At the north end of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway in southern Oregon is a lake with water so blue it will quite literally take your breath away.
Before visiting Crater Lake National Park, I’d seen photos. The water in those images was a blue so saturated I doubted it could be real.
We pulled over between Hillman Peak and Watchman Peak and stepped onto the rim of an ancient volcano and looked at the deepest lake in the United States. The panoramic view of its cerulean hue was surreal.
Crater Lake’s first name dates back several millennia to the Klamath tribe, who called it Giiwaas. It didn’t get its second name until 1853, when it was (not so originally) called Deep Blue Lake, which was shortened to the simple Blue Lake in 1862. Three years later, it became Lake Majesty.
It wasn’t called Crater Lake until 1869 when Jim Sutton, a Jacksonville newspaper editor, decided to explore it by boat and then wrote about it.
Why so many names? It seems various explorers encountered the lake, named it, and then forgot about it. I have a feeling it was like Yellowstone National Park’s geothermal wonders; nobody believed it was real.
It took a journalist to make a name stick.
How was Crater Lake formed?
About 7,700 years ago, Mount Mazama blew its top. It had been a much taller volcano, but then it exploded and the top crumbled, leaving a shell of its former self.
Before rain and snow could fill that shell, the base continued to erupt. As the lava cooled, mountains within the caldera grew. A total of four volcanoes ended up erupting and cooling. Wizard Island, a cinder cone, is the only one visible above the surface of the lake.
It’s a volcano within a volcano.
In the lore of the Klamath tribe, the Llao, who lived below the earth, fought the above-earth Skell. Skell won, the mountain collapsed, and the lake was born.
They called the lake Giiwas and considered it a place of power.
There are no streams or other water sources that fill the caldera. That deep blue water is the result of thousands of years of snow and rain. As of 2020, the average snowfall was 42 feet and the total precipitation was 67 feet.
Why is Crater Lake so blue?
With an average depth of nearly 2,000 feet, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States and the second deepest in North America. That depth, and the fact that the water comes solely from rain and snow, is why it’s so blue.
Crater Lake is considered one of the cleanest lakes in the world, and looking at it makes you feel like you’re witnessing purity.
Related: National Parks Checklist and tips for visiting
Things to do in Crater Lake National Park
You can see Crater Lake National Park in one day, but if you want to get the most out of your visit, plan on staying at least two days.
One of the most popular things to do in Crater Lake National Park is tour the scenic rim drive.
It’s 33 miles and was designed in such a way that you can’t see it as you look across the lake, no matter where you are.
Be careful while driving the rim of Crater Lake; traffic goes both ways, and you’ll be sharing the road with bicyclists. The road is narrow and there are no shoulders. It takes about two hours to drive the whole rim drive.
Between 1931 and 1938, thirty scenic overlooks were created along the rim road and they’re still in use. Each overlook was designed to provide a different view, highlighting unique features of the lake, the caldera, and environmental features.
While some of the overlooks have wayside exhibits providing information, many of them are not marked. Be sure to get a map from one of the visitors centers before driving.
Let someone else do the driving and take a trolley tour. This is one of the best things to do, especially if you’d rather focus on the scenery. You can board the trolley in Rim Village and they stop at a minimum of five overlooks.
Trolley tours usually operate during the summer months, from July into September.
You don’t have to just look at the lake from above. You can take a boat tour to the island in the middle of the crater. Make sure you’re physically capable before booking this tour. You’ll have to hike the Cleetwood Cove Trail down – and back up – 700 feet to get to the dock.
The Cleetwood Cove Trail is a 1.1 mile strenuous hike that descends several hundred feet to the lake’s surface.
If you’ve thought about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail but don’t want to traverse the entire 2,650-mile stretch from Mexico to Canada, you can get a taste of it. Thirty-three miles pass through the park. Dutton Creek Trail is an alternate path that runs right next to the rim and then follows the ridge for six miles.
