The Ultimate Crater Lake Road Trip Plan

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So, you have decided to take a road trip and want to include Crater Lake in your itinerary, you have made the first good decision of your trip already! After hearing a good friend discuss her multiple road trips in the area and researching Crater Lake National Park, I can promise that you will not regret making Crater Lake a part of your road trip!

The Ultimate Crater Lake Road Trip PlanRoad tripping to Crater Lake National plan, you can count on enjoying outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, a trolley or a boat tour. In winter, there’s snowmobile, skiing, and snowshoe trails that allow you to see views that will take your breath away. And it’s not just the park itself. Road tripping there and back can be an adventure in its own right!

Keep reading for more detailed information on Crater Lake, activities you can do while there, and the route to take for the ultimate Crater Lake Road Trip. I also outline tips for driving in winter weather conditions since there is often snow on the roads when you are in the mountains.

General Crater Lake National Park Information

Before we get into the road tripping part, let’s talk about the basics of Crater Lake National Park itself. When you should go, where you should go, and how much it would cost.

Crater Lake National Park is located in Oregon, in the southern part of the state. As the name suggests, the main attraction is Crater Lake itself, the deepest lake in the US. The immense depth gives this lake a unique striking blue color – absolutely gorgeous, any time of the year.

The Formation of Crater Lake

The park was established in 1902 to protect Crater Lake. Crater lake was formed 7,700 years ago when a volcanic eruption collapsed the 12,000-foot-tall peak of Mount Mazama, creating a caldera (or as most of us would say, a crater of ash and stone).

Over the years, scientists estimate around 740 of them, the crater was filled with water from rain and snow giving us a deep blue natural lake. It is officially the deepest lake in the US and is purported to be the most pristine lake in the world. Later eruptions created Wizard Island.

Whenever you choose to visit, Crater Lake is rarely frozen over due to its’ immense depth, which acts like a heat reservoir preventing the lake from falling too far below the average temperature of 55*.

The Spooky Side of Crater Lake

Due to many tribes witnessing the creation of Crater Lake, they included the event in their legends. If Native American culture and science interest you, look into Klamath Indian’s legend of the creation of Crater Lake as it oddly parallels the scientific explanation for what happened back then.

The Klamath Indians believe that gazing into the blue of Crater Lake’s waters invites “death and lasting sorrow” for the individual. This is largely tied to the creation of the lake and the belief that their version of the devil dwells in the Lake. The Modoc tribe believe the entire area is evil and the home of dark spirits.

The first European settlers of the Lake went there to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a miner nicknamed “Set ‘em up” and the treasure he supposedly left behind. Long story short, they found no trace of him, his homestead, or his mine! Since then, there have been numerous mysterious disappearances documented, some as recent as the 1990’s!

There have been many reported sightings of Big Foot, and even the rangers on duty claim to have followed a “large, putrid-smelling creature” through the woods. In addition, there are 2 supposed slayings of Sasquatch reported in the park, one by car and one by train!

UFOs have been sighted hovering around the lake in the night sky from time to time. A jet pilot even reported following a UFO the same night a large sonic boom was heard across the entire western portion of the state.

Crater Lake National Park – when to go and how much it will cost

The park is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week but many attractions are season specific.

The entrance fee for the winter months (November through April) is $10 per car. In the warmer months (May through October) the cost is $25 per car and $15 per motorcycle. Entrance fees are good for 7 days and can be purchased at the Steel Visitors Center which is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm.

If you have the annual National Parks Pass, aka America the Beautiful, entrance is free for you! As you’ll see in our road trip itineraries below, there are many other National Parks worth visiting in the region, so getting the pass may be a worthwhile investment (plus, you can use it throughout the country, for an entire year!).

The cost is reduced for the winter season due to many of the park’s attractions and facilities being closed. If you, like me, prefer to avoid the coldest times to visit, locals suggest planning your trip for July and August.

You will want to check the website for current advisories and the most recent newsletter (the park publishes one for the summer and one for the winter). The website and newsletter will give you up-to-date information on the roads, any restrictions in place, and even more tips on making the most of your visit!

Things to do at Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake National Park is a relatively small park. This is no Yellowstone or even Yosemite. Since most people come to see the famous deep blue lake, it’s entirely possible to fully experience the views by driving around the rim, take a short hike, see the visitors center and be out of the park in half a day.

However, if you have the time and inclination, you could enjoy a more in-depth visit by adding some hiking, joining a ranger-led activity in season, or even stay the night for some stellar star gazing.

