It’s worth the effort to see the indescribable blue waters of Crater Lake with your family.
With numerous natural wonders, it’s hard to believe that Oregon is home to only one national park, but she’s a beauty! Once the site of towering Mount Mazama, Crater Lake was formed after a violent eruption triggered the volcano’s collapse some 7,700 years ago. What remains today is the deepest lake in the United States and ninth deepest in the world at a depth of 1,943 feet. But what’s truly stunning about Crater Lake? It’s fresh, clear water - among the purest anywhere in the world - fed by rain and snowmelt only. Gazing from the rim, your family will be awed by its turquoise, sapphire, and midnight blue hues.
Cost: $25/vehicle in the summer (May 22-October 31), $15/vehicle in the winter (November 1-May 21). If you’re visiting multiple parks in the same year, consider the Annual National Park and Federal Lands Pass for $80.
KidTripster Tip: Stop at the visitor center to pick up your child’s Junior Ranger book and return it completed for a Junior Ranger badge. Also, make sure to watch the park movie, so you’re primed for your visit.
What to do?
Most visitors view the park from the Rim Drive that encircles the lake. This road is up on a bluff, and there’s no shore access. From the North Entrance, you can take the West Rim Drive to Crater Lake Lodge, the visitors center, and Rim Village. If you have the time, you can continue on the East Rim Drive, but if you’re behind the wheel of an RV, I wouldn’t recommend it. The road is narrow and curvy - a bit of a white-knuckled experience.
KidTripster Tip: Crater Lake National Park is open year-round, but some roads, trails, and facilities are closed seasonally due to snow, typically starting November 1. However, my family has been caught in a mid-October snowstorm, so be forewarned.
If you only travel Rim Drive, you’ll miss the true gem of Crater Lake: Wizard Island. You can only get to the island by booking an island shuttleonline. This trip - with departure times at 8:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. (which is the one that I’d recommend because there’s less chance of fog) - will sell out, so you need to make reservations in advance. Cost: Youth (3-12) $18; Adult $27; children 2 and under not permitted.
KidTripster Tip: Other lake cruises are also available, however I’d advise against them. They’re longer, making them less kid-friendly, and most don’t stop at Wizard Island.
To board the boat, you need to hike the 1.1-mile trail to Cleetwood Cove. The hike is strenuous with a drop of about 700 feet. To descend, it takes about 45 minutes. However, it’s the hike back to the rim that will have you panting! The climb is equivalent to 70 flights of stairs. It’s no joke, but if you’re physically able, experiencing Crater Lake from Wizard Island will be the highlight of your trip.
On the 30-minute ride to the island, a park ranger will educate you on the fascinating cultural and natural history of the lake. Once you dock, you’ll have about three hours to explore the island, which itself is a volcanic cinder cone. Half of our group hiked to the top of the island, where you can stand in the crater of a volcano in the crater of a volcano! (Yes, you read that correctly.) Again, the hike is strenuous, but the views are spectacular. The other half of our group - mostly the kids - dived into Crater Lake. Let me be perfectly clear - while the water couldn’t be any cleaner, it’s bone-chilling cold!
KidTripster Tip: Crater Lake has an extremely fragile ecosystem. In an attempt to protect it, the National Park Service is very strict about what can be brought into the lake: nothing. That means no inflatables, rafts or pool noodles for fear of introducing non-native species. Rangers are dead serious about this; so serious, that we’re surprised that they even allow you to wear swimsuits!
If the hike down to Cleetwood Cove is not doable for your family (and you’re driving a car, not an RV), consider hiking to Plaikni Falls. The trailhead is off Pinnacle Road on the East Rim Drive. It’s an easy 2-mile, round-trip hike through old growth forest. You’ll be rewarded at the end with waterfall views. Dip a toe in the water; it’s pretty icy!
KidTripster Tip: Bring along some bug spray for this hike. In the summer, the mosquitoes can be relentless.
Where to stay?
Mazama Village Campground is the main campground in the park and the only one that accepts RVs (up to 50-feet in length). It’s a short camping season: June 15 - September 23. All sites in June are available only on a first-come, first-served basis. In July, August, and September, 75% of the sites can be reserved in advance, either online or by calling (866) 292-6720. The other 25% are first-come, first-served. During those peak months, you’ll want to have a reservation as the campground will fill up.
Cost: Tent $21, RV (no hookups) $31, RV (electric) $36. Extra adult (over 2 at campsite) $3.50/person.
Listen to our editor’s full review of Mazama Village Campground on RV Family Travel Atlas’ “Campground of the Week” podcast.
Lost Creek is a small, tents-only campground. Cost: $10/night; no reservations.
If camping isn’t your style, consider a stay at the historic and rustic (read: no TVs) Crater Lake Lodge, overlooking the lake. Even if you don’t sleep here, have a meal in this beautifully-crafted lodge where dinner reservations are accepted. Rates start at $180/night.