One of the most popular trails is the trek to Plaikni Falls. The trail’s only a mile out and back and leads to lush waterfall.
To get to the highest point in Crater Lake National Park, take the Mount Scott Trail. It’s a 2.- mile (one way) trail with a 1500-foot elevation change to the mountain peak.
Another moderately challenging hike is Garfield Peak. That’s a 1.7-mile trek with a thousand-food elevation change. There are many places along the way to stop and get a view of the Phantom Ship, a unique formation within the lake, and Dunton Cliff.
There are several picnic areas within Crater Lake National Park. If you’re coming from the south, the Ponderosa Pine Picnic Area is located a half-mile within the entrance.
Rim Village Picnic Area is the site of a former campground and has several tables. It’s near Crater Lake Lodge.
Swimming in Crater Lake
Swimming is allowed in the lake, but the water level is only accessible via Cleetwood Cove Trail. If you do plan on swimming, only you and your swimming attire are allowed. Floatation devices, scuba and snorkeling gear, wet suits, masks, goggles, and the like are prohibited to protect the clarity of the water.
Fishing in Crater Lake
Fishing is also allowed. Although there are no indigenous species, several fish were introduced in the late 19th century until 1941, when the fish stocking ended.
Park Ranger Programs
Beginning in late May you can get comfy in the Crater Lake Lodge as a park ranger leads an educational program. Depending on the weather, they either take place on the patio with a lake view, or inside in front of the fireplace.
From late June through mid-September, park rangers offer talks at the Sinnott Memorial Overlook in Rim Village.
For the best sunset view, join the daily ranger-guided hike to Watchman Peak Overlook. It’s 3.8 miles northwest of Rim Village visitor center and ends at an historic fire outlook.
If you’re camping, don’t miss the nightly evening program in the campground amphitheater.
There are two visitor centers at Crater Lake National Park, although only one is currently open.
Steel Visitor Center, which is in the Park Headquarters area, is closed through 2022 for structural renovations. When it reopens, it will be open year round.
Rim Visitor Center is only open during the summer. It offers views of the lake
After you’ve explored Crater Lake National Park, head west and take another scenic drive on an Oregon coast road trip.
Best time to visit Crater Lake National Park
The summer season is definitely the best time. With so many feet of snow during the winter months, which can last from October through early June, much of the park is inaccessible except for a few short months out of the year.
Early July through September are the best times to visit. Try to arrive before 9am so you can beat the crowds.
Fun Fact: Because of its elevation, Crater Lake is frequently invisible due to clouds and the roads are impassable during the winter. The National Park Service has webcam so you can check weather conditions before you visit.
Crater Lake National Park Entrance Fees
Passes to Crater Lake National Park are good for seven days.
- Private, non-commercial vehicle: $30 in the summer (May 22-October 31), $20 in the winter (November 1-May 21)
- Motorcycle or snowmobile $25 in the summer (May 22-October 31): $15 in the winter (November 1-May 21)
- Per person, walk-in or bicycle $150.00
Admission to Crater Lake National Park is $25 in the summer and $15 in the winter for passenger cars, or free with an America the Beautiful Annual Interagency Pass.
How to get to Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake National Park is located in southern Oregon between Klamath Falls to the south and Bend to the northeast. The west and south entrances are open year round, and the north entrance is closed from around November to May or June.
Where to stay near Crater Lake National Park
There are two lodges within the park as well as two campgrounds.
Mazama Campground and Lost Creek Campground are open around June through September, but it’s always best to check in advance if you’re near the beginning or end of that time period.
Crater Lake Lodge and The Cabins at Mazama Village are also open seasonally. They’re both located in Rim Village, a complex of accommodations, gift shops, and dining.
You can also camp at nearby Diamond Lake State Park or get a room at Diamond Lake Resort.
Bend, Oregon, is about an hour and forty minutes from Crater Lake National Park and has several options for places to stay.