As the deepest lake in the United States, Crater Lake captivates with its vivid blue color. The list of Crater Lake National Park things to do is long and will make this trip an incredible adventure. Whether you’re an avid hiker, a nature photographer, or simply seeking a peaceful retreat, you’ll find something to love in this unique landscape.
Crater Lake National Park was the first stop on our California National Park Road Trip. It lived up to its reputation for having some of the most breathtaking National Park views in the country. Located in Southern Oregon, this stunning park is only a short drive from Redwood National and State Parks and the perfect place to start your adventure!
We spent 3 days and 2 nights exploring this park, putting together this list of the best things to do in Crater Lake. In this article, you’ll discover ideas of what to do on your adventure!
What’s Special About Crater Lake National Park?
At the heart of the park lies Crater Lake, with a depth of 1,943 feet. Without a doubt, it is one of the most photographed lakes in the National Park System and our photos of this stunning lake were Christmas Card perfect!
The lake is a stunning testament to the raw power of nature and the serene beauty that can follow in the wake of extreme force. Crater Lake was formed between 6,000 to 8,000 years ago when a violent volcanic eruption caused the collapse of Mount Mazama, a cinder cone volcano. The resulting caldera was eventually filled with rainwater and snowmelt to form the lake we see today. Sheer cliffs, up to 2,000 feet high encircle the lake.
What is a Caldera? A caldera is a large depression formed when a volcano erupts and collapses. Some calderas, like in Crater Lake, form a lake as the bowl-shaped depression fills with water.National Geographic
Why is Crater Lake so Blue?
The clear blue color of the lake was the first thing to catch our eye. The intense blue of Crater Lake is the result of the lake’s depth and purity. Since no rivers or streams are flowing into or out of the lake, there are fewer sediments and organisms to disturb its clarity. This natural clarity allows sunlight to penetrate deep into the water, absorbing red and yellow light wavelengths and leaving the vibrant blue that colors the lake.
Beyond the lake, you’ll find other signs of the volcanic legacy that makes Crater Lake National Park a unique natural wonder. The park is home to dense fir and pine forests that roll right into the surrounding National Forest.
Things to Do in Crater Lake’s Rim Village
Rim Village is the heart of Crater Lake National Park, and most likely will be your first stop when you visit Crater Lake. Here you’ll find some of the best views and facilities the park has to offer.
The village is on the National Register of Historic Places. Along with the interesting rustic buildings, you’ll love walking along the ⅓ mile rim trail with only a low native stone parapet wall between you and Crater Lake.
It takes about ½ day to leisurely explore Crater Lake’s dog-friendly village. So we’ll start our list of things to do at Crater Lake here.
#1 Start at the Kiser Studio and Rim Visitor Center
Built in 1921 and expanded in 1926, Kiser Studio started as a photography studio where Fred Kiser sold hand-colored postcards of the lake to visitors. Today you can see examples of his work.
The building now serves as the Rim Village Visitor Center. While this visitor center is small, we found plenty of help from rangers and signage outside the studio to help us plan our day.
#2 Get a Photo at Sinnott Memorial Overlook
The Sinnott Memorial Overlook stretches out over the bluff offering a stunning panoramic view of Crater Lake and Wizard Island. This is a photo opportunity not to be missed!
The museum beneath the overlook was opened in 1931 to provide interpretive displays about the lake’s geology.
#3 Learn about the Park at The Community House
Once a social hub for park guests, the Community House was built in 1931. The original park campground stood next to the lodge so early visitors used this space to enjoy evening entertainment. It now hosts educational programs.
#4 Don’t Miss one of the Best Views from Mather Observation Point
Grab your camera and walk to Mather Observation Point. Take in the awe-inspiring sight of Crater Lake’s deep blue waters. It’s named to honor Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service.
#5 Shop at the Rim Village Cafe and Gift Shop
The Rim Village Gift Shop is your go-to for souvenirs, books, and postcards. In the same building, you’ll find snacks, sandwiches, and of course my favorite… ice cream. There’s a small outside dining area or you can walk over to the picnic grounds to enjoy your treat.
#6 Eat Lunch in the Rim Village Picnic Area
Once the campground for the park, the area just past the lodge is now a gorgeous picnic area. It was never designed for the amount of traffic it received and overuse caused the campground to be moved in 1975 to Mazama Village. It took a lot of work to re-establish trees and fauna before it could be turned over for the beautiful picnic spot it is today.
#7 Join Ranger Talks
I enjoyed a delightful park ranger talk on the patio of Crater Lake Lodge exploring the history of the park and the buildings. Other ranger talks happen throughout the day in various locations of Rim Village. The schedule is posted daily at both visitor centers.
