Short, virtually flat, and absolutely beautiful, the Sun Notch Trail is considered one of the best and most photographed hikes in Crater Lake National Park, Oregon.
A Complete Guide to Hiking the Sun Notch Trail in Crater Lake National Park
Less than a mile long, the Sun Notch Loop Trail in Crater Lake National Park instantly attracted my attention. While it’s quite possible to drive along the historic Rim Drive and enjoy impeccable views of Crater Lake without stepping your foot on a trail, I needed a break, some exercises for my itchy feet tired of sitting in the car.
Traveling with my family, including a 5-year-old son, I didn’t want to overwhelm them with longer hikes this time. The Sun Notch Trail looked ideal. And it was. Especially the views at the end of the hike that showcased two of the park’s signature landmarks in their full glory: Crater Lake itself and mysterious Phantom Ship.
Hiking the Sun Notch Trail in Crater Lake National Park
- Distance: 0.8-mile loop trail
- Elevations gain: 127 feet
- Difficulty: Easy
- Time: 20-30 minutes
Searching for the Most Photographed Places in Crater Lake National Park
The Sun Notch Trail sits along the East Rim Drive, 4.4 miles east of park’s headquarters. A small roadside parking lot and a marked sign point to the area where the trailhead hides. “Hide” is the right word to use here. If you don’t have the Top Notch Trail on your radar prior to the visit to Crater Lake National Park, it’s easy to drive by without realizing what you are missing out on.
The Sun Notch hike is fairly easy. The trail starts among mountain hemlock trees. There are no obstacles. The path is virtually flat until it leaves the shaded area protected by the forest and springs through an open pumice meadow. Although insignificant, a gain in elevation is expected here.
On the other hand with a short growing window, in mid-summer this section of the Sun Notch Trail transforms into a blooming field that allures both amateur and professional photographers.
The towering trees, however, reappear at the end of the trail along the caldera edge, where the astounding views of Crater Lake and Phantom Ship open up.
Views from the Trail
Mysterious Phantom Ship looks so small compared to the giant caldera walls surrounding it. Looking at this island, lost in the deepest lake in the USA, you can’t help but think of Fannette Island, a tiny isle rising above the surface of Lake Tahoe in Emerald Bay State Park.
But just like the California’s favorite island, the signature landmark of the Sun Notch Trail is big enough to dwarf any boat that cruises nearby.
The Sun North Trail is sandwiched between Applegate Peak and Dutton Cliff ridge. These views are next you look for while standing near short brick walls overlooking the lake and its surrounding area.
The scenic trail runs along the caldera rim for a while before stirring to the left or right (depending on where you’ve hiked from a trail intersection). A few benches and protective wall barriers are nestled along this section of the trail, offering five windows that peek at Crater Lake through openings between the trees.
The views are different at each of these unique vantage points. So don’t rush through them. Take your time and capture the surrounding beauty offered by the Sun Notch Trail. These are arguably some of the best vistas in the park.
The Sun Notch Trail has a shortcoming, though. It’s located on the opposite side of the lake’s section from where Wizard Island rises. The famous volcanic cinder cone looks distant from here. Tiny isles clustered near the big island that come into view from the West Rim Drive are impossible to detect from the Sun Notch Trail.
Photography Tips for Sun Notch Trail’s Hikers
Best Time for Reflection Photography
Morning before the wind starts playing with the waves on the lake ensures flawless reflection photos. The caldera walls beautifully mirror in the water, intensifying the natural splendor of Crater Lake.
The majority of the Sun Notch Trail’s hikers long to photograph Phantom Ship. In the early morning hours, surrounded by the calm waters, the entire shape of the isle reflects in the lake .
We got pretty good reflection pictures of both the caldera and Phantom Ship from the trail at around 8:00 a.m. By the time, we arrived at another overlook, Crater Lake got tired of being calm and nice. We could still photograph the isle and get some decent reflection images, but they were not flawless this time.
Sunrise and Sunset Photography
I don’t need to say a lot about this. Glorious colors that descend on Crater Lake from the sky are not to be missed. Some visitors insists, that hiking the Sun Notch Trail before the sunset or sunrise are the must-have experience in the entire Crater Lake National Park area.
The Sun Notch Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the park. Crowds of visitors trek through the hemlock forest to the Crater Lake’s rim with the breathtaking views of Phantom Ship all day long.
Early in the morning, we were lucky to share the trail with just a couple of other hikers. By the time we headed back to the parking lot, some 40 minutes later, the trail was getting busier and busier.
So the moral of the story, grab your photography gear, hit the trail as early as possible, and reap all the immense benefits the morning hours offer.
The Best Time to Hike the Sun Notch Trail
The Sun Notch Trail is located along the 33-mile Rim Drive. Due to heavy snowfalls in the area, the scenic drive accommodates vehicles only from April through October. The rest of the year, you can ski to the majority of the destinations along the Rim Drive, including the Sun Notch Trail.
No Pets on the Sun Notch Trail
Pets leave a territorial smell that disrupts local wildlife’s patterns. Therefore they are not allowed on the trails in Crater Lake National Park.
Not a Stroller-Wheelchair-Friendly Trail
While the Sun Notch Trail is wide and virtually flat, some roots and rocks are still present. Hiking with a stroller or wheelchair is not impossible, but can be challenging.
Limited Parking Spaces
Again, it comes back to hiking the trail as early as possible. The roadside parking lot has limited number of spaces. So the early bird always catches the worm.
Stay on the Trail
Don’t try to get as close as possible to the edge of Crater Lake. The shore is steep. No pictures are worth falling into the lake and breaking, hopefully, just a few bones along the way.