We finally got a chance to spend one day in Crater Lake National Park, Oregon. With all its breathtaking views, hikes of all lengths and activity levels, and a plethora of photogenic overlooks along the historic Rim Drive, it was an adventure to remember for years to come.
One Day in Crater Lake National Park Itinerary
Some 7,700 years ago, the place known as Crater Lake National Park didn’t even exist. Yet the story of today’s Southern Oregon was about to change when a series of massive volcano eruptions wiped a prominent mountain peak off the face of the earth.
A large chasm appeared where the mountain once stood. Over the next centuries, rain and snow filled the great abyss with the clearest water. No other inlets could transfer their waters to the growing lake.
Eventually the water in the erupted volcano crater reached its current level. The deepest cracks filled with the melted snow and rain reach a depth of 1,943 feet. No other lakes in the USA exceed this dimension, which makes Crater Lake the deepest lake in the country.
Today, a scenic road runs along the edge of the lake built within the erupted volcano over the centuries. Photogenic overlooks and steep trails along the Rim Drive still tell a story of an unbelievable transformation Southern Oregon had gone through.
And this is the area we’ve longed to see for years.
Spending a Day in Crater Lake National Park
As much as we’d like to spend more time exploring different national parks in the Pacific Northwest, often we have to do and see as much as we can in just one day at a time. (Vacation time in the USA still had to catch up with European norms.)
Southern Oregon had to comply with this rule as well. We saw impeccable landscape and astounding landmarks of this part of the state during our previous visit. This time around, we were quite content to spend one day in Crater Lake National Park before driving farther north and exploring Eugene and Silver Falls State Park.
Is One Day enough for Crater Lake National Park?
“Is one day enough for seeing all the wonders of Crater Lake National Park?” I was asking myself this question prior to our trip, the day before – when we hiked in Lassen Volcanic National Park and stared in awe at the magnificence of Burney Falls, – and even the morning we arrived at Crater Lake.
Finally I can answer this questions with a fair amount of confidence. Yes, one day is sufficient to see most of Crater Lake National Park.
Obviously, you won’t hit every trail in the park, won’t stop at every photogenic viewing point along the dramatic Rim Drive. But you will delight in the splendor and remarkable beauty Crater Lake National Park is famous for.
History in a Nutshell
I like to learn a little bit about a place I travel to. So a few days before setting off on our Northern California – Oregon journey, I dud into history of Crater Lake National Park.
Despite its outstanding richness and crystal clear water, the place wasn’t designated Crater Lake National Park until the early 20th century. William Gladstone Steel who had first visited the area in 1885 set a goal to protect Crater Lake.
Almost two decades later, his effort payed off. Crater Lake National Park was established on May 22, 1902.
Why Is Crater Lake so Blue?
The clarity of the Crater Lake’s water astounds the visitors most of the days of the year. The absence of the outside sources, such as rivers or streams, that bring sediment along with their water flows is one of the reasons. The second is a lot more complicated. It has to deal with the peculiarity of the lake and molecular structure of the water.
The sunlight doesn’t reach the depths of Crater Lake, leaving fewer particles in the water to reflect the light. The water molecules also absorb all vibrant wavelengths except for the blue ones. The latter get reflected back to the surface where they intensify the richness of the lake’s color.
How to Spend One Day in Crater Lake National Park: Itinerary and Things to Do
Thanks for bearing with me for so long. Now that we answered the most frequently asked questions about the area, it’s time to dive deeper into the things and places one should see and visit while spending a day in Crater Lake National Park.
1. Rim Drive
The historic Rim Drive loops Crater Lake. The road spreads for 33 miles and features 30 photogenic overlooks. Some of these view points are quick stop-see-and-drive areas. Others with proper parking lots offer access to hiking trails.
A few picnic areas are nestled along the Rim Drive. But as our day experience showed, the number of picnic tables is limited. Often, you may need to look for a fallen tree nearby that can serve as your table and chairs.
The panoramic Rim Drive is the best place to start and end your day excursions in Crater Lake National Park. On average, it takes 3 hours to drive the entire route. Expect a longer drive if you plan to devote a good part of your day to hiking in the Crater Lake area.
2. Sun Notch Trail
The things didn’t turn out the way he planned, though. Phone services were limited. GPS didn’t work. And most importably, Roshan forgot the official names of the places. In the end, we didn’t see a lot of the park. That situation forced me to make a mental note to never go to a national park without a hardcopy map and a proper itinerary.
