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If you’re going to be one of those states that only has one national park*, Oregon’s got it going pretty well: Crater Lake National Park is a stunner, drawing an average of over half a million visitors per year despite its remoteness, short season, and harsh climate.
Despite having called Washington home and explored the Pacific Northwest at length, I had never visited Crater Lake National Park before 2023. As part of one final work trip before expanding our family, I took a long-delayed post-pandemic road trip through Coastal, Southern, and Central Oregon – and was able to time my first visit to Crater Lake with the annular solar eclipse in October 2023.
Having now seen it, Crater Lake lives up to the hype: it’s truly unique among national parks and stunningly beautiful (especially for me, a volcano nerd). It does take some planning to make the most of a visit to Crater Lake, but as long as you do that in advance, you’ll have an amazing time – even if you don’t have long for a visit.
I spent just one day in Crater Lake National Park during my Oregon trip, and sampled the best the park has to offer; I’m now keen to return with the whole family and try new activities I missed during my off-peak season visit (like Wizard Island!). If you’re planning a short trip to Crater Lake too, this post will help you have a great time just as I did.
*If you’re curious, that would be Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia; also technically Idaho, though Yellowstone is only minimally in that state.
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Modoc, Klamath, Cow Creek Umpqua, Molalla, Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla peoples, and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Crater Lake Travel Basics
Before jumping into specific activities and how to spend a day at Crater Lake, it’s important to cover some travel logistics; getting these right is important for making sure you can make the most of your short time there – or even if you have longer to visit.
Traveling to Crater Lake
You need a car to visit Crater Lake – a car is essential for both getting to the park and exploring the park on your own terms. In terms of arriving, Medford is the closest airport (2 hours), but most people tend to fly into Portland (4 hours) and make a bigger trip of it.
I’ll be honest: the way the National Park Service explains the entrances is really confusing to me: as far as I can tell, there are only two entrances to Crater Lake National Park: the more popular south entrance via Oregon Highway 62 (which runs east-west) and the more seasonal north entrance via Oregon Highway 138. (The NPS says there is also a west entrance, but in terms of ranger stations, there are only two – north and south.)
During my visit, I arrived via the north entrance (because I knew I wanted to view the eclipse at North Junction where the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway from the North Entrance meets Rim Drive) and left via the south entrance. Depending on what direction you’re arriving from, the North Entrance will almost always have a shorter line to access the park.
Crater Lake Admission Fees
Crater Lake National Park is a fee-collecting site within the National Park System. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter. Here are your options:
- The cost to visit Crater Lake National Park is $30 per vehicle between May 21 and October 31; it’s only $20 per vehicle in the off-season – weather permitting your access, of course!
- You can also enter on foot ($15 per person), by motorcycle ($25 peak/$15 off-season), and by snowmachine ($15 per vehicle).
- An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80. This gets you into every national park and all fee-collecting federal lands. I got my first one in 2019 and it’s such a money-saver. The America the Beautiful Pass is totally worth it, and I buy one every year!
You can read more about the fees – and check that the above is accurate – on the Crater Lake NPS website.
Crater Lake Seasons & Hours
Defining the peak season and off-season, there are four main seasons for visitors to Crater Lake:
- May and June are still considered spring; you may still encounter snow if you visit earlier in this time.
- The prime time to visit is July, August, and early September, this is summer and when most people visit.
- By mid-September it’s autumn (which lasts until the end of October); snow is possible and may interrupt your plans.
- In the winter (October through the end of April), the park is still open but will have limited access and you may not be able to drive all the way up to the crater rim.
I visited in mid-October and it was still quite nice – but it was cold and had already snowed once, so it was certainly the autumn month. I hope to visit next time with Mr. V and Baby V in the summer… with plenty of advance planning!
Driving & Parking in Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake has few roads (Rim Drive is the main road around the crater) and limited parking (you can’t park on the roadsides), especially during summer weekends; be prepared for it to take some time to find parking depending on when you visit and what time of day you start your adventure.
For the most part, you should be able to find parking if you make a loop of each parking area, but if you’re aiming for a specific place and time (like parking at Cleetwood Cove for your Wizard Island cruise departure), be sure to give yourself plenty of buffer so you aren’t late.
One Day in Crater Lake Itinerary
Unlike some of my one-day national park itineraries, this whole section is a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure in the sense that you can put together the activities in whatever order makes sense to you and given your timeline while visiting.
During my October 2023 trip, I drove Rim Drive (#1) first, stopping for short hikes along the way (#3), then explored Rim Village (#2). I recommend reading this whole section first, then decide which order makes the most sense for you and with the schedule for experiences like the Wizard Island boat tour in mind.
1. Cruise Around Rim Drive
Aside from the roads that ascend Mount Manzama, Rim Drive is the main road in Crater Lake; it makes a circuit around the edge of the volcanic crater, offering different viewpoints of the crater’s features, the lake, and its islands. It’s an essential drive
- Start at Rim Village – Rim Village is a great spot to base your exploration around Crater Lake; it’s where Munson Valley Road (from the most popular South Entrance) meets Rim Drive. Start here just to get oriented and circumnavigate Rim Drive in a clockwise fashion.
- Take in the View at Discovery Point (Rim Drive) – Right after you make the turn around Rim Drive, you’ll encounter Discovery Point, which is a beautiful spot for a first photo and a short hike if you’re up for it.
- Stop at Cleetwood Cove – There are a number of pull-outs and stops between Discovery Point and Cleetwood Cove if you want to take in additional views of the rim and crater; you’ll stop at Cleetwood Cove for sure because that’s where the boat tours to Wizard Island set out.
