Want to explore Crater Lake on foot and discover the top two hikes that cannot be missed? Look no further, I’ve got it covered. Check out my recommendations on the best day hikes in Crater Lake National Park and a few other stops along the way. You won’t be disappointed!.
We rose to a dusting of snow sprinkled around our tiny wood cabin at the Union Creek Resort. I opened the curtains to discover a glorious fall morning before us. After a quick breakfast, we packed up the car and headed east for our forty-minute drive to Crater National Park. There are not many places to stay inside or near the park especially during the off-season when the campgrounds and some seasonal lodging are closed. It was mid-October, a perfect time of the year to spend a fantastic day hiking the trails at Crater Lake National Park.
As we drove east along Highway 62, the forest trees glistened with morning light, and the drying pavement created a magical mist floating up into the air. Beams of sunshine trickled through the thick old-growth forest, increasing my anticipation of arriving at the park. Crater Lake National Park had been on my bucket list for years and I finally would get to explore it my favorite way, on foot.
Overview of Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake National Park was established in 1902 with the prime responsibility of protecting this incredible place that harbors Crater Lake and thousands of acres of old-growth forest. Crater Lake sits upon a collapsed volcano that once stood over 12,000 feet (3,600m tall). The lake was formed roughly 7,700 years ago by an enormous eruption resulting in the stunning landscape we see today. One reason why Crater Lake is so incredibly blue and clear is due to its depth. Reaching 1,943 feet (592 meters) at its deepest point, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the U.S.
The highlight of any visit to Crater Lake National Park is the 33-mile (53-km) Rim Drive around the lake. Considered one of America’s most beautiful byways, the route can be driven without stopping in roughly an hour. However, of course, you will want to stop and explore this incredible area stopping at some of the 30 scenic pullouts along the way. Without hiking, plan on 2-3 hours for the Rim Drive which is open from early June to late October.
In my opinion, the absolute best way to explore the park is on foot and thankfully there are plenty of good hikes to choose from. Crater Lake National Park is a hikers dream with over 90 miles (143 km) of hiking trails and even connects with the famous 2,650 miles long Pacific Crest Trail. If you have a full day (or two), here are my favorite hikes to do in Crater Lake. There are also some can’t be missed stops that can easily fit into this itinerary. I have added them along the way going counterclockwise from the main entrance of the park at Rim Village.
Park Logistics: When To Go, Getting There, and Planning your Visit
The park is open year-round, 24 hours a day however some roads are open only seasonally and closed due to snow. Peak time is during the summer months when thousands of tourists come to delight in its magic. However, I think the best time to visit the park is slightly off-season either from mid-May to early June or in October when the kids are back in school, the mornings are brisk, and you have relatively the entire park and hikes to yourself.
If visiting off-season make sure to check in advance what roads are open as it depends on the snow and if the roads are fully plowed. The North Entrance and West Entrance typically open sometime between mid-May and late June while the East Rim Drive opens later. We accessed the park via Highway 62 on the road to the Rim Village as it is plowed year-round. Most likely you will want to start at the Run Village entrance as it is a good place to get your first incredible view of Crater Lake as well as check out the stunning Crater Lake Lodge (which is the only accommodation in the park that has a view of the lake).
Best Day Hikes of Crater Lake National Park
From the Visitor Center, here are the top hikes within the park. My husband and I did all of these hikes (except Watchman Overlook) in a day and it is possible. If you have more time, you can certainly spread it out and do it over the course of two days. We did not have time to drive around the entire lake with this itinerary. I always believe the best way to explore and see a place is on foot and not in a car. These hikes will give you some of the most amazing 360-views of the park and its surroundings.
The first hike you should do is the short hike up to Watchman Overlook (this is the only hike that is west of Rim Village. the rest of the itinerary heads east, in a counterclockwise direction). While the trailhead estimates 1-hour roundtrip it only took us 20 minutes to get to the top of the lookout (at 8,013 ft/2442 m), and 15 minutes down walking at a moderate pace. The overlook affords beautiful views of Wizard Island, one of two islands within the park, and is a great way to get started with your day exploring the park.
After the stop at Watchman Tower, head back toward Rim Village (you can stop to check out the vistas along Discovery Point if you like), and continue the rest of the day going counterclockwise around the lake.
Distance: 3.4 miles (5.8 km) roundtrip/elevation gain of 1,250 feet (308 m). Time: 1.5-2.5 hours
The trail to Garfield Peak follows the rugged rim of Crater Lake to the top of Garfield Peak, where you may enjoy commanding views of the lake each step of the way. The trail first passes through meadows of flowers, hemlock and fir before moving up into a series of switchbacks through rocky volcanic terrain. The trailhead estimates 2-3 hours however we completed the hike in a little over an hour and a half at a decent pace. If you time it right, it is a wonderful place for a picnic lunch.
It had snowed that morning so it was even more glorious than imagined.
The views of the Phantom Ship were surreal.
Sun Notch Trail
Distance: .8-mile/1.3 km loop. Flat. Estimated Time 10 minutes
A must-see is the short, ten-minute Sun Notch Trail. This .8-mile (1.3 km) loop trail is an easy walk through the meadows to spectacular views of the Phantom Ship. It is best to do the loop starting at the left as it saves the best view for last. The Phantom Ship is an island made of lava over 400,000 years ago and is some of the oldest exposed rocks within the caldera (Crater Lake National Park Visitor Guide Summer/Fall 2022). It is said to resemble a sailboat however it is hard to grasp the sheer size of it all. To put it in perspective, the Phantom Ship measures as tall as a 16-story building.
After you complete the Sun Notch trail, do a quick stop at the Phantom Ship viewpoint for a few more surreal views. Save your energy, however, for the next hike! It is my favorite one in the entire park, Mount Scott!
Distance: 4.4 miles (7.1 km) roundtrip. Time: 1.75-2.5 hours
If you have one hike to do, the one you want is the hike to the top of Mount Scott. While it is the hardest of all the ones listed, it is by far the hike with the most incredible views.
The 4.4 miles (7.1 km) round trip hike leads to the highest point in the park at 8,929 feet (2,721 m) providing awe-inspiring views of the entire landscape around Crater Lake. Initially, the trail traverses a fairly open expanse of pumice and then climbs through a rich forest. A steep series of heart-pounding, switchbacks leads to first a false peak followed by a ridgeline that follows to the summit, ending at a watchtower.
This hike will definitely get your attention not only with its initial steepness but also with its must-see 360-degree panoramic views. It took us an hour up at a decent pace and 45 minutes down, pushing hard on the shins. The total time was approximately two hours with a few stops and a snack at the top.
Distance: 2.2 miles (3.5 km) roundtrip/elevation gain of 700 feet. Time: 1-1.5 hours
The last hike of the day was at Cleetwood Cove which is the only legal place in the park where you can hike down to access the shore. I’m a little on the fence about including this hike as it has its pros and cons. However, since many people may be intrigued to do it like we were, I thoughts I’d talk about it.
The hike is a very steep (2.2 miles/3.5 km) roundtrip through a thick forest with not many views until the very end. I must confess it is extremely steep and unless you really want to see the shore of the lake, I didn’t find this hike worth the effort and painful legs. It took us about 20 minutes down and longer on the grueling walk up (1.5 hours is recommended time it takes on the trailhead).
When we finally got down to the shore, we were disappointed as it really doesn’t have much there except fishing and swimming if you want to take a dip in the very cold lake. However, it does give you the sense of how incredibly step the crater is. My knees and shins sure understood! While the hike is popular (the most people we saw of all our hikes were on this one), I would not recommend it unless you are curious.
Where to Stay
As much as I absolutely love this park the bummer is that there is not much in terms of accommodations especially if you are going out off-season season. Crater Lake National Park has two official lodges:
- The glorious Crater Lake Lodge (71 rooms) overlooking the rim and is right in the Rim Village.
- The Cabins at Mazama Village (40 rooms) are located 7 miles south of Rim Village.
There is also the Mazama Campground (214 sites for tents at $22 a night) and spots for RVs (starting at $32 per night). These again are open roughly from June through the end of September. To check the exact open date, rates and make a reservation, click here.
The park’s other campground has 16 sites and is called the Lost Creek Campground which is closed in 2022.
We had a very hard finding a place to stay even for a trip in early October but thankfully discovered the Union Creek Resort (located 21 miles west of the park on OR-62 and takes approximately 40 minutes via car to reach the park).
This rustic yet charming resort has 23 cabins, some rooms in the lodge, and its own collection of beautiful hikes around the resort. For us, it worked out great however it is a bit of a haul to the park which is why we did all the hikes in one day.
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