We also found several opportunities to chat one-on-one with park rangers while we explored Rim Village. When we get a chance to talk to a ranger we always ask:
- What is your favorite place in this park?
- What other parks have you worked in and how is this park different/better/more interesting?
#8 Dine at Crater Lake Lodge
Take a step back into the 1920s architecture and style. Even if you are not spending the night, poke your head in and enjoy the rustic charm of Crater Lake Lodge. This majestic lodge offers a fine dining experience and suggests you make lunch and dinner reservations at least a week in advance.
We loved ending our day with a cocktail on their dog-friendly patio that has a full view of the lake.
You Must Stop at these Spots Along Scenic Rim Drive
Experience Crater Lake National Park via the Rim Drive that circles the caldera. This scenic route offers breathtaking views with access to notable landmarks.
The Rim Drive is a 33-mile loop around the caldera with 30 photogenic overlooks and 5 picnic areas.
The 40 feet of snow that usually accumulates in winter closes this scenic drive from November through May. Actual closing dates vary with snowfall each year. During our visit, we experienced partial closures due to a special event and construction.
Here are some of the best things to do along Crater Lake’s Rim Drive going clockwise from the main park entrance. Although we only highlighted a handful of stops, every pull-off leads to beautiful views of the lake.
#9 Explore Steel Visitor Center
Steel Visitor Center is the park’s primary information hub. It’s currently undergoing a major update to preserve the integrity of this building which was originally a park ranger dormitory. Here you’ll find a plethora of information about Crater Lake’s history and geology. Rangers are available with tips on how to spend your day.
#10 Don’t miss Historic Discovery Point Overlook
It is believed that Discovery Point is where gold prospector John Wesley Hillman first spotted Crater Lake in 1853, calling it “Deep Blue Lake.” The historic value isn’t the only reason to stop at this overlook, for many it’s your first opportunity for gorgeous photos of the lake.
Another great way to reach Discovery Point is to walk along the Rim Trail about 1 mile headed Northwest from Rim Village.
#11 View the Lake from Watchman Overlook
The Watchman Overlook provides up-close views of Wizard Island as well as great photo opportunities of the whole lake. This is a busy overlook but people tend to only make a short stop so if you are patient you can get a parking space fairly quickly.
While this is also the trailhead for the easy 1.5 mi RT hike to Watchman Peak, you will find great views just a few steps away from the parking lot.
#12 Walk Down Cleetwood Cove Trail to the Lake Shore
The Cleetwood Cove Trail is one of the most popular stops. As the only legal access to the shoreline of Crater Lake, visitors gather here to dip their toes into the volcanic lake. And for the truly brave, this is the only spot where you can access the lake for a swim. Of course, our crazy adult kids challenged each other to dive in when they visited Crater Lake. However, swims are short as at the peak of summer the water temperature is lucky to top 60° F (15° C).
Be ready for a strenuous hike; this 1.1-mile trail descends 700 feet to the shoreline below. That means the ascent back up is quite challenging. Plan about an hour to make this trek.
#13 Stop at Cloudcap Overlook
Cloudcap Overlook is the highest point accessible by vehicle in the park. At this vantage point, you’re treated to panoramic views of Crater Lake making it ideal for photographers. This is a great spot to watch the tour boars visiting Wizard Island so bring along your binoculars.
#14 Visit Phantom Ship Overlook
Take a break at the Phantom Ship Overlook to view the natural rock formation known as Phantom Ship. This island on Crater Lake resembles a ghostly sailboat. This is a popular spot for sunrise or sunset photos due to the interesting shadows. The sun popped out during our stop and we got some amazing photos.
#15 Take a Photo of Vidae Falls
Vidae Falls is likely the closest you will ever get to a waterfall without getting out of your car. It cascades down right next to the road and continues under the roadway.
The 125-foot drop is beautiful and well worth getting out of your car for a few minutes to get a picture. It’s believed that the source of water is a combination of snow melt and seepage from the lake. During our September visit, it continued to provide quite a show.
Don’t Miss the Boat and Trolley Tours
#16 Explore Wizard Island
You can explore Wizard Island either by taking a direct Boat Shuttle or joining the Wizard Island Boat Tour which stops at the island. While there hike to the summit of Wizard Island (2.2 mi RT) to the 90-foot-deep crater. Or feel free to take a quick swim in the icy waters from the island beach.
Crater Lake boat tours provide an up-close experience of the lake’s deep blue waters and geological wonders. The tours are run by a concessionaire with ½ of the tickets available by reservation and the other ½ sold same day.
