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Crater Lake Travel Guide: Best Hikes in Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the entire United States, formed by a violent volcanic eruption that created the gorgeous blue crater! It’s the center of Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, famous for it’s bright blue color and clear water.

In this Crater Lake travel guide we’ll talk about some of the best hikes in Crater Lake National Park, along with places to stay nearby, tips for planning your trip, and some sample itineraries for visiting the park!

Head’s up: some of these links are affiliate links, so I get a commission if you make a purchase (at no cost to you). But that’s great, because I was going to share anyway, and this helps me keep making free guides for you!

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How Did Crater Lake Form?

Crater Lake actually isn’t a crater – it’s a caldera! That means it was formed by an inward collapse (rather than an outward explosion, which creates craters). Nearly 8,000 years ago, Mount Mazama erupted, and the walls of the volcano collapsed, forming the caldera. After that, it took about 250 years for the caldera to fill and become Crater Lake!

Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the US, and the ninth deepest in the entire world! The national park was founded in 1902, to preserve the beauty of the turqouise blue water.

A view of the lake from one of the best hikes in Crater Lake National Park.

Planning a trip to Crater Lake National Park

When you’re planning a trip to Crater Lake National Park, whether it’s a pit stop on a road trip, the next stop after you’ve seen the Oregon Coast, or just a little getaway to go hiking around the lake, my favorite tool for trip planning is The Dyrt. With the free app, you can find campsites and places to stay – and with The Dyrt Pro, you can also create a road trip route and find must see spots in Crater Lake National Park!

How to Get to Crater Lake National Park

Before you check out the best hikes in Crater Lake National Park, you’ll need to get there!

A car is pretty essential for getting to the park and exploring the hikes, but if you need to hop on a flight first, the closest airport to Crater Lake National Park is the Rogue Valley International Medford Airport, located in Medford, Oregon. From there, it’s a 1.5 hour drive into the park.

Expedia is a good way to find flights and rental cars, I also super recommend signing up for Scott’s Cheap Flights – they send you amazing deals, so you can find cheap flights to Crater Lake, and to destinations all over the world. The free account is great and totally worth the few minutes it takes to sign up, and I do recommend the premium account too!

If you fly into Oregon, you can rent a car through Discover Cars or Rental Cars.

But, a great alternative to a rental car is a tiny home on wheels! With a camper van, you get a vehicle and a place to sleep, all in one! This is my favorite way to travel, and you can rent a fully decked out van with Escape Campervans. Another option for vans is to use Outdoorsy, which is more like Airbnb for campers – you can rent a van, RV, or trailer from a person in the area!

Getting Around Crater Lake National Park

You’ll definitely need a car to get around Crater Lake National Park. You can rent a car at the airport, or use Escape Campervans or Outdoorsy to book a van – this way you have a car and a home on wheels! There’s really one main road in the park – the scenic Rim Drive that goes all the way around the road. For the most part, all of the best hikes in Crater Lake National Park and every viewpoint will be on this road!

The Watchman Peak Trail, which is one of the best hikes in Crater Lake National Park!

What is The Best Time to Visit Crater Lake National Park?

The park is very different depending on when you go, so here’s what you need to know about the best times to visit Crater Lake National Park!

Winter in Crater Lake National Park

There isn’t much skiing to be found in the park, but you can snowshoe or cross country ski if you want to experience the winter in Crater Lake National Park! But, in the winter, the park is covered in snow – which can definitely be pretty, but it’s also pretty difficult to explore, as there are lots of road closures and most of the park is inaccessible.

Winter in Crater Lake typically begins in November (though some years snow can accumulate starting in October), and snow starts to melt around May.

Spring in in Crater Lake National Park

Spring is pretty short in Crater Lake – unlike hiking on the Oregon Coast, this part of Oregon isn’t very rainy, but it’s often still snowy during the spring. Higher elevation hikes will still be covered in snow, and many parts of Rim Drive are closed until later in the season. So while this can be a good time to explore Crater Lake while there are very few people around, you’ll be more limited with where you can go, and the weather can be really unpredictable!

Summer in Crater Lake National Park

Though this is the most popular time to go, summer is definitely the best time for hiking at Crater Lake National Park. Most years, July and August are great times for exploring, as all of the snow is melted and the roads and trails are most likely to be open!

But, even then, each year is different – sometimes snow sticks around later. I went hiking in the park at the end of July this year (2022), and many of the trails were still closed because of snow, and parts of Rim Drive hadn’t opened yet. Check conditions before you go, and be prepared to change the plan if needed!

Since this is the busiest season in the park, I recommend planning your hikes for closer to sunrise or sunset.

Fall in Crater Lake National Park

Fall is a gorgeous time to go hiking at Crater Lake, but you should definitely go early in the season if you want to hike. September is ideal, because the weather is still warm and sunny, but there are fewer crowds than there are in the summer! October will be even less busy, but snow can start accumulating quickly, and sometimes storms begin early, so the weather is a lot less predictable.

Crater Lake national park entrance fee

There is an entrance fee to get into Crater Lake National Park. It costs $30 per car, but this is reduced to $20 in the winter (November 1-May 21)! You can pay the entrance fee at the booth when you go into the park, or get your pass online ahead of time.

If you visit national parks often, I definitely recommend getting an America the Beautiful Pass. The annual pass is $80, and will get you into any national park in the country for an entire year!

Things to Bring & What to Wear for Hiking in Crater Lake National Park

When you’re hiking, it’s important to be prepared! Here’s what you need to go hiking in Crater Lake National Park.

Hiking Shoes

To check out the hikes in Crater Lake National Park, you’ll need some shoes! Hiking boots are best for most people, but if you’re only doing the easier trails or if you trust your ankle strength, I prefer to hike in sandals.

My favorite hiking boots are my Danner boots – they’re cute, comfortable, and waterproof! I also love hiking in my Chacos, but I would only recommend sandals in the summer – and read trail reports to make sure there isn’t snow! While Chacos offer more support, I also like hiking in my Luna barefoot sandals – these let you feel the ground more.

Bonus Tip: A lot of these links are for my favorite place to buy outdoor gear – Backcountry. If you install the free Lolli extension on your browser, you can earn free Bitcoin when you shop online at certain retailers, including Backcountry.  Download Lolli here!

Layers!

Many of the hikes in Crater Lake National Park gain a lot of elevation, and like any mountainous region, the weather can change dramatically while you hike. Layers are always a good idea!

The Marmot Minimalist Jacket is a great lightweight, waterproof option for hiking in the rain or snow. If it’s really chilly, I love my Columbia puffy jacket (I prefer men’s fit, but there is a similar one for women) – it’s lightweight, but keeps me warm! For added warmth and layering, add a a Patagonia fleece.

Backpack

You need somewhere to put your snacks! And your hiking gear, of course.

When I’m bringing my camera gear, my favorite backpack is the Alex Strohl Mountain Light. It’s definitely the best camera bag out there for hiking with photo gear. If you don’t need storage for camera stuff, I recommend an Osprey Hikelite. If you aren’t planning any intense or long hikes, I love my Topo Designs Y-Pack for carrying everyday essentials!

Hydration!

Especially when you’re hiking or exploring outdoors, it’s important to stay hydrated! Single use water bottles are, of course, terrible for the environment, so avoid that and bring a reusable one!

For hiking, the CamelBak water reservoirs are convenient and easy – they can fit in your hiking backpack for water on the go. Nalgene water bottles are great for day to day, and if you want an insulated water bottle to keep your water cold and refreshing, Hydro Flasks are the best!

The Best Easy Hikes in Crater Lake National Park

If you’re just looking for an easy trail, that’s short and doesn’t have a lot of elevation gain, there are plenty of those in the park! Here are some of the best easy hikes in Crater Lake National Park.

Sun Notch Trail

Distance: 0.8 mile loop
Elevation Gain: 127 feet

This easy hike in Crater Lake National Park has some pretty amazing views! The Sun Notch Trail is less than a mile long, but you’ll have amazing views of the lake, and of a cool rock formation in the water – Phantom Ship Island. Don’t forget to look the other way too, as the meadow is really scenic too, and you can often spot marmots and pikas running around.

A view of Phantom Ship Island from the Sun Notch Trail, which is one of the best hikes in Crater Lake National Park.
A view of the lake and surrounding cliffs from the Sun Notch Trail, which is one of the best hikes in Crater Lake National Park.
A meadow with a mountain behind it along the trail for one of the best hikes in Crater Lake National Park.

Plaikini Falls Trail

Distance: 2.0 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 137 feet

This hike is a little different, because you won’t actually see Crater Lake on this trail! Instead, this easy hike in Crater Lake National Park takes you through lush old growth forest, and you’ll see a waterfall at the end.

Discovery Point Trail

Distance: 2.4 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 337 feet

Though the Discovery Point trail is a little longer, and it has a little bit of elevation gain, it’s still considered one of the best easy hikes in Crater Lake National Park. You have panoramic views of the lake the entire way, and it’s an absolutely gorgeous hike! If you don’t feel like taking the trail, you can also just drive to Discovery Point (where the hike begins) and just enjoy the overlook.

The view of Wizard Island from the Discovery Point Overlook, which is also the trailhead for one of the best hikes in Crater Lake National Park.

The Best Hard(er) Hikes in Crater Lake National Park

If you want a little bit more of a challenge, Crater Lake National Park has some amazing trails that are a little longer, and have some more elevation gain! These hikes are all considered moderate, so they aren’t too difficult for anyone with some hiking experience.

Garfield Peak Trail

Distance: 3.4 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 1069 feet

If you only do one of the hikes in Crater Lake National Park, I really recommend Garfield Peak! It’s one of the most amazing trails, with stunning views of the entire lake at the top. It starts in the forest, opening up to views of the blue water below and the mountain peaks all around as you climb up.

Cleetwood Cove Trail

Distance: 2.0 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 620 feet

This hike is the only place where you can swim in Crater Lake, without taking a boat out to Wizard Island! The Cleetwood Cove trail is one of the best hikes in Crater Lake National Park, giving you the opportunity to cliff jump or swim in the lake – which I definitely recommend doing. Though it’s short, this trail is pretty steep, so be prepared!

