or black, so that you stand out more in photos.
Emergency Roadside Kit
For any driving trip, I recommend having the AAA Emergency Roadside Kit, a 42-piece kit that includes every essential you may need: jumper cables, flashlight, poncho, duct tape, first aid bandages, and more.
National Parks Passport Book
I love this little book. The National Parks Passport is a place to track all your park visits. At every national park, you can get a stamp to add to your book. At Crater Lake, get your stamp at either visitor center.
I suggest bringing your own snacks, since there aren’t many places in the park to buy food. I’ve become obsessed with Larabars. They’re like granola / energy bars, except they’re made entirely from dates, raisins, nuts, and other completely natural ingredients. Grab a small box for your trip. For more food ideas, see my complete list of recommended road trip snacks.
Insulated Water Bottle
Bring plenty of water, especially if you’ll be hiking! Based on my own experience, I suggest bringing twice as much water as you expect to use. Remember, the elevation is really high here, so you’ll be expending more energy than usual. Either bring filled water jugs, or a water bottle like this Takeya Originals Bottle, a large 40 ounce bottle that keeps liquids cool. You can refill your water bottle at the Mazama Village Store water bottle filling station, or in the sinks in the Rim Village bathrooms.
Panasonic Lumix FZ80
If you’re in the market for a new camera, make the purchase before visiting Crater Lake so you can capture those incredible views on film! The Panasonic Lumix FZ80 hits that sweet spot between affordability and excellent quality. It has lots of bells and whistles, but it’s still easy to use for a beginner who wants to point-and-shoot.
Here’s my full list of road trip necessities that you may want to consider having in your vehicle.
What Are the Best Crater Lake Hikes?
The hiking at Crater Lake is excellent. You’ve got short, family-friendly strolls through meadows and viewpoints. Then you’ve got longer, challenging mountain hikes with amazing lake views at the top.
Remember to bring sunscreen and a hat to shield your eyes from the strong mid-day summer sun.
Popular Crater Lake Hikes:
• Easy: Pinnacles Overlook (0.8 miles out & back, 30 minutes, △10 feet elevation gain)
• Easy: Sun Notch (0.8 mile loop trail, 30 minutes, △150 feet)
• Easy: Plaikni Falls (2.0 miles out & back, 1 hour, △100 feet)
• Moderate: Watchman Peak (1.6 miles out & back, 1 hour, △420 feet)
• Strenuous: Cleetwood Cove (2.2 miles out & back, 90 minutes, △700 feet)
• Strenuous: Mount Scott (4.4 miles out & back, 3 hours, △1250 feet)
Mount Scott: This is my top-rated suggestion for a hike at Crater Lake, and not just because it’s my namesake! The 4.4-mile roundtrip to the top of Mount Scott provides the coolest panoramic views from the highest point (8929 feet) in the park. You can look down at the lake on one side and the seemingly-endless forested hills on the other side.
The elevation gain of 1250 feet isn’t too bad for experienced hikers. But the altitude, combined with the dry, dusty mountain, will likely make you feel hot and tired on a sunny day.
Watchman Peak: If you’re fortunate to score a parking space at Watchman Overlook, you can scale the hillside next to the overlook. The trail winds around the back of the mountain before reaching the historic Watchman Peak Fire Lookout, built in 1932 and still in use today.
The elevation gain is 420 feet, but it feels like more than that. There’s not a ton of space at the lookout, and there are lots of people around, so it’s not the best place to try to eat lunch.
Cleetwood Cove: Here’s the hike for anyone who wants to swim in Crater Lake. The 1.1 mile walk down 700 feet to the lake is easy. The walk back up? Not so much. Lots of people underestimate this hike and end up struggling to make it back up. I actually found this hike more tiring than Mount Scott, because it’s basically straight up on a series of switchbacks. Still worth it though!
Plaikni Falls: This hike is almost entirely flat until the very end, when there’s a moderate incline to the falls. It’s easy for folks who aren’t normally hikers. The path is even wheelchair accessible. The falls are nice, but don’t expect to be blown away.
PRO TIP: I advise doing the most difficult hikes first and saving the easier ones for later. My suggested strategy: Do Mount Scott in the morning to avoid the afternoon heat. Next, do the Cleetwood Cove hike down to the lake, where you can relax, swim, and eat lunch. In the afternoon, knock out some of the shorter hikes like Sun Notch and Plaikni Falls.
If you take the boat to Wizard Island, you can hike to the top on the Wizard Summit Trail. The trek measures 2.2 miles roundtrip and takes 90 minutes (it’s closed during 2020.)
Inexplicably, the NPS Crater Lake website doesn’t have a list of all the hikes within the park. But you can find more hiking suggestions from scrolling through the latest edition of the park newspaper.