These tours are not for the faint of heart as it is required to hike down to the docks at Cleetwood Cove. This is a steep trail that takes 30-45 minutes just to get to the docks.
#17 Cruise Crater Lake
A ranger-led 2-hour boat tour around the lake is the perfect chance to learn about the history and geology of the lake.
This boat ride departs from the docks at Cleetwood Cove.
#18 Ride the Crater Lake Trolley
Hop on the Crater Lake Trolley in the parking lot at Rim Village for a ranger-led ride along Rim Drive. These 2-hour tours are a comfortable and eco-friendly way to take in the park.
Brad took the trolley ride solo. It’s not pet friendly so Charlie and I chilled in Rim Village while he was enjoying the park ranger’s stories of Crater Lake.
You can book your ride in advance online. However, if you are flexible with time you can usually get tickets same day at their office near the Community Center in Rim Village. The trolley runs from July through September.
Spend The Night in Crater Lake National Park
#19 Camp Under the Stars
We camped 2 nights in the Mazama Campground and loved being so close to everything in the park. In Mazama Village, you’ll find a gift shop, restaurant, and camp store. The campground is tucked in the forest just a few minutes’ drive from the lake.
This gorgeous campground provides 214 campsites, among old-growth forest, for tents and RVs. Mazama is open from late May through September. Amenities here include running water, flush toilets, and a dump station. There are a limited number of electric sites. And we were thrilled to find clean hot showers. You should reserve a campsite at Mazama early as it’s quite popular, especially during summer.
Lost Creek Campground
Lost Creek Campground has been closed for several years and is not scheduled to reopen soon. It’s a small tent only campground off Pinnacles Road.
#20 Snuggle into a Cozy Cabin at Mazama Village
The Cabins at Mazama Village have been recently updated, blending rustic exteriors with comfortably furnished interiors. You’ll enjoy disconnecting without the distractions of phones or TVs.
The cabins are surrounded by trees and mountains. There are 10 cabins, each with 4 rooms with private entrances. Mazama cabin reservations can be made up to a year in advance and are highly recommended.
#21 Sleep in a Historic Hotel at the Crater Lake Lodge
Crater Lake Lodge captures the feel of old-world hotels with modern amenities. It’s a gorgeous building, just a few feet from the lake, filled with history. The Lodge is a little on the pricey side, but then where else do you walk out the front door to a view like Crater Lake? They start taking lodge reservations 1 year in advance. Just for reference, I’m writing this in early January and there are only 7 dates with open rooms for the coming summer.
#22 Stargazing and NightSky
You’ll see more stars in the night sky of Crater Lake than you could ever imagine.
Crater Lake National Park is listed by the National Park Service’s Dark Sky Team as among the top 10 dark sky locations in the National Park System.
Any of the overlooks along Rim Road offer a panoramic view of the sky. On a moonless night, you can see the Milky Way span from horizon to horizon. Rim Village is also a popular spot to gather for stargazing, often offering ranger-led programs.
Tips for Best Experience
- Visit on a new moon night for the darkest skies.
- Bring a reclining chair or blanket to lie back comfortably.
- Allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness for about 10-15 minutes.
- If using a headlamp or flashlight set it on red light. While light forces your eyes to reset to viewing in the dark.
Remember to check the Crater Lake Institute’s astronomy section for any nighttime events during your visit.
Go for a Hike at Crater Lake National Park
One of the best Crater Lake National Park Things to do is go for a hike. The park offers you an array of trails ranging from easy strolls to challenging treks. Whether you’re enjoying a day hike or embarking on a backpacking adventure, you’ll find stunning vistas and serene nature all around you.
#23 Take a Day Hike
Crater Lake National Park is home to a variety of day hikes for all skill levels. Here are just a few of the best hikes.
- Rim Trail: This is a leisurely and fairly flat walk starting in Rim Village. Much of it is dog-friendly so Charlie (our pup) and I spent a lot of time exploring the gorgeous lake views from this trail.
- Cleetwood Cove Trail: 2.2 miles round trip, strenuous. It’s the only legal access to the lake shore.
- Discovery Point: Not far from Rim Village, Discovery Point is where Crater Lake was first seen by white settlers. Its vista is ideal for photographers and nature enthusiasts alike
- Annie Creek Trail: We walked parts of this trail along a deep canyon that passed behind our campsite in Mazama Campground.
- Godfrey Glen Trail: An accessible and dog-friendly trail that wanders through the forest of Crater Lake and along Annie Creek. We also saw pinnacles in the cliffs across the creek’s canyon.
If you are more adventurous hike to the summit of Mount Scott, the tallest peak in the park. Or wander along a section of the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail that crosses the park.
