Visiting Crater Lake National Park in Oregon is a great way to experience the magic of the Cascades and learn about volcanoes. Crater Lake sits atop Mount Mazama, which is just one of a string of volcanoes from Northern California to British Columbia. But there is one difference between Mount Mazama and the others. Mount Mazama erupted thousands of years ago and left the United State’s deepest lake right on the summit. There are lots to see, explore, and learn during a trip to Crater Lake National Park.
Geology of Crater Lake
While standing on the rim of Crater Lake and trying not to get vertigo as you look down into the endless deep blue below, it’s hard to imagine that used to be a towering peak. Only 7,700 years ago, a massive volcanic eruption left the crater that now makes up Crater Lake National Park. Over centuries rain and snow filled the basin to form the deepest lake in the United States.
At its deepest Crater Lake is 1,943 feet deep and holds just under five trillion gallons of water. It is 6.02 miles across at its maximum point and has a minimum width of 4.54 miles. Crater Lake is big. And it sits atop a mountain making it seem surreal. But what makes it even more surreal is that it’s carved into the peak, like a spoon that has made room for some gravy in your mash potatoes. So as you look over the lake, you look down a hundred feet from the overlook.
The highest point on the rim is 1,978 feet above the shore of the lake, so this is a great place to gain perspective of the lake. It is only slightly higher than the lake is deep.
Hiking at Crater Lake National Park
Although Crater Lake National Park is not known for its hiking trails, several trails allow you to explore the park. The trails range in distance from less than half of a mile to nearly 11.5 miles. They are split about evenly between easy, moderate, and strenuous. The top three trails I recommend doing include The Watchman for views of the lake, Cleetwood Cove for getting up close and personal with the lake, and the Pinnacles for unique volcanic formations.
Because wildfire smoke blanketed the area of Crater Lake National Park, I did not hike The Watchman. Views of the lake were nonexistent so I saved that trail for next time.
Cleetwood Cove is the only trail (and legal access point) to the shoreline of the lake. The trail is 2.2 miles round trip and a very steep trail. Because of its steepness, it is rated strenuous. The trail drops 700 feet in 1.1 miles, and you have to come back up those 700 feet. It is built with several switchbacks and has benches to rest along the way, which helps. But it is only partially shaded, so it can get quite hot.
But if you are physically up to the trail, its views are worth the hike back up to the top. Sitting on the shores of the lake, you can get a feel for just how large it is. You can also put your hands and feet in the water and feel how cold it is. And, if you are up for it, you can even take a swim. Fishing is also permitted.
Cleetwood Cove Trail is on the north side of the lake 11 miles from Rim Village, traveling clockwise on Rim Drive.
The Pinnacles are spires created from hot ash that cooled that after the big eruption. They are fossilized fumaroles. After ash buried the valley, water escaped through vents. The extreme heat and minerals welded the sides of the vents. Through the many years, the softer ash eroded leaving these unique formations.
The overlook trail for the Pinnacles is a short 0.8-mile out and back hike. It’s flat and has a gravel surface. Walking the trail is a great way to see the Pinnacles from different angles, but you don’t have to walk the trail to see them.
To find the Pinnacles, drive to the end of Pinnacles Road, which is six miles southeast of the Phantom Ship Overlook on the Rim Drive.
Scenic Rim Drive
A 33-mile drive circles the lake and provides many pullouts with lake views and panoramic vistas as well as beautiful forests and meadows views. This narrow and winding road that was built to complement the natural landscape is a great way to experience Crater Lake National Park.
The Rim Drive is divided into two sections, the East Rim Drive and West Rim Drive. It doesn’t matter which way you drive it. It’s all beautiful and you end up at the same spot. With 30 overlooks, there’s plenty to stop to see and learn along the way.
Where to stay
There are two campgrounds within Crater Lake National Park. Mazama Campground is operated by the park’s concessionaire, Crater Lake Hospitably. It is located in the Mazama Village where you can find many other amenities, like Annie Creek Restaurant, groceries, and gas. Mazama Campground has 214 campsites for tents and RVs.
The Lost Creek Campground is operated by the National Park Service and has 16 tent sites.
If camping is not your thing, Crater Lake National Park also has Crater Lake Lodge at Rim Village and The Cabins at Mazama Village.
Exploring Carter Lake National Park
Crater Lake National Park is a unique place and a great way to explore the Cascade Mountain Range. It’s also a great place to see how a volcano shapes the landscape. I loved getting up close and personal with the volcano’s caldera, which is now the lake. Also, I loved seeing unique rock formations like the Pinnacles was really impressive.