I often write about trails that can be hiked in various parks. However, this week I’d like to take you on a driving tour of Crater Lake—you don’t have to even get out of your vehicle! You’ll enjoy it more if you get out and walk around the viewpoints, but if you’re looking for a low-energy way to see some of the best of Crater Lake National Park, this is one of the best ways to do it. The Rim Drive goes all the way around the rim of the lake (I guess that makes sense from the name!), beginning and ending at park headquarters. The drive is only open in the summer (July through October, most years), so exactly how much of the drive you’ll be able to do will depend on the amount of snow. The east side has been closed every time we’ve been there until the last time we visited, when we drove it for the first time (the west side was open every time we’ve visited, even in late June). It was early morning, and I highly recommend that you do the drive at this hour. The wind may not have disturbed the surface of the lake yet, and you will certainly miss a lot of the crowds that will be on the drive later in the day.
As I said above, the Rim Drive begins at Park Headquarters. If you’re coming from the south or west, follow the signs to Mazama Village and then to the visitor center. If you’re coming from the north, you’ll likely be starting the drive at North Junction. You can still do the drive, but you’ll end up back at North Junction in the end, and be passing Park Headquarters along the way. The area between North Junction and Park Headquarters on the west side of the lake is called the West Rim Drive, and is often open earlier in the season than the East Rim Drive, on the other side of the lake (I recall visiting in late June and seeing mountains of snow still blocking the East Rim Drive!). I am going to start the tour at the Park Headquarters and take you counter-clockwise around the lake. If you’re driving this in the early morning, this is the best way to go, as views from the west side would have the sun directly in your eyes across the lake. However, if it’s very early morning, go clockwise about 3 miles up to the Rim Village to enjoy the views of the lake before heading back to Park Headquarters and around counter-clockwise. When we visited one day in late September, the lake was completely still, and even the park rangers were looking over the edge to enjoy its calm serenity!
Start out from the Park Headquarters. Turn right out of the parking lot and then quickly make a left turn onto the East Rim Drive. (This junction is well marked; if you’re coming up from Mazama Village, simply take a right on the East Side Drive). The first major attraction you come to will be on your left: Vidae Falls. Here a little stream tumbles 100 ft. down a series of ledges. This is about 3 miles from park headquarters. Unfortunately, I don’t recall ever visiting the falls, so you’ll have to comment and tell me how impressive/unimpressive it is. Keep driving and you’ll pass Sun Notch. This is a short, steep trail up to the very Rim of Crater Lake (1 mile loop). It’s not the best view on the drive, but it’s nice enough that I recommend you walk to it. After another 5.5 miles you will come to a nice little overlook that is surrounded by trees. This is the Phantom Ship Overlook, and if you want to see this rock formation sticking up out of the water, I highly recommend you stop here. As I said, there are plenty of trees between you and the lake, so the view of the lake itself isn’t great, but you can see the ship up close and personal. We really enjoyed stopping here and snapping a few pictures of the ship, still in shadow because of the early hour, reflected gracefully in the clear water. Later in the day, this reflection disappears in the sunlight.
Keep driving around the East Side Drive for another 3.5 miles to the Cloudcap Overlook. The overlook is located up a short road on the left side of the road—the road is well-marked. This is one of the best views of the lake on the whole drive, so I highly recommend you stop here. Simply walk over to the sidewalk and let your mouth gape at the beauty of the lake laid out below you. From here you can see the Phantom Ship as well as Wizard Island. This is the highest point on the Rim Drive, and it’s a wonderful place to enjoy Crater Lake’s deep blue color and the tree-studded rim that surrounds it. Again this would be a great viewpoint to visit early in the morning. We spent quite a bit of time here, and by the time we left, the wind had picked up, diminishing most of the reflections. The view from here is probably best in the morning, because the sun is behind you; later in the day it would be right across the lake, so picture taking wouldn’t be as good.
After you’re done with Cloudcap Overlook, continue driving around the loop (make sure to turn left out of the road up to the overlook). The next real stop on the drive (not including the parking area for the Mount Scott trail) is 7.2 miles farther, counter-clockwise around the East Rim Drive. This is the Cleetwood Cove Trail, where hikers can start down a trail to the lakeshore itself (tours also go from Cleatwood Cove, at the bottom of the trail, to Wizard Island). I did the hike several years ago, and it is a fairly steep 2.2-mile RT treck down many, many switchbacks to the bottom. Some people like to go swimming there, but we found the water almost too cold to stick our feet in—brrrrr! I don’t recall the views from the parking area to be great (there are trees in the way), although you can see the lake from here. Check out the national park website (http://www.nps.gov/crla/index.htm) for more information about the boat tours to Wizard Island.
From Cleetwood Cove to North Junction is 4.6 miles. North Junction is the north entrance to the park, so if you’re coming in this way, you would turn left to go up to Cloudcap Overlook or right to go to Watchman Overlook. If you’re coming from Cloudcap Overlook, just keep going around the loop for another 2 miles to the trailhead for Watchman Overlook. You are now on the West Rim Drive, which in my experience opens earlier in the season than the East Rim Drive, although this is not always the case. The Watchman Overlook is another must-stop attraction, as you can see almost the whole lake and get a close-up view of Wizard Island. A trail up Watchman Peak also starts near here; views from the top are outstanding. If the trail isn’t snowed in (it often doesn’t open until August) and you’re up to a 1.6 mile RT hike, it’s definitely worth it.
Keep driving, and the next major attraction is Discovery Point, 2.7 miles beyond Watchman Overlook. This is really just a parking area; a 1.1 mile (one way) trail leads from here to Rim Village. The trail itself offers some really nice views of the lake, and a shuttle vehicle could be left at each end of the trail. If you’re just doing the overlooks, keep driving up to Rim Village, 1.1 miles further (the trail and the road parallel each other). Here you can get some more really nice views of the lake, although the parking lot here fills up quickly—we were amazed early one morning in late September just how fast it filled up while we were strolling along the paved path at the edge of the rim. This area is good for early-morning viewing, although because it’s on the south side of the lake, afternoon would be a nice time to visit, as well. From here, it’s 3 miles back to the Park Headquarters where you started. In all, the Rim Drive is 33 miles long—give yourself at least 3 hours to see all the pullouts; more if you want to do some of the hiking along the way.
The pullouts along the Rim Drive are wheelchair accessible. The Rim Village is especially wheel-chair friendly, as you can go along a fairly flat sidewalk for quite a ways along the rim (use caution as there are a few steeper grades in this area). For more information about accessible facilities, please see http://www.nps.gov/crla/planyourvisit/upload/accessibility-2.pdf
Round Trip Trail Length: Varies; can be no hiking involved
Facilities: Restrooms at various pullouts and overlooks, many interpretive signs, access ramps at pullouts
Fees: $10, good 7 days. Interagency, Golden Age (Senior), Golden Access (Access), and Crater Lake Annual passes also accepted.
Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this?
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Mon Sep 25
Sun and clouds mixed. High 93F. Winds E at 10 to 20 mph.
Tue Sep 26
Sunny. High 94F. Winds SE at 10 to 15 mph.
Wed Sep 27
Some clouds in the morning will give way to mainly sunny skies for the afternoon. High 93F. Winds SE at 10 to 15 mph.
Thu Sep 28
A few clouds early, otherwise mostly sunny. High 92F. Winds SE at 10 to 15 mph.
Fri Sep 29
Partly cloudy skies. High 92F. Winds SE at 10 to 15 mph.