A 2-Day Journey through Crater Lake National Park | Must-See Places and Where to Stay

Crater Lake National Park | Introduction

Crater Lake National Park is the only national park in the state of Oregon, located in the southern part of Oregon. Its most famous and, one could say, only attraction is the immense caldera lake left behind after a volcanic eruption approximately 7,000 years ago. It is the deepest and bluest lake in the United States, with a recorded depth of 608 meters according to explorations in 1886, ranking it among the top ten deepest lakes in the world. Formed by volcanic activity, the lake is surrounded by high mountains and lacks any significant inflowing rivers; its water is solely sourced from rain and snowmelt.

Driving from the Bay Area to Crater Lake takes nearly seven hours. Starting from Sacramento, it's about a five and a half hour journey. As you cross the border from California into Oregon, you'll quickly notice that Oregon lives up to its reputation as a forestry hub. The entire route is adorned with beautiful forests, meadows, and ranches. It's no wonder that the iconic tree motif on Oregon license plates is fitting for this picturesque landscape.

If possible, it's best to plan a two-night itinerary to avoid fatigue during your journey. The national park itself isn't very large, so having a full day is sufficient to explore all the major attractions. On several occasions, I've left right after work on Friday and driven to Redding to stay for one night. Then, the following morning, I'd continue the drive to Crater Lake. By the time you arrive, it's usually around 10 AM, and the lighting is perfect. As soon as you step out of the car, you'll be greeted by the breathtaking beauty of the lake and the surrounding mountains.

Crater Lake National Park Lodging Search

Crater Lake is one of the few national parks that I've driven to from the Bay Area multiple times. The first visit was in the spring of 2014, during March. It was a challenging drive through heavy snow, but upon reaching the park, we couldn't see the lake at all due to the weather conditions, and the trails were inaccessible. The only activity we could do was snowshoeing. Missing out on the scenic beauty was a huge disappointment, and since then, I couldn't get Crater Lake out of my mind. I even listed returning to Crater Lake as one of my top ten life goals!

In July 2017, I had the chance to visit again on a weekend. This time, luck was on my side. The weather was clear, and the night before, I managed to book a last-minute cancellation at the Crater Lake Lodge. Seeing the lake in person, the deep blue waters officially became the most beautiful sight in the United States for me. Although photos are stunning, they can't fully capture the magnificence of this place. Moreover, being at a high latitude, even in July, it's more like early summer, and the snow hasn't completely melted, with some roads remaining closed.

So, in September 2019, during the peak of summer, I arranged another weekend camping trip to Crater Lake, and this time, I managed to circle the entire lake.

Crater Lake National Park | Where to stay and eat

The only three places in Crater Lake that have stores are.

  • Mazama Village: Located right next to the entrance station, this village is a bit of a distance from the main attractions and serves as the campground location.
  • Rim Village: The most bustling area, this is where you'll find the visitor center and a small store. The Crater Lake Lodge is also situated here. From this location, you can access the starting points for the Rim Trail leading to Garfield Peak and Discovery Point, the beginning of park ranger-guided tours, and the boat tour ticket sales booth, making it a very busy spot during meal times.
  • Park Headquarters: As you drive up from the entrance, it's the first building you'll come across. Inside, there are exhibits and a park overview video that plays every half hour, making it well worth a visit.
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Accommodation options at Crater Lake include the Crater Lake Lodge and the campsites and cabins at Mazama Village, all of which are only open during the summer season.

Accommodations | Crater Lake Lodge

Crater Lake Lodge is the only upscale hotel within the park, and given that the nearest hotels are at least a 40-minute drive away, it's no wonder this lodge, open only from May to October, is always in high demand. The lodge's location is exceptional, and I highly recommend staying here if you can secure a reservation. Not only does it offer beautiful lakeside views, but its proximity to the lake also saves travel time, allowing you to witness breathtaking sunsets in the evening and sunrise in the morning.

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The view of the lake from outside the lodge is truly spectacular. Sitting by the lake in the afternoon, enjoying a drink, and meditating in front of the deep blue waters can be described as one of life's greatest pleasures.

Crater Lake Lodge itself is a historic landmark, with construction dating back to as early as 1909. Its interiors bear the marks of its age, and the furniture used adds a unique vintage flavor to the ambiance. Compared to other national park lodges I've stayed in, the lodge's facilities are relatively modern, and the accommodations are comfortable. 

In the evening, you can enjoy stargazing outside the lodge. The lodge itself is well-lit at night, creating a peaceful and serene atmosphere.

Crater Lake Lodge is also the only restaurant in the vicinity. The restaurant is quite popular, and it's advisable to make reservations for dining. We've had both breakfast and lunch there, and the menu is primarily American cuisine. Initially, we didn't have high expectations, assuming it was just a national park restaurant. However, during lunch, we ordered the chicken fried steak and fish and chips, and after trying the dishes, we found them to be delicious. Considering the price and the restaurant's location, it offers great value. It later became clear that the Crater Lake Lodge restaurant is of gourmet quality, and we had underestimated it.

Camping | Mazama Campground

Mazama Village is located right next to the Entrance station and is about 7 miles away from the lake. It offers campsites and cabins. We camped here in 2019, and the camping fee for one night was $23. During the summer, the campsite is quite comfortable, with a moderate amount of space, and the sites are shaded by the surrounding forest.

  • Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Space: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Cleanliness: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Location: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Overall Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Lodging options outside the park

Lodging within the park is only available during the summer, and the availability is limited. If you can't secure accommodations inside the park, you may want to consider options outside the park. The nearest lodging options outside the park are Chiloquin, Klamath Falls, or Medford. There are more choices in Medford, but it is farther away.