Hotels Near Crater Lake: Lodging and Camping Options
There aren’t a ton of lodging options in the immediate vicinity of the park. Within park boundaries, you have the Mazama and Lost Creek Campgrounds, plus Crater Lake Lodge and The Cabins at Mazama Village. Outside the park, you can find lodges, campgrounds, and hotels in the towns of Chemult, Fort Klamath, Diamond Lake, and Union Creek.
If you’re coming from the north, stay in Chemult or Diamond Lake. If you’re coming up from the south, consider Klamath Falls.
Recommended Hotel on the Northern Side: Dawson House Lodge is my top choice of the hotels near Crater Lake. This is the nicest of the three hotels in the heart of Chemult. It’s not necessarily luxury, but I found it to be comfortable and a good value. It’s 25 miles from the park, which is about as close as you’re going to get since there are so few hotels in the area. Food options within walking distance from the hotel include Subway, a taco truck, and a family restaurant, plus a 24-hour convenience store.
Recommended Campground on the Northern Side: Diamond Lake Campground. Only 10 minutes (6 miles) from the North Entrance of Crater Lake National Park, Diamond Lake is your best for Crater Lake camping outside the park. There are 238 campsites with picnic tables and firepits, 51 of which are right on the lake. Sites start at $16/night. Bring bug repellent!
Recommended Hotel on the Southern Side: Crater Lake Resort is the best lodging option on the southern side. Your options here include 13 cabins, 12 RV sites, and 6 tent sites. The cottages have cable tvs, wifi, and patio areas in beautiful, scenic surroundings. The hotel is about 20 miles from park headquarters.
Recommended Campground on the Southern Side: Collier Memorial State Park. Located 33 miles south of park headquarters, this state park has 50 RV sites with hookups, and 18 tent sites. Showers are available, and the park is open May through September. They do not have wifi.
Frequently Asked Questions About Crater Lake
Here are some of the most commonly-asked questions about Rim Drive and Crater Lake National Park. I’ve already touched on some of these topics, but I’ll include them here again for the sake of having all the information in one place.
How deep is Crater Lake?
At its deepest point, the lake is 1943 feet deep. That makes it the deepest in the United States, and ninth-deepest in the world. Its average depth is 1143 feet.
How was crater lake formed?
The lake was formed by the eruption of Mount Mazama 7700 years ago. After its top blew, the interior of the volcano collapsed and formed the caldera and lake we see today. Wizard Island was created during later eruptions. Here’s a great explanation of the geologic history of the area.
Is crater lake active volcano?
It is technically an active volcano. However, its last eruption was 4800 years ago, when a lava dome erupted underwater near the eastern end of Wizard Island. Geologists say it’s likely to erupt again at some point, although there isn’t enough magma to produce another massive eruption like the one that formed the crater.
Why is the water so blue in crater lake?
There are no streams running in or out of Crater Lake, so all the water in the lake comes directly from rain and melted snow. That’s why the water is so clear. Guests who swim in the lake are not allowed to bring any water toys which might have been in other bodies of water and could transmit microscopic species into Crater Lake. The only fish in Crater Lake are the salmon and trout which were intentionally added to stock the lake.
Is there an entrance fee to Crater Lake National Park?
Yes. As of 2020, the fee is $30 per vehicle most of the year, and $20 in winter. Bicyclists and pedestrians are charged $15.
How long is the drive to Crater Lake?
From Bend, Oregon, the drive is about 90 minutes to the northern entrance. From Portland, figure four hours. From Seattle in the north or San Francisco in the south, you’re looking at a 7-hour drive.
Can you go backcountry camping at Crater Lake?
Yes indeed. Backpacking at Crater Lake is allowed as long as you hike at least one mile from your car. Obtain a required backcountry camping permit (free) at Park Headquarters between 8 and 4:30.
Are there bears at Crater Lake?
The park does have some black bears (41 at last count), but they are rarely seen. They tend to stay in the forested sections of the park rather than near Rim Drive. They venture out and become more active in late spring and autumn, just before and after their hibernation season.
One visitor on TripAdvisor mentioned seeing a bear on a September hike to Cleetwood Cove, but that’s very rare. You probably won’t see any.
What other wildlife might you see in the park?
The park has herds of elk which can occasionally be seen in the meadows along Rim Drive. You may also see squirrels, fox, coyotes, and skunks on Rim Drive.
During my visit, I spotted a couple marmots along West Rim Drive and a few deer on North Entrance Road. Chipmunks were abundant atop Mount Scott and kept approaching people. They’ve apparently learned that humans = food.
What is cell phone service like at Crater Lake?
It’s sporadic. You’ll get service along most of Rim Drive, but service does cut out in a few places. If you venture away from the road for a hike, expect to lose service.
What is the Rim Run?
Joggers, take note: The Crater Lake Rim Runs take place annually in August. Up to 500 participants can run or walk 6.7 miles, or run a half-marathon or full marathon. Advance registration is required.
Have you ever visited Rim Drive at Crater Lake National Park?