We’ve wanted to visit Crater lake National Park ever since we moved to Oregon six years ago. Honestly, I didn’t even know Crater Lake existed until I lived in Oregon. Then, suddenly, I was seeing pictures of it everywhere. And for good reason. The place is breathtakingly beautiful. It is also on every list of “must see” Oregon travel destinations. A crown jewel in a state full of exceptionally beautiful places.
Crater Lake was formed by an ancient volcanic eruption. Nearly 8,000 years ago, Mount Mazama erupted in an explosion said to be 100 times more powerful than the eruption that blew the top off of Mount St. Helens in 1980. The heroic blast caused the mountain to collapse in on itself, forming a vast crater. The crater slowly filled with water from area snow melt until it formed the deepest lake in North America. Crater Lake also holds some of the clearest water in the world, with visibility all the way down to around 140 feet. But what astounds most visitors to the lake is its exceptionally blue color. The sapphire tinged water is the result of light refracting through the superbly clear water. Because the water is so clear, it appears even bluer than the sky above.
Our first view of the lake, however, was nothing more than a thick white cloud of snow, but more on that later. First, you have to hear about the absolutely perfect camping spot we found.
We knew very little about our camping spot before we arrived. I booked it online and did not have many reviews to go on. I could find information about the campground in general, but our particular spot wasn’t even listed on their map. Hmm . . .
We were staying at the Union Creek Campground, operated by the U.S. Forest Service, and the reason our site (RV 3) could not be found on the map was because it wasn’t actually inside of the campground. The main section of Union Creek Campground is limited to RVs under 28 feet and has limited utilities (all 30 amp, no 50 amp, and only some sewer connections). However, the Forest Service also maintains three sites just down the road from the campground. Sites RV1, RV2, and RV3 are where it’s at. All three have 50 amp service, water, and sewer hook ups. They are also very easy to access in a big rig RV, yet feel very secluded and quiet. They are also the biggest RV sites we have ever seen. There was another RV in site 1 and we could hardly even hear them (and they were a big group of guys on a hunting trip). No one ever showed up to claim site 2, so we felt like we had the whole forest to ourselves. Paying $30 a night felt like a steal for a site like this. Read more and book online here.
The only downside to our little slice of heaven was the complete lack of cell service. We asked around and it doesn’t matter which carrier you have, none of them work out here. Though technically, you won’t get cell service at any of the area campgrounds, so I still think it’s a win for us.
Because we had no cell service, no wifi, and no maps or guidebooks for the area, the first thing we did was go looking for information. Just north of our campground was a large private campground called Union Creek Resort. They operated a decent sized store, cafe, ice cream parlor, and rented out cute little cabins. It looked like a nice place. They didn’t have wifi we could use but they were very friendly and helpful. They gave us some hiking maps, pointed out their favorite trails, and told us where we could find the Ranger Station to get more detailed information on off-road trails, permits, and vehicle restrictions (we had been seeing signs for OHV trails all over the place).
We didn’t get to check out any of their facilities besides the gift shop, but I think this would be a pretty good bet for a place to stay in this area if you were looking for more amenities and civilization.
For what it’s worth, civilization is pretty hard to come by out here. The nearest town is Prospect, 10 miles south. According to a local, the population is two old guys and a dog (it’s actually around 1,000 people, less in the winter months). Prospect has cell service, a general store, hotel, gas station, and a decent pizza place (with wifi!).
We didn’t try the ice cream, but it did match a trend we’ve been noticing. There is literally always an ice cream parlor near the entrance to a national park.
At the ranger station we picked up an OHV map to see if we could find some local Jeep trails. At first we were really excited (There were trails everywhere! And a designated off-road play area!) but upon further investigation we realized that the trails were all limited to smaller ATVs and dirt bikes. We could drive on the dirt roads between the trails but that was about it. Oh well.
We went hiking instead. The weather was gorgeous but we didn’t have quite enough time left in the day to go visit the national park. We went in search of a trail recommended by the nice folks at the Union Creek Resort, a mostly easy 3.5 mile loop that followed the Rouge River. The highlight of the hike was supposed to be the viewpoint of Natural Bridge, an area along the river where the water is naturally diverted underground and through a partially collapsed lava tube before emerging out the other side.
To find this hike yourself, go to the Natural Bridge parking area off Hwy 62. Follow the signs for Natural Bridge viewing area. After the viewing area, continue to follow the trail north along the river. The trail will climb in elevation for a bit before coming back down to the river’s edge. Once back down by the river you will see a bridge. Take this bridge across the river and go south (right) on the trail. The trail will again follow along the river behind the Natural Bridge Campground before emerging back at the parking area.
Where you see water rushing out of a cave at the top left of the photo is the exit point of the lava tube.
The cavern below looks like a second tube, but this tube has actually collapsed and does not allow the water to flow through. Water flows into the short cavern and right back out, giving the illusion of a second underground entrance.
This hike offers a little bit of everything. You wander through the forest, along the river, over bridges, and get in some thigh-burning elevation gain so it feels like you’ve earned your beer by the end of it.