Here’s a complete list of everything you can do in Crater Lake National Park.

Take the Rim Drive

This is a 33-mile scenic highway that follows the rim of the caldera that formed Crater Lake. Rim Drive has 8 different viewing areas with roadside parking, so you can pull off and take in the scenery. There are 15 other turnouts along the road to take in the views.

If you don’t have time for anything else – do this. You’ll get all of your picture-perfect shots of the blue lake and a true appreciation for its beauty.

Tour Crater Lake Lodge

The Crater Lake Lodge
The Crater Lake Lodge | Photo by vladeb

Built in 1915, the lodge renovation was completed in 1994. The Great Hall has been completely restored and there are historical exhibits to provide visitors with a deeper insight into the lodge and the lake. It also provides some amazing views of the lake!

Visit the Sinnott Overlook

Crater Lake from Sinnott Memorial Overlook
Crater Lake from Sinnott Memorial Overlook | Photo by Jun Seita

Located on a rock ledge behind the Rim Visitor Center, the Overlook has an indoor exhibit room and open balcony with amazing lake views. There are a relief model and an exhibit about the park’s geology and lake research.

Star Gazing

Due to its location, the night skies at Crater Lake are some of the darkest in America. On a cloudless night, visitors can see meteors, planets, and other amazing aspects of The Milky Way.

Hike/Ski a Trail

This is a gorgeous area of the Cascade range, so if you’re up for more exercise, there’s a variety fo trails to explore. We’ve put them here in a handy list for you. Don’t forget to check with the rangers first – conditions may vary depending on the time of your visit.

Summer Trails (usually open May to October)

There are more than 15 hiking trails ranging from easy to strenuous, which are only suitable for individuals well-versed in hiking. As long as you pick a trail geared to your current level of fitness and experience you will have a wonderful experience full of breathtaking views. Here are the top five trails to visit, according to people who have been to Crater Lake National Park.

  • Sun Notch Trail. This half-mile beginner level trail provides some spectacular views of Crater Lake and Phantom Ship Island.
  • Cleetwood Cove Trail. This intermediate trail provides direct access to Crater Lake. It is 2.1 miles long and takes about an hour to trek from the trailhead to Cleetwood Cove.
  • Crater Peak Trail. Many park visitors claim this is one of their favorite trails. This 2.8-mile-long intermediate trail provides views of the views of the Klamath Basin to the southeast of the park, please note that there are no views of Crater Lake on this hike.
  • Mount Scott Trail. This intermediate trail is a 4.5-mile-long trail that is tougher than some of the others, but for those that make it to the top, there are amazing views of Crater Lake and the surrounding landscape.
  • Wizard Island Summit Trail. Access to this intermediate trail is limited to those willing to take a boat ride across Crater Lake. Once you make it to the trail, this 2.5-mile trek allows hikers to take in awe-inspiring views of Crater Lake. Visitors say you should definitely go into the Witches Caldron using one of the trails there.

Winter Trails (usually available November to April)

While many things are closed, the winter weather creates many different options for people who enjoy snow-centered activities. There are many different marked trails within the park, and people are also able to travel unmarked routes if they are willing to risk getting lost! Keep in mind, these trails are not maintained and could be difficult to follow at times.

  • Mazama Loop. This easy trail provides views into Annie Creek Canyon.
  • West Rim Drive. This trail is good for all levels and provides wonderful views of Crater Lake and Wizard Island. The trail begins at Rim Village and the trail takes skiers to Discovery Point, Wizard Island Overlook, Union Peak Overlook. All locations past Union Peak Overlook should be attempted with caution, if you do continue you will get to Watchman Overlook, Diamond Lake Overlook, and North Junction.
  • Hemlock Loop. The loop is an intermediate level trail that provides a variety of scenes including a forest of hemlock trees, meadows providing distant views to the south and east. Visitors suggest traveling counterclockwise because it provides more interesting downhill slopes and turns.
  • East Rim Drive. This intermediate level trail is considered a good alternative to the West Rim Drive on days when it is windy. It does have some longer and steeper climbs and crosses through areas prone to avalanches. The trail begins south of Park Headquarters and takes skiers to the Summit of First Climb, Vidae Falls, Sun Notch, and Gargield-Applegate Ridge.
  • Ravel Trail. This advanced level trail descends steeply from Rim Village to Park Headquarters, it drops a whopping 610 feet in elevation! Many park rangers choose to take on this trail after work, so if you are an experienced skier add this to your list!
  • Dutton Creek Trail. One of the least often traveled trails, this advanced level trail is a fun and challenging backcountry experience. Visitors suggest carrying a topographic map and compass or GPS to help avoid getting lost.

Ranger-Led Activities in Crater Lake Park

If you prefer having someone there to help guide your way or provide information about the area, the park rangers offer a variety of options. In the winter months, rangers still do the guided hikes, but all other activities are suspended. Check the Park’s newsletter for up-to-date information.

Talks at Rim Village

The topics discussed will vary but each talk lasts about 20 minutes, check the posted schedules to see if you want to attend one while you are traveling through. These take place at Sinnott Overlook at noon, 1:30 and 3:00. There is a 4 o’clock talk at Crater Lake Lodge on the back porch or by the fireplace in the Great Hall.

Rim Village Visitor Center
Rim Village Visitor Center | Photo by M.O. Stevens

Afternoon Hikes

Trails hiked vary throughout the week between Sun Notch (easy, 1 hour hike), Plaikni Falls (easy 1.5 hour hike), and Garfield Peak (strenuous 2.5 hour hike). Make sure to bring plenty of water and energy!

Watchman Peak Sunset Hikes

This hike takes you to Watchman Overlook and let you watch the sunset over the Cascade Mountain Range. The trail takes about an hour and a half.

Rim Drive Trolley Tours

There are three historically designed trolleys that provide a 2 hour trip around Crater Lake using Rim Drive with a park guide that provides information on the park and the unique features of the only National Park in Oregon. The tour includes several stops at various areas of interest around the lake. Check the website for more information.

Adults cost $27 and children 6 to 13 years old are $17, check out the website for more detailed pricing and booking information.

Crater Lake Boat Tours

A boat on Crater lake
A boat on Crater lake | Photo by Greg Willis

Offered multiple times throughout the day, this two-hour boat tour gives you a glimpse into the history, geology, and cultural significance of Crater Lake. Check out the website for more info.

Tour Boat, Crater Lake National Park
Tour Boat, Crater Lake National Park | Photo by ray_explores

The cost is $40 for adult and $27 for children from 3 to 12 years old. This tour requires visitors to be able to take the Cleetwood Cove Trail in order to get to the boat.

Places to Eat and Shop in The Park

Rim Village Café & Gift Shop

The café and shop are generally open from mid-May through December, hours vary check the website for more detailed information

Annie Creek Restaurant & Gift Shop

The restaurant and gift shop are generally open from late May through September, casual dining for breakfast (8 am to 10:30 am), lunch (11 am to 4 pm), and dinner (5 pm to 8 pm)

Crater Lake Lodge

The lodge is generally open from Mid-May to Mid-October, fine dining in a casual atmosphere, reservations recommended for dinner (served 5pm to 9pm) but not available for breakfast (7 am to 10 am) or lunch (11 am to 3 pm)

The fireplace at Crater Lake Lodge
The fireplace at Crater Lake Lodge | Photo by daveynin

Mazama Village Store

While not a café or eatery, it does sell groceries, so you can make your own meal. They also sell camping supplies, firewood, and gasoline. The store is generally open from late-May through September (hours vary by season).

How to Get to the Park from San Francisco

If you are flying, the city I would suggest starting your trip from is San Francisco. It offers scenic roads with nearby attractions to get to Crater Lake so that you can have a full experience of the Pacific Northwest.

I strongly encourage you to enjoy a day or two in San Francisco prior to starting or after returning from your road trip. With Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, Pier 39, working cable cars, and so many more attractions it would be a mistake to skip adding in time to explore San Francisco.

Day 1 San Francisco to Reno

This leg of the trip will be around 230 miles and take about 4.5 hours, if you don’t make any stops. Then again, if you don’t make any stops what is the point of taking a road trip?

I suggest you make a stop around mile 195, about 3.5 hours into your trip, at Emerald Bay State Park and stretch your legs along one of their many hiking trails. After working up a sweat hiking, head over to Sand Harbor Beach to go for a swim.

From Sand Harbor Beach, you are looking at about another hour drive (about 41 miles) to get to Reno. During your night in Reno, check out the local casinos and nightlife (assuming you are not traveling with little ones!). If you are traveling with children, you might want to check out Fleischmann Planetarium or the Circus Circus Casino.

Day 2 Reno to Klamath Falls

If you drove straight through, this part of the trip is around 254 miles and would take just under 4.5 hours. Of course, that is not what I am suggesting!

Along the way, about 2.5 hours into your trip (151 miles) drive through Lassen National Park and stop to hike the Bumpass Hell Trail. Take some time at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center to learn about the park’s volcanic nature. Grab a coffee or souvenir at Lassen Café and Gift located right next to the visitor center.

Another stop you should make, about 45 minutes outside of Lassen National Park (41 miles), is at Burney Falls to stretch your legs and take in the breathtaking views. This 120-foot waterfall is possibly the most beautiful one in the state, definitely, a can’t miss attraction!

From Burney Falls, head to Klamath Falls for the night. This should take about 2.5 hours (135 miles) and when you get to Klamath Falls, there might be time to check out one of the many trails or you might be exhausted and just ready to relax. Since the next day, you will be heading to Crater Lake (finally!) plan for an early evening so you have the energy to enjoy your time there!

Day 3 Klamath Falls to Crater Lake to Crescent City

The first leg of your trip today is a 44-mile drive, about 45-50 minutes, to Crater Lake. The earlier you head out, the longer you can spend at least half a day exploring but plan to leave no later than 4 pm since the driving to Crescent City is best not done in the dark since it is mostly forested mountainous roads.

Once you leave Crater Lake, you will travel 195 miles to Crescent City. The trip will take around 4 hours to complete. There isn’t much to do in the evenings in Crescent City but take the time to check out Pebble Beach and the B Street Pier for the views and you will possibly see some sea lions hanging out.

Day 4 Crescent City to Santa Rosa

This last leg of your trip is 355 miles and a drive of almost 6.5 hours if you go straight through. Although, it would be a shame to miss out on the redwoods when you are this close!

Just outside of Crescent City is the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, an amazing place to view the tallest trees on Earth. Think about taking the time to visit the beach and then take a hike along Lady Bird Johnson Grove Nature Trail, an easy 1.4-mile trail.

From the park, drive south through the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile section of old Highway 101. If you need some time out of the car to break up your trip, there are many hiking trails you can take off on.

When you have had your fill of hiking, jump in the car and head south to Santa Rosa. This is the home of Charles Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts comic strips. Evidence of his ties to the town is all over with statues scatter throughout the downtown area and even a museum and research center which opened in 2002.

Day 5 Santa Rosa to San Francisco

This part of the trip is right around 55 miles and should take an hour and 15 minutes so if you have a flight leaving today, plan accordingly! If you do not have a flight to rush back to, this could be a leisurely drive or it could be a 2- or 3-day trip through Sonoma Valley and the over 100 wineries, breweries, and distilleries located close to Santa Rosa.

Once you are ready to head back to San Francisco, remain on Highway 101 and you will be able to cross the Golden Gate Bridge on your way back into San Francisco. Hopefully the weather will be clear blue skies because this is a beautiful bridge, just make sure if you are the one driving you don’t get too distracted looking at the architecture!

How to Get to the Park from Portland

If you fly into Portland instead of San Francisco, I would still suggest taking a day or two on the front or back end of your trip to take in the sites of Portland, Oregon. My favorite would have to be Powell’s City of Books, but I am a huge bibliophile and found this massive bookstore to be like Heaven on Earth for me!

Day 1 Portland to Bend

Leaving Portland you will be heading to Bend which is just about 162 miles away and will take around 3 hours and 20 minutes to drive, with no stops (which you know isn’t our style!).

Our first stop on this leg of the trip will be Trillium Lake. It is just under an hour and a half from Portland and provides a beautiful lake with Mount Hood rising up in the background. The lake is a popular destination for fishing, camping, and photography.

If you have some extra time in your travel plans, you could add in a visit to the Columbia River Gorge at this point in your trip. It is just under 40 miles away and should take about 45 minutes to get there. This area was designated a National Scenic Area (the largest in the United States) and is also full outdoor adventure activities, you are sure to find something everyone you are traveling with will enjoy!

From Trillium Lake, the drive to Bend is going to take 2 hours and is 106 miles long. If you chose to drive out to the Columbia River Gorge then this part of the trip will be around 140 miles long and take about 2 and a half hours. Either way, you should be ending your day in Bend.

Day 2 Explore Bend (and the surrounding areas)

Bend? I’m suggesting you take a full day to explore a place called Bend? Which, if you are like me you have probably never heard of this particular location in Oregon, so you are probably thinking I have lost my mind. I promise you I haven’t!

This city and the surrounding areas (all within a 1 hour drive) are filled with things to do that will fill up your day of exploring and probably leave you wishing you had more time! For a detailed list of all the things you can do in Bend, check out this post from 2016.