- Cruise to Wizard Island – There are several tours to Wizard Island; the main tour boat sets out at 9am during the summer and lasts 5.5 hours. You’ll have three hours to explore/hike on the island too – to me, this is the quintessential way to do a boat tour on Crater Lake.
- Take in the View at Cloudcap Overlook – Further around Rim Drive, Cloudcap Overlook is the highest point from which you can view the crater, and it’s definitely picturesque
- See the Phantom Ship – At Phantom Ship Overlook, you can peer down at the spires of volcanic rocky spires that break the water’s surface, evoking the look of a ship. Phantom Ship is the only other island in Crater Lake (the other being Wizard Island).
- Drive to See the Pinnacles – If you have time depending on the day, the six-mile drive down Pinnacles Road is well worth it. A short hike gives you even more views of the ash spires that give this area its name; this might be my favorite non-lake view in the park.
- Stop at Vidae Falls – As you begin to close the loop of Rim Drive, make one last stop to admire Vidae Falls. It flows much stronger in the spring than as the year goes on, but the 100-foot flow and falls is still pretty.
- End at Rim Village – After driving almost 33 miles around Rim Drive, you’ll end back at Rim Village, having made the entire circuit.
2. Explore Rim Village
As you can see based on my suggested circuit of Rim Drive (#1), Rim Village is an important part of your experience at Crater Lake. It’s the place where all of the main amenities are located, and is an essential stop for stretching your legs even if you’re not planning any hikes (#3). As mentioned though, parking can be really tricky, so be prepared to make a few laps looking for a spot on busy summer weekends (I made… 6? 7? long loops trying to find one!).
Once you’ve found a parking spot, here’s what to do in Rim Village:
- Start the Rim Visitor Center – Small and easy to miss, the Visitor Center is an essential stop in every national park. (Be sure to stop at Steel Visitor Center on your way up past the South Entrance too; this was closed for work in Autumn 2023 so I haven’t been there!) The Rim Visitor Center has a lovely gift shop and info about the park if you need it.
- Stroll the Rim Promenade – This paved path offers great views of the crater and lake; it’s less than a mile long from end-to-end and is a nice way to stretch your legs, especially if you didn’t stop for any hikes when circuiting Rim Drive.
- Climb to Sinnott Memorial Overlook – If it’s open, Sinnott Memorial Overlook offers fantastic panoramic views and several exhibits about the “catastrophic” formation of the park (that’s the NPS word for it!).
- Stop by Crater Lake Lodge – Even if you’re not staying here (more on that below), Crater Lake Lodge is one of those iconic historic national park lodges that you just gotta see. There’s also a restaurant and bar if your timing makes sense for that.
- Grab a Snack at Rim Cafe – For a food alternative, Rim Cafe is another option; it’s typically quite busy during the midday, though you’ll miss that if you’re on a Wizard Island cruise. You can stop here to grab-and-go lunch for that tour!
3. Take A Hike
There are almost two dozen official, marked trails in Crater Lake National Park; as you can imagine, this means that there are hikes for basically every ability level. Below are some of the hikes I chose to try during my visit – I didn’t do them all in the end, but these are easy/moderate hikes that have a proportionally big payoff (good views, mostly!).
- Discovery Point – Discovery Point can be up to two miles in total with just 100 feet of elevation; you don’t need to do the whole distance to get incredible views of the crater, lake, and Wizard Island.
- Watchman Peak – One of the most popular trails in Crater Lake, Watchman Peak is a popular sunset spot. It is 1.6 miles in total with 420 feet in elevation gain (but remember, you’re starting at about 7,100 feet above sea level, so it’s a good challenge!).
- Plaikni Falls – A short two-mile, 100-foot elevation hike takes you to Plaikni Falls, which plunge about 20 feet in an impressive show.
- Pinnacles – A delightfully flat, 0.8-mile one-way trail, The Pinnacles shows off incredible volcanic ash spires (pinnacles) from the last major eruption.
- Sun Notch – Another short option, Sun Notch is just 0.8 miles with 150 feet of elevation and gorgeous views of Phantom Ship and the Lake.
As you can tell, I was favoring shorter, easier hikes (as I was pregnant when visiting), but there are plenty of others to choose from if you’re looking for one that’s more challenging.
Where to Stay Near Crater Lake
While you can visit Crater Lake National Park in a single day (drive in, see the park, and drive out), you can probably tell that having at least an overnight to allow a full day of exploration is a good idea. There are a variety of options though they vary in how close they are to the crater rim (and thus how much they make sense for a short visit):
- There are two campgrounds within the park boundaries: Mazama Campground is open during the summer season and is located near the South Entrance and Steel Visitor Center, and Lost Creek Campground (which was closed in 2024) is a later-season campground (typically open from July through October) and is on the Pinnacles Road.
- For non-camping accommodations, your best bet is Crater Lake Lodge (where I stayed for my one night in the park); this historic lodge is right on the crater rim and while the rooms aren’t super impressive, they are sufficient for an overnight before/after your day of adventure in the park. This lodge sells out pretty much all summer season, so be sure to make your reservations well in advance.
- There’s also the The Cabins at Mazama Village, down on the slopes of the mountain. This is a more cost-effective option that also works for larger groups – but there are only 10 cabins of 4 rooms each, so it also tends to book up during the popular season.
There are also options outside Crater Lake National Park. I stayed the night before my visit at Union Creek Resort in Prospect (45 minutes away); it’s a great option though – unsurprisingly – is popular enough to book up throughout the summer. The NPS also has a helpful page with the many other options for lodging near the park, if none of these work for your travel dates and/or budget.
Have any other questions about how to spend one day in Crater Lake National Park, or planning your visit? Let me know in the comments below!