Shown below is the first bridge crossing. This bridge is very near the parking area and before the Natural Bridge viewing area.
Not entirely sure what happened to this tree, but it reminded me of the modern sculptures you often see in big cities.
We were really excited to start to see the fall color change. The reds and yellows mixed with the evergreens are just stunning.
Dropping back down after a series of switchbacks, you will start to see glimpses of the river again.
By the way, the Rouge River is very cold, with a high temperature of around 60 degrees in the summer and lows around 40 degrees in the winter. This section is also very swift moving with lots of jagged rocks. Basically, don’t fall in unless you are a very strong swimmer who happens to be wearing a wetsuit.
This is right before the second bridge crossing.
The second bridge crossing. After crossing the bridge you can follow the trail north or south. South (i.e., turning right, after the bridge) will take you back to your car at the parking area. I don’t actually know where you end up if you go north but I’m sure it’s lovely.
This section of the river was surprisingly deep and very clear.
A little swimming beach near some calmer water, for you polar bear types.
We had been watching the weather report for Crater Lake while we were in Bend because there was actually a chance for snow at the park. The first of the season! Before we lost cell service the reports had been that the snow was holding off, not expected to arrive until early the following week. The national park itself is at a much higher elevation than our campground so we didn’t know that the forecast had changed until we started to see the gusts of snow about 15 minutes from the gate. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Snow is fun and we would get an entirely different experience of the park, but would we be able to see the lake through the clouds?
At the highest elevations the temperature was below freezing, causing ice to form on our windshield and mirrors.
We stopped at the visitor center first. Our chance of actually seeing the lake seemed slim and the park rangers confirmed this. Reports were that the lake was not visible from a single viewpoint within the park.
Next stop was the historic lodge. If we couldn’t see the lake, at least we could tour a cool building, maybe even enjoy a hot chocolate by a log fire. Crater Lake was the sixth area designated as national park, officially established in 1902. A fun element of the older national parks (such as Yellowstone) is touring the old lodges. At this point they have all been remodeled and restored but much of the older architecture and style of materials still remain. A common element seems to be lots and lots of wood.
I don’t think this is the view they were advertizing in the travel brochure.
It was still pretty early in the morning so we had the place mostly to ourselves.
We decided to drive the loop anyway so that we could at least say that we did it. The tour of the park is essentially just a loop around the lake. The entire trip is 33 miles. They advertize 28 different viewpoints of the lake. We skipped most of them because all we could see was a cloud of white.
Then all of a sudden the wind shifted and the clouds started to move. We could literally see the clouds being blown up and away from the lake. We were starting to see some blue!
It was a pretty amazing moment. We had come such a long way to see this lake and probably wouldn’t be back for quite some time. Yet, just when we had given up, there it was.
The clouds never fully receded so we only saw a small portion of the lake, but even then, we could tell that it was a magnificent shade of blue.
And then, just as we were getting back in the Jeep because the clouds were rolling back down towards the lake surface, I saw a bear! I think my exact words were something like “Oh my god! Bear! It’s a f**king bear!”. It was a small black bear, probably an adolescent. We had a great view of him (or her) as he quickly crossed the road and disappeared into the woods. It wasn’t even long enough for me to get over my excitement and grab my camera. But that’s ok. That moment was just for us. We had been waiting to see a bear ever since camping at Rocky Mountain National Park and the park ranger’s super intense warnings about bears breaking into tents to steal chapstick. We were starting to think we would have to set out pots of honey if we ever hoped to see one in the wild. The epic views of Crater Lake may have been a bit of a bust, but at least I could cross “bear sighting” off my travel bucket list.
We continued our loop around the lake, stopping at some of the more popular viewpoints while the clouds still left us some visibility. Below you can see Phantom Ship, a rock formation that is supposed to look like an old tall ship sailing into port. It is called “phantom” ship because this formation is only visible from one part of the lake shore. From the opposite side of the lake the rock just blends into the rocky shore, nearly invisible.
Vidae falls really is as tiny as it looks in this photograph. The multiple little terraces were lovely and delicate but honestly a bit disappointing after the towering waterfalls of Oregon.
After our loop of the lake we drove back to camp and took a nap. When we woke up we noticed that it was considerably warmer outside and there were even a few blue patches in the sky. We wondered if maybe the nasty weather had cleared up at the lake as well.
Turns out, it had!
It was still windy and bitter cold out but we could see the lake!
And it was just as beautiful and blue as what we had seen in the pictures.
The much improved view from the lodge terrace. Earlier photo below for comparison.
Not a bad place to sit for a while.
The backside of the lodge that overlooks the lake.
We decided against redoing the driving loop, partially because we kind of liked the way our morning drive had turned out. We played in the snow, watched the clouds miraculously recede to give us a (partial) view of the lake, and saw a bear. And we had pretty much had the whole park to ourselves. It was a different but still magical tour of the park. Plus, it was still really cold and hot chