Crater Lake National Park is a beautiful place, and most people will never see it. Located in Southern Oregon, it is a little off the beaten path (and mostly just visited in summer), but if you are able to make the trek, it’s a site worth seeing.
The lake is situated at the top of a dormant volcano and the water is an amazing deep color of blue that if you saw it in a picture, you might think it was photoshopped. You would be wrong.
If you stop at the Visitor’s Center, they will recommend that you follow Rim Drive and admire the views. But really, you should do more than this.
Hike Cleetwood Cove: If you are in reasonable shape, you should consider hiking to the bottom of the caldera – the volcanic crater – and dipping your feet in the water. If you have your swimsuit, you could try swimming, but you might find the water to be quite chilly. It is 2.2 miles round-trip with an elevation loss/gain of 700 feet. It’s the only access to the lake.
Crater Lake Boat Tours: If you hike down from Cleetwood Cove (remember the 700 foot elevation gain on the way back up), consider pre-booking a boat tour. We did not do this early enough and were not able to get a time-slot that we were happy with, so we opted to skip this. One of the boat trips is to Wizard Island, where you can climb to the top.
Hike from Discovery Point: If you want both amazing views of the lake and a pleasant forest, consider taking the Rim Trail from Discovery Point. The guide suggests walking 2 miles round trip to Rim Village, but we actually went the other way and were quite pleased by what we saw.
Hike Plaikni Falls: This hike has no views of the lake, but is both beautiful and easy. It is 2 miles round-trip, and largely flat. Definitely worth a trip!
Walk along the Pinnacles: This incredibly easy hike has no views of the lake, but will give you a unique look at some amazing volcanic spires. I have not seen anything quite like it! At only 0.8 mile round-trip and about as flat as you can get, almost anyone should be able to do this trail.
Seasonality: Crater Lake is best in the summer, e.g. mid-June through late September. In the winter, there can be tons of snow. Years ago, we had a snowball fight with our kids there in early July.
Friday, August 16, 2019
Crater Lake is roughly 7 hours north of the Bay Area – somewhat ambitious for a long weekend trip. It can even be a bit of a trek for many Oregon residents – 4 hours south of Portland, Oregon, and 1.5 hours northeast of Medford/Ashland, Oregon.
Our plan was to drive roughly half of those 7 hours after work on Friday night, and half Saturday morning. We stayed at one of our go-to stopping points along I-5 North from the Bay Area, in Red Bluff, CA. There’s not much to say about the town, but there are plenty of hotels, and a reasonable stopping point – we left just before 7pm, and arriving at 10:30pm.
If you end up staying there, or in one of the nearby towns (e.g. Corning, Redding), double-check the hotel reviews before going too cheap. Years ago, we had stayed at some real dive hotels in the area- showers with scary amounts of black mold. These days, we often stay at the Best Western Antelope Inn & Suites, though this time around we ended up staying at the Hampton Inn & Suites.
Saturday, August 17, 2019
We woke up around 6:30am, and went down to get breakfast. After eating, we were on the road. The drive was roughly 4 hours, much of it through beautiful forests.
Arrival at Crater Lake
Upon arrival, we made a stop at the Park Headquarters where we got the maps and spoke briefly with a ranger to get some ideas for a reasonable plan.
We continued to the Rim Village Visitor Center, the main area by the lodge, but had trouble finding parking. Fortunately there was a sign pointing to additional parking in the picnic area. Perfect! We were hungry and had a nice lunch with the sandwich supplies we had brought in our cooler.
Sinnott Memorial Overlook
After finishing lunch, we walked down to the Sinnott Memorial Overlook. The lake was an amazing color of blue!
The boys also remembered that several years ago, this was where they saw a video of how Crater Lake was made, so we watched it again. Short and definitely worth seeing.
The film talked about the mini-volcanoes that made the mountains. It progressed to the lava pools under the mountains, where pressure built up, and many more of them made a ring. The interior of the ring collapsed, leaving a huge crevice. A smaller volcano then erupted at a later date inside the crevice. Rain comes in and fills the crevice, making what we know as Crater Lake. The mini volcano is known as Wizard Island. Very fascinating.
This time around, the boys were more comfortable with the idea that they were standing in the middle of a volcano. Last time was a bit scarier.
After a bit more walking, we continued the loop around the rim, pulling into several lookout points.
Sometimes we got out, sometimes we simply enjoyed the view from the car.
At one point we were surrounded by what we thought were chipmunks, but once we got back in the car and looked at the newspaper guide, we discovered they were probably Golden-Manteled Ground Squirrels. Still cute though.
Once we got to Cleetwood Cove, we decided to do the walk down to (and back up from) the lake. The sign at the top warned that it was the equivalent of climbing 65 flights of stairs. This path is the only way to get down to the lake.
Down is easy. Simply walk 1.1 miles with a descent 700 feet. The switchbacks are fairly gentle. If you want to swim in the quite chilly lake, bring a swimsuit. The boys decided just to wade. They found a pumice stone and spent quite a bit of time enjoying their floating rock.
After hanging out for close to an hour, we decided to hike back up.
We had plenty of water and the climb turned out to be not all that bad. Slow and steady! That said, near the bottom we did see a couple of out-of-breath elderly people trying to make their way up. They looked like they were going to be in fairly poor shape by the time they got to the top.
Phantom Ship Overlook
The last part of the drive had somewhat fewer stops. We did enjoy a quick stop at the Phantom Ship Overlook.
Tired from the day, we decided to mostly just beeline for our camping cabin in Mazama Village. Unlike our camping cabin near Yosemite, these cabins were effectively motel rooms, albeit without TVs. Perfectly adequate, but not a lot of character. We thought of camping, but by the time we reserved, the camping spots were gone. Similarly, the Crater Lake Lodge with amazing views of the lake was also booked up. Still, it was a lot better than driving a long distance in and out of the park each day- the closest towns are effectively an hour away.
After resting a bit, we headed to the restaurant next door to the camping cabins, Annie Creek Restaurant. My salad was fine, but the French fries that came with the boys’ hamburgers were amazing. Too bad they are hungry pre-teens. I didn’t get to sample as many as I would have preferred.
After dinner, we were happy to shower and get the trail dust off. Volcanos make a lot of ash, which apparently also results in very soft trails on the caldera. People wiser than us had some thin scarves that they were using as dust masks.
Sunday, August 18, 2019
Sunday, we got up around 7am and went to Annie’s for breakfast. The portions were big, but the food was just okay. We really should have brought some muffins for breakfast from the grocery store with us, but had simply forgot.
We packed up, then headed for the Plaikni Falls. The walk was beautiful! No lake views, but the forest was quite nice.
The trail was fairly easy, but we definitely felt like we were in the woods. After about a mile, we reached the falls.
Not huge, but still nice. The wildflowers and moss really added to the atmosphere. We snapped a few pictures, then turned back for the car.
On the way back we spotted a long-tail weasel. Fun!
From here, we decided to continue down the road to the Pinnacles for a fairly short hike. Only 0.4 miles each way, 0.8 miles round trip. The volcanic spires at the bottom of the valley were stunning!
Huge pointy rocks jutted up from the ground to the sky. I have never seen anything quite like it. Definitely worth a quick detour.
Back in the car, we decided we were up for another hike and decided to head for Discovery Point. Debating whether to take the short or the long way around, we opted for the long way since we thought the lake views would be better. Near Pumice Point, we decided to stop for a picnic lunch. Beautiful views of both the forest and the lake!
Continuing on, we weren’t sure if we had reached Discovery Point, but we saw a few cars parked and there was a nice-looking trail with a sign that declared it the “Rim Trail,” so we decided to go with it.
Another favorite! A lovely forest with amazing views of the lake! We eventually made it to Discovery Point. We debated continuing on to Rim Village, about a mile away, but decided to turn back. The trail didn’t look quite as nice and we felt like we were really happy with what we had already seen.
Back in the car, we decided that we were mostly done for the day and continued on to Rim Village for one last look around. We looked around in the book shop, where we boys picked out a book about identifying mammals (hence the classification of the squirrel and the weasel), and a post card.
Heading Home – via Ashland, Oregon
From here, we decided to head for Ashland, via Medford, which was about a 1.5-hour drive from the park Most of the road there was forested and was quite nice.
In Ashland, we stopped at the large Lithia Park and let the boys wade in the stream and play at the playground.
Then we walked around both the park and the town a bit. Very charming. Every summer they hold a Shakespeare Festival, which draws quite a few tourists and gives them a fairly solid claim to the cultural capital of southern Oregon.
Getting close to dinner, we headed for Medford, which is where our Hotwire hotel across the street from the airport was located. Candlewood Suites turned out to be a good choice, even if there was no pool or breakfast included. For dinner, we went to Abby’s Legendary Pizza. Delicious! If you are looking for really tasty pizza, definitely try it out.
Monday, August 19, 2019
As we said earlier, Crater Lake from the Bay Area is long for a weekend trip – better for a 3-day weekend. It was Monday morning and we needed to get back home.
Jeremy had to be back to work, so he took the 6:15am flight from Medford to San Francisco airport. We had booked a hotel that ended up being across the street from the airport, so he simply walked to the terminal – it’s a fairly small airport. After the 1.2 hour flight, he got to work by 8:30am or so.
For the rest of us, we prepared for the 7 hour drive back to the Bay Area. School for the boys hadn’t restarted yet, so driving back Monday was feasible. We weren’t sure whether we would go back to sleep after Jeremy left or not, but in this case, we decided to just pack up the car and leave. To our surprise, we only made two stops – Redding and Vacaville – and made it home in time for a late lunch! But, we had consumed so many gas station snacks that we decided to skip lunch.
Super fun vacation!