Looking for a stay in Chiloquin?

Looking for a stay in Klamath Falls?

Looking for a stay in Medford?

Crater Lake National Park | Attractions

Rim Village

The first stop when entering the park is typically at Rim Village. Across from it is the Crater lake, with its deep blue waters, making it hard to resist stopping and admiring for a while.

Don't forget to visit the visitor center before heading to the next stop. If you haven't been here before, you might find the visitor center a bit challenging to locate, but it's actually just a short path down in front of the parking area, marked on the map as Sinnott Memorial Overlook. Here, you can learn about the formation of Crater Lake. The story goes roughly like this: 7,700 years ago, Crater Lake was originally the highest peak in the area, but after a violent volcanic eruption, the entire mountain collapsed, creating the large crater that is now Crater Lake. Over countless years, it filled with melted snow and became the beautiful lake we see today. Local Native American traditions even include stories of their ancestors witnessing a battle of the gods during the eruption of the volcano.

Today, we see a small island in the center of the lake known as Wizard Island. It was the largest volcanic vent during that ancient eruption and formed in its current domed shape as it cooled.

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Garfield Peak Trail

Starting from the lakeshore in front of Crater Lake Lodge, you can embark on the Garfield Peak Trail. This trail is moderately challenging, and if you hike all the way to the summit of Garfield Peak, it's a total length of 3.7 miles. When we visited, half of the trail was still covered in snow, so we only hiked the first half. The initial section of the hike isn't very strenuous, and the scenery is fantastic. I particularly loved the serene lake, which looked like a mirror, reflecting the mountains as if the world had come to a standstill. Perhaps we can also credit this tranquility to the fact that the boat tours hadn't started, and there were no traces of visitors on the lake or Wizard Island.

If you stay at Crater Lake Lodge, you can easily walk to this trail to watch the sunrise and sunset. The lighting here is also beautiful during sunset, as the sun descends from the west, creating a unique view from the eastern rim. In the morning, as the sun rises from the east, Wizard Island gradually transitions from darkness to brightness.

Rim Drive

When you visit Crater Lake National Park, you will undoubtedly take a drive along the Rim Drive that encircles the lake. Rim Drive typically allows you to complete a full loop around the lake when the park is fully open. However, at times, especially during the winter when there's deep snowfall, or in the summer when some parts may still be frozen, access can be limited. For example, when we visited in 2017, due to heavy snowfall on the west side during the previous winter, some areas were still partially frozen in early July. As a result, only the western half, the West Rim Drive, was open for visitors.

When fully open, Rim Drive covers a distance of 33 miles. If you don't spend too much time on the trails and only stop at the most significant viewpoints, you can complete it in two to three hours. However, I would recommend dedicating a full day to it, taking your time to savor the experience and the breathtaking scenery.

Discovery point

Discovery Point is the first viewpoint on the West Rim Drive, and you can see the lake as soon as you park your car. The view of the lake from this vantage point is incredibly beautiful, and from here, you can also walk along a 2-mile trail that runs along the lake.

The Watchman Trail

The Watchman Trail is one of the must-do hikes at Crater Lake, rated as moderately difficult and spanning approximately 1.6 miles in length. On this trail, you can enjoy a panoramic view of the entire lake, with Wizard Island visible on the right. The trail becomes especially stunning when there's still snow melting along the way.

On the trail, you'll pass by Hillman Peak and Devil's Backbone, each offering slightly different perspectives of the lake, but the consistent element is the striking blue of the water throughout the journey.

Cleetwood Cove Trail

Cleetwood Cove Trail, located on the northern edge of Rim Drive, marks the midpoint of the drive, and it continues eastward as East Rim Drive. Cleetwood Cove Trail descends all the way to the lakeshore, and during the summer when boat tours are operating, the tour boats depart from the dock at the bottom of the trail. The descent down the trail is not too challenging and takes about half an hour to complete.

About halfway down the trail, you can catch a glimpse of the tour boats at the bottom. During our visit, the tour boats were not operating, serving purely as decorative elements.

At the bottom, many people enjoy swimming and playing in the water, with some visitors even taking the opportunity to dive from higher points nearby. Here, you can get up close to Crater Lake, and you'll find the lake's water to be deep blue and incredibly clear.

After enjoying the water, you'll need to climb back up the hill. The ranger mentioned that it might take three times as long to go up as it did to come down, but in my experience, a leisurely walk back up takes about 40-50 minutes to return to the starting point.

Pumice Castle Overlook

On the East Rim Drive, you can see Pumice Castle, which is on the right side of the lake, on the wall of Mount Mazama. The protruding red rock formations resemble a castle on the mountainside when viewed from a distance.

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Phantom Ship

Phantom Ship is a rock formation that protrudes from the lake's surface, and its shape resembles a ship, hence the name "Phantom Ship." You can view it from the Phantom Ship Overlook or by taking the Sun Notch Trail, a relatively easy hike.

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Vidae Falls

Vidae Falls, located on the southern edge of Rim Drive, is a 100-foot high waterfall and one of the few viewpoints that don't face the lake. The waterfall is right by the roadside, so you don't need to exert much effort to see it – just a short walk to get a view of the falls.

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The Pinnacles

Another viewpoint that doesn't directly face the lake is "The Pinnacles," which refers to the sharp rock formations seen in the photos. These rock formations are also one of the geological features shaped by volcanic activity. On the East Rim Drive, there's a road leading to the Pinnacle Overlook. However, it's worth mentioning that we happened to pass by another viewpoint on our way out of the park, which provided a great view of the Pinnacles.

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