Mount Scott Trail

Distance: 4.2 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 1,259 feet

This hike will take you up to the top of Mount Scott, which is the highest point of Crater Lake! This gives you a great view of the entire lake, making it one of the best hikes in Crater Lake National Park.

Watchman Peak Trail

Distance: 1.7 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 400 feet

The Watchman Peak trail is a nice moderate hike that isn’t too long, but still offers some elevation gain and some great views! You can see the entire lake, and on a clear day, you can even see Mount Shasta from the trail.

Crater Lake National Park Hiking Trails Map

This Crater Lake National Park hiking trails map will show you all of the best hikes I mentioned here!

The green hiker icons are the easy, nearly flat trails. Blue icons represent the moderate trails – a little longer, with some elevation gain. Remember, difficulty is subjective, so make sure to do your research and prepare!

This map also some ideas for places to stay, marked by the black house icons.

Crater Lake National Park Itinerary

When you’re planning a trip to Crater Lake, it can be hard to figure out what to do! Here are some sample Crater Lake National Park itineraries to get you inspired.

How many days do you need in Crater Lake National Park?

While you could definitely spend more time in Crater Lake, you don’t really need more than two days in the park! I think one day is great and allows you to see the lake, but two days is ideal to give you a chance to explore more of the park.

Crater Lake National Park 2 day Itinerary

With two days, you have more time to explore!

Here’s a Crater Lake National Park 2 day itinerary.

Day 1:

  • Start the day at a cabin, and take the north entrance into the park in the morning.
  • Start driving Rim Drive, and stop at Watchman Peak Overlook.
  • Hike the easy Discovery Point Trail.
  • Stop for lunch and have a picnic!
  • Drive to the Garfield Peak Trailhead, and hike the trail
  • End the night at the Crater Lake Resort

Day 2:

  • Drive from the Crater Lake Resort to the Sun Notch Trailhead.
  • Hike the short Sun Notch Trail.
  • Continue along Rim Drive, and make sure to stop at viewpoints along the way!
  • Park at Cleetwood Cove, and hike down to the lake.
  • Swim, cliff jump, have a picnic, and enjoy the lake before heading back up.
  • Leave the park through the north, and spend another night at the cabin!
A view of Wizard Island from one of the best hikes in Crater Lake National Park.

Crater Lake National Park 1 day Itinerary

If you only have one day in Crater Lake National Park, I recommend the Garfield Peak Trail, and the Cleetwood Cove Trail – these were my personal favorite hikes! They’re both kind of challenging, so if you’re not up for both, you can totally just pick one and spend the rest of the day driving around Rim Drive and stopping at overlooks.

Crater Lake 1 Day Itinerary:

  • Start the day at a cabin, and take the north entrance into the park in the morning.
  • Start driving Rim Drive, and stop at Watchman Peak and the Discovery Point Overlook.
  • Hike the Garfield Peak Trail.
  • Stop for lunch and have a picnic!
  • Drive to the Garfield Peak Trailhead, and hike the trail.
  • Continue on Rim Drive, and take a short walk on the Sun Notch Trail if you’re up for it.
  • Park at Cleetwood Cove and hike down.
  • Swim, cliff jump, and enjoy the lake before heading back up!
  • Return to the cabin and end the night there.
A view from the trailhead on one of the best hikes in Crater Lake National Park.

Where to Stay Near Crater Lake National Park

camping near Crater Lake national park

For camping near Crater Lake National Park, I recommend using The Dyrt – it’s the best way to find campsites. You can use the free version to find campsites, but with The Dyrt Pro you’ll also be able to see the boundaries of national forest land all around the national park. On national forest land, you can camp anywhere for free! You can try The Dyrt before you commit, and click here for a free trial.

There are also plenty of options for free camping near Crater Lake National Park – so check out this guide to learn how to find free campsites!

hotels near Crater Lake national park

Hotels are always an easy, convenient option, and there are a few hotels near Crater Lake National Park!

Check out the Crater Lake Resort and the Aspen Inn!

Cabins, Glamping, & Yurts

For a unique place to stay during your trip, check out Hipcamp! It’s like Airbnb for campsites – and you can find yurts (like this one in Oregon), cabins, glamping sites, and more. 

You can even get $10 off your first booking here!

A Camper van

With a camper van, you get a vehicle and a place to sleep, all in one! This is my favorite way to travel, and you can rent a fully decked out van with Escape Campervans. Another option is to use Outdoorsy, which is more like Airbnb – you can rent vans, RVs, and trailers from people who live nearby!

More To explore Near Crater Lake National Park

After you’ve done some of these best hikes in Crater Lake National Park, there’s so much more to see nearby!

You can continue south to Redwoods National Park, or head to the Oregon Coast!

Pin any of these photos to save this Crater Lake national park Travel guide and reference it later!

A Pinterest graphic that says "the best hikes in Crater Lake National Park."
A Pinterest graphic that says "the best hikes in Crater Lake National Park."
A Pinterest graphic that says "the best hikes in Crater Lake National Park."

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