Spending a day in Crater Lake National Park, however, was a completely different experience. I had to admit to myself that I was partially wrong. Some national parks, including the Crater Lake area, don’t need any detailed itineraries.
Once you get a map, you are ready to explore. But even the hardcopy map can be optional here. Simply drive along the scenic Rim Drive and stop at any marked overlooks you find interesting.
For those who like me need some points of reference, here are few overlooks and trails you should check out during your day adventure in the Crater Lake region.
The Sun Notch Trail is a short (0.8-mile round-trip trail), easy hike that opens some remarkable views of Crater Lake and mysterious Phantom Ship.
TIP: The trail gets busy later in the day. So if you have only one day to see most of the Crater Lake region, arrive early. We hit the trail around 8:00 a.m. and met just two ladies heading back to a roadside parking lot.
At the end of the path, peering into the blue lake that stretched as far as the eye could see, we took our sweet time. I took my own sweet time… taking hundreds of pictures. About 40 minutes later, by the time we were ready to head to another place, the trail was slowly becoming a beehive.
3. Pinnacles Road
The 7-mile road is the only detour from the Rim Drive. And it’s by far the main reason why you might need a preplanned itinerary while spending a day in Crater Lake. As you driving away from the stunning blue lake, keep your eyes peeled for a couple of natural attractions.
The first, a trail, comes into view shortly after you turn onto the Pinnacles Road. This 1-mile wheelchair accessible path winds through old-growth hemlock forest to Plaikni Falls.
The second landmark sits at the end of the Pinnacles Road. A namesake of the route, the Pinnacles Overlook unveils stunning views of 100-foot-tall rock needles formed from volcanic ash.
4. Cleetwood Cove Trail
The Cleetwood Cove Trail should be on your A Day in Crater Lake National Park itinerary for a few reasons. The 2.2-mile round-trip trail is one of the must-visit places.
TIP: Yet with a rather steep incline (the path drops 700 feet in elevation) along a series of switchbacks, the area can be merciless on your knees. People that have problems with walking uphill (what you will do on the way back to a parking lot) should skip the hike.
The fitter hikers get all the way down to the Crater Lake’s shore where they can swim, fish, and wade. The water can be cold, though.
Note: Crater Lake National Park does get snow. So the trail is seasonal and is normally open from mid-June through October.
The Cleetwood Cove area is the only legal access to the shore. If you’ve signed up for a day trip to Wizard Island, this is your only route to get down to the shore and board a ship cruising on Crater Lake.
5. Watchman Peak Trail
The 1.7-mile Watchman Peak Trail is not as steep as the Cleetwood Cove Trail. But with 420 feet in elevation gain, it’s still a place that can drain your energy. As a reward, you get to enjoy the incredible views of the crown jewel of the park.
6. Discovery Point Trail
We could easily add the Discovery Point Trail to our itinerary while spending the second half of the day in the Crater Lake area, but opted not to. Instead we gazed down at the blue vastness from almost the opposite side from where we saw it for the first time.
Unlike the previous hikes, the Discovery Point Trail suits visitors of all walks of life. The 2.2-mile round-trip trail is easy, virtually flat (only 100 feet in elevation gain), and quite beautiful. The path runs along the rim and offers different views of Crater Lake.
7. Garfield Peak Crater Lake Trail
Finish your day on a high note while hiking along the Garfield Peak Crater Lake Trail. The path is long (3.6 mile round trip) and strenuous (1,100 feet in elevation gain). On the other hand, one of the highest peaks in the park provides the breathtaking views of Crater Lake and its surroundings that you haven’t seen yet.
The Best Time to Spend a Day in Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake National Park welcomes visitors every day of the year. No prior reservation is needed. Yet due to heavy snowfalls, many roads and trails are closed during the winter season (November through April).
In winter, the Rim Drive and North Entrance Road are unable to accommodate cars. The scenic route is open only for skiing and snowshoeing while snowmobiles can still access the North Entrance Road.
Where to Stay
Small towns in the region have plenty of options to accommodate the park’s visitors. During our day adventures in the Crater Lake area, we stayed in Klamath Falls the first night. Known as the gateway to Crater Lake National Park, the city is located roughly one hour south of the lake.
Since we didn’t intend to spend the second day in the Crater Lake area, we stayed further north, in Eugene, located approximately 2 hours 40 minutes away, the following night.