#24 Go Backpacking and Explore Deep into the Park
With over 95% of the park managed as a wilderness area, there is plenty of space for backcountry hiking and camping. Crater Lake has several established backcountry campsites and allows dispersed camping. Don’t forget to obtain a permit for an overnight stay.
More Popular Things to Do at Crater Lake
#25 Take Your Bike for a Spin
Serious bikers love riding around the iconic Rim Drive and circling the lake. This 33-mile-long route brings you up close to the deep blue waters. This is a physically demanding ride, with substantial elevation changes. Prepare for steep grades and consider your fitness level before embarking. This ride shares the road with cars so can be challenging on days of high park visitation.
Ride the Rim Days
To allow bikers an opportunity to ride along the rim without meeting cars at every turn, two Saturdays in September are dedicated to bicycles. The Ride the Rim event halts vehicle traffic on the West Rim Drive for most of the day, dedicating it solely to bicycles. We accidentally showed up on one of those Saturdays. It was a sight to see as thousands of bicyclists enjoyed the day.
#26 Photograph Wildlife and Birds
For the best photo opportunities, explore various habitats across the park with your camera ready. The heavy human traffic along the rim discourages animals other than squirrels and some birds. Sightings of larger mammals like black bears, coyotes, and elk are rare. However, you should grab the opportunity to photograph a variety of smaller mammals and unique birds along any of the hiking trails.
Don’t forget your binoculars so you can zero in on birds in the trees and the caldera walls. Clark’s Nutcracker and Canada Jays are commonly seen in the park.
To catch a photo of amphibians, reptiles, and unusual birds try some of the less visited landscapes of Crater Lake National Park such as Sphagnum Bog, Union Peak, Panhandle, Boundary Springs, and Desert Creek Research Natural Area.
#27 Go Fishing
Although you won’t find a wide variety of fish here, the clear blue waters contain kokanee salmon and rainbow trout. Fishing is limited to Cleetwood Cove and Wizard Island. You don’t need a license and there is no limit on size and quantity that you can keep.
Crater Lake National Park Things to Do in Winter
Once snow falls, Crater Lake National Park transforms into a winter wonderland. Keep in mind that the park accumulates over 40 feet of snow each year so exploring the park in winter requires that you are well prepared and ready for any possible dangers.
While open year-round, in the winter, the park is only open through the South Entrance as far as Rim Village. Even then the road may close during a heavy snowstorm. Rim Road and the North Entrance are closed to vehicle traffic all winter.
#28 Cross-Country Skiing
When the snow blankets the park, bring your cross-country skis and glide across Crater Lake’s landscape. Following designated routes that range from beginner to advanced. Rim Drive is a popular 3-4-day backcountry skiing and camping adventure for snow lovers.
Snowshoeing at Crater Lake is a must-do experience for every winter visitor. You can either venture out independently or join a ranger-guided snowshoe walk to learn about the park’s winter ecology. Make sure to watch the winter safety video before heading out to be aware of snow’s hidden dangers.
We love to snowshoe and find it an easy snow activity for beginners (although you do get a good workout). You can rent snowshoes at Rim Village and set off at your own pace.
You can bring your own sleds and hit the hills anywhere in the park except on the caldera (no need to risk sliding into the lake). A favorite spot is the open meadow South of the lodge.
Just for Kids
Your kids can become part of the Crater Lake experience through engaging, educational activities designed just for them.
#31 Junior Ranger Program
Participating in the Junior Ranger program allows kids to learn as they explore the park. To start, pick up a Junior Ranger booklet available at the park’s visitor centers or download a book before your visit.
To become a Junior Ranger kids complete a series of activities during your visit that may include attending ranger-led programs, going on hikes, or participating in interactive games. Once they’ve completed their booklet, they’ll take an oath to protect parks and receive an official Junior Ranger badge.
Best Time to Visit Crater Lake National Park
The best time to visit Crater Lake depends on what you’re looking for in your trip. Here’s an overview of the park by season:
Visiting in Summer
Summer doesn’t start until early July. Yes, it takes that long for all that snow to melt! Early September is also part of the summer season although the visitor count starts to drop after Labor Day.
While summer is the most popular time to visit, it is also when everything on this list Crater Lake National Park Things To Do are available. As snow comes, most of the park is more difficult to access.
During the summer months, the park is in full bloom. Warmer temperatures and overall better weather conditions allow you to fully enjoy hiking, biking, and other outdoor activities.
Other than potential crowds, another summer challenge can be that fire season often extends into late September and October. Smoke from local and regional fires can affect air quality.