Day 3 Bend to Crater Lake

The drive from Bend to Crater Lake should be just under 2 hours and is around 102.4 miles long. Depending on how much you were able to do on Day 2, you might choose to do a little more exploring in Bend before starting on the road to Crater Lake. If you do, just make sure you give yourself plenty of time to explore and enjoy all that Crater Lake has to offer.

Day 4 Crater Lake to Newport

This leg of the trip is a total of 230 miles and will take about 4 hours to drive straight through, but doing this would be a huge mistake!

45 minutes into the trip, around 40 miles, you will want to take a stop at Toketee Falls. Located on the North Umpqua River this is a two-stage waterfall that drops almost 120 feet. It provides a steady and picturesque waterfall no matter when you visit due to reliable water flow in the river.

From Toketee Falls, you are going to drive about 3 hours, around 160 miles, to Heceta Head Lighthouse. This will be your first stop along the Oregon coast and a worthwhile stop since many visitors claim this is one of the most beautiful lighthouses in the world.

Once you have taken in the sights at Heceta Head, you will be heading to Newport for the night. This should take just under an hour to drive and is about 38 miles. Odds are, when you get to Newport it will be pretty late in the day so get some food and plan to explore the coast when you wake up in the morning.

Day 5 Newport to Astoria

Driving straight through, Newport to Astoria is a 133-mile leg that should take about 3 hours to drive. Along the way there are many different sights you can check out. Some sights I suggest you check out while you are exploring the Oregon Coast include:

Yaquina Head Lighthouse is located in Newport and is Oregon’s tallest lighthouse at 93 feet tall. It has a history dating back to 1873 and visitors often see harbor seals along the shore.

Need some time out of the car? Indian Beach Trail is in Ecola State Park and boasts some breathtaking views. People who have hiked this trail tell visitors to be sure to have a camera with you because you could see a bald eagle fly by!

Cannon Beach is a place known for birdwatching, surfing, hiking, whale watching, and stunning views. It has been named one of the world’s 100 most beautiful places so definitely worth a stop to take in the view!

Astoria is full of history, museums, and even shipwreck remains. Some sights in Astoria that I think are worth a look would be the famous Astoria Column, one of 12 monuments built to honor Astoria’s early settlers, and the Garden of Surging Waves, a city park celebrating and honoring the Chinese heritage found in Astoria.

Day 6 Astoria to Portland

Today you leave the coast and head back to your starting point. This part of your journey (if you do not take any side trips or detours) will take you about an hour and 45 minutes and is just under 100 miles long. I suggest keeping your eyes peeled for anything interesting you might want to see, sometimes the greatest adventures are the ones you haven’t planned for!

Tips for Driving in Snowy/Icy Conditions

Whenever you visit there is the possibility of there being snow and ice on the roads, especially in the winter months but often in spring/fall, and sometimes even in summer. Just in case you are not used to driving in these kinds of conditions, I have included some tips so you can have a safe and accident-free trip.

Slow Down. The posted speed limit is for ideal conditions, snow and ice create less than ideal conditions so adjust your speed accordingly.

Stay Alert. Another driver might hit a patch of ice and skid, you need to be prepared to react to anything that might come your way.

Stay In Your Lane. It sounds silly, but drivers will sometimes shift into oncoming lanes because they have been plowed while the proper lane has not been. This is seriously dangerous, just slow down and stay in your own lane.

Prepare Your Vehicle. Make sure the vehicle you are using is equipped to handle the road conditions. If you are renting a vehicle, ask for a car with traction tires. You can verify you have traction tires by looking for a mountain/snowflake on the sidewall.

Chains can be used to help tires keep traction on wintry roads, if this is the option you are using make sure you know how to put them on properly. The last thing you want is to realize on a snowy hill that you have no idea how to use the tools necessary to arrive at your destination safely!

Gas Up. Keep your gas take above the halfway mark, this helps make sure you do not run out of gas on a back road when the weather is freezing. From October to late May there will be no gas, diesel, or electric charging possible within the park.

Have a Survival Kit. You should make sure you have an ice scraper, a flashlight, batteries (for the flashlight), a warm blanket (or 2 or 3 depending on the number of people in your party), bottles of water, non-perishable snacks, a winter coat/hat/gloves/scarf (in case you have to venture out into the weather) just in case you get stuck along the way.

What do you think?

Tell us what you think, have you ever taken a road trip through this part of the states? Did we miss anything people should definitely check out? Any attractions you think should have been included that weren’t?

The Ultimate Crater Lake Road Trip PlanThe Ultimate Crater Lake Road Trip Plan

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