Crater Lake National Park tips

Peer into Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park

Boat across the world’s clearest lake

Crater Lake sinks 1,943 feet deep and holds the world record for water clarity. It’s fed only by snowmelt and rain; no water flows in or out. And you can spot an object called a Secchi disk, used to measure lake clarity, up to 134 feet below the surface, which qualifies as “spectacular,” even though that’s not a scientific term.

The only time I’ve witnessed a park ranger dip her cupped hands and drink right from a natural water source was from this incredible lake and national park. And I experienced the most exhilarating form of “awe” the first time I hiked to the rim of Crater Lake National Park.

Carefully plan your trip

Mountain peaks in this park reach 8,900 feet. Crater Lake receives a lot of snow and some areas are inaccessible until mid summer. We’ve visited three times, once in late June when only a small section of the Rim Road was open and most of the park was inaccessible, including the lake’s surface. But we could still walk near the lake’s rim and take in the incredible snow-covered views.

During our other two trips, we arrived in early August when all roads, boat service and trails were open. So there was more to do.

Crater Lake Sunset Fire
Forest fires enhanced this sunset from Garfield Peak, a trail starting right by our lodge.

Lodge views may be unmatched

I’ve stayed in enough national park lodges to make this statement: Crater Lake Lodge provides guests with the best view in America.

My second highest rated view would be from the dining room of Many Glacier Lodge in Glacier National Park, MT. Others may rival these two, but we’d have to arm wrestle to decide the winner. And fair warning, I’ve recently been hanging out in the weight room.

My enthusiasm for the lodge refers only to the “view.” As far as accommodations go, it’s “okay.” Like many national park lodges, you normally have to rely upon convenience of location and historical significance when rating them. For instance, hiking trails start right outside the doors of Crater Lake lodge, which we valued.

Crater Lake boat trip Phantom Ship
The only way to see this view of Phantom Ship is by boat.

Two words: “boat trip”

We’re not boat trip people. We prefer to hike. But everyone should experience floating across the surface of Crater Lake. It was exceptional. Just pay close attention to your trip’s timing to better guarantee that the park’s boat service is operating, usually late June to early September.

To get to the boat dock, you have to hike one mile down into the crater on Cleetwood Cove Trail. This route is well groomed. And keep in mind that the hike back up gains 700 feet.

Crater Lake Plaikni Falls wildflowers
Summer wildflowers paint the approach to Plaikni Falls.

Discover more than a majestic lake

Most people absorb the great views of the lake and move on to another park or destination. However, I encourage you to take a day or two and explore other interesting parts of Crater Lake.

We stopped at Vidae Falls and walked the nearby Castle Crest Trail around its beautiful meadow of wildflowers. Reaching Plaikni Falls involves an easy 2-mile hike. And we hiked the more strenuous 3.4-mile round-trip trail to Garfield Peak to glimpse a sunset, using my headlamp on the way back down just to be safe.

Hikers love the 5-mile trek to Mount Scott and back. Don’t skip the Kerr Notch roadside pullout and its overlook of Phantom Ship. And one afternoon, we drove to Pinnacle Valley and took a short walk to view the spires.

Crater Lake Pinnacles
There’s more to see at Crater Lake, such as the Pinnacles.

Add other national parks to your trip

We’ve always flown to San Francisco and worked our way up to Crater Lake, usually including in our vacation plans Lassen Volcanic National Park, Lava Beds National Monument and Redwood National Park. Of course there’s always Yosemite to consider if you have more time. Starting in Portland is another good option – we’ve not tried that route.

Crater Lake is special. I could photograph it for days, resting to navigate around tiny marshmallows while sipping hot chocolate from the patio lodge chairs, while imagining the moment when the Mount Mazama volcano collapsed into what’s now the most beautiful lake in America.