Spring and Fall are the Shoulder Months
If you prefer a quieter experience, consider visiting during the shoulder months of May, June, and October. During these months, you’ll still be able to enjoy many of the park’s activities with reduced crowds.
Crater Lake experiences cold weather and heavy snow from late fall to early summer so come prepared for winter-like weather. Yes even in June trails have ice and snow and parts of Rim Drive might be closed.
Winter Is a Fun Time to Visit Crater Lake
During winter months, only the South entrance to the park is kept open. But that doesn’t stop enthusiasts from enjoying the trails on foot, on skis, and using snowshoes. Crater Lake usually gets over 40 feet of snow so make sure you are well prepared for any of the related challenges.
Tips for Visitors
Here’s our top tips for visiting Crater Lake National Park:
- Arrive early or late: To avoid crowds, it’s recommended that you arrive at the park before 9 a.m. or after 4 p.m.
- Plan your activities: Crater Lake National Park offers numerous activities such as boat cruises, exploring Wizard Island, and the Shuttle Tour. Getting tickets in advance and being aware of their limited schedules can make your day easier.
- Check the Ranger Program Schedule: The ranger programs are Crater Lake are some of the best we’ve experienced.
- Plan for Meals: During the peak season, there are three dining options available in the park: Rim Village Café & Gifts, Annie Creek Restaurant, and Crater Lake Lodge Dining Room. The Lodge Dining Room usually requires reservations. There is also a grocery store, Mazama Village Camper Store, where you can shop for essentials during your visit.
- Pack a Cooler: There are gorgeous picnic grounds throughout the park, perfect for a lunch away from the crowds.
How to Get To Crater Lake National Park
Let’s get real… Crater Lake isn’t exactly close to any major city. But you do have a few options for getting to this amazing National Park.
Arriving by Car
If you choose to drive to the park, keep in mind that the closest major airports are in Medford (just over an hour away) and Portland, Oregon (around four hours away). Here’s a link to more detailed directions to the park. GPS might be a little shaky, however we had no problem using Google Maps to the South entrance. We have heard coming from the North was more challenging.
During winter months only the South Entrance is open. Be aware that tire chains may be required. As we crossed lower Oregon to get to the park, there were many pull-offs designated for putting on your required snow chains. As I said, winter in this park is not for the novice.
Closest Airports to Crater Lake
The closest major airports are in Medford (just over an hour away) and Portland, Oregon (around four hours away). From either city, you’ll need to rent a car and drive to the park.
Driving RVs and Campers to Crater Lake
There are no size restrictions for RVs in the park. However, the park roads are narrow in places and the drive into the park is full of twisty turns that I personally found a little scary to drive, especially with bikes sharing the same road.
Arriving By Train
During the summer you can take Amtrak to the nearby city of Klamath Falls. From there:
- catch a shuttle service that runs seasonally. However, it’s essential to confirm the shuttle service’s availability before making your travel plans.
- Or rent a car. There is an Enterprise Car Rental in town that offers a pickup service. Hours are limited so check ahead to make sure your times align.
Where to Stay
Inside the park, you have three lodging options:
- Crater Lake Lodge, a truly unique historic hotel
- Mazama Campground, a modern campground with generous tree-lined campsites
- Backcountry Camping, where you can get away from it all
Lodging Outside Crater Lake
Outside the park boundaries, you’ll find additional lodging options in nearby communities such as Prospect, Fort Klamath, and Chiloquin. These range from cozy bed and breakfasts to motels and vacation rentals. Staying outside the park can also offer a broader selection of dining and shopping opportunities.
We were quite interested in Union Creek Resort, a collection of rustic cabins where Zane Grey, Jack London, and U.S. President Herbert Hoover have stayed. We stopped for breakfast at their restaurant, Beckie’s Café, on our way out of the park and were delighted with the yummy homemade cinnamon rolls.
Camping Outside Crater Lake
Crater Lake National Park is surrounded by National Forest which offers a variety of campgrounds and dispersed camping opportunities. If you want more amenities as offered by RV parks, there are many options in the nearby communities.
Your Crater Lake Journey: Lasting Memories Await
Without a doubt, the number one Crater Lake National Park Thing to Do is sit on the wall along Rim Village and capture a photo memory of a lifetime. Following that, for the truly brave, would be to jump into the icy water from Cleetwood Cove. Those are the things memories are made up.
And be sure to make time for a drive around the Rim of the Caldera where the breathtaking views will have you snapping enough photos and videos to drive your friends crazy.
Crater Lake is a gorgeous and unique place. This is one National Park you should definitely have on your bucket list. I hope this list of 31 Crater Lake National Park Things to Do helps you plan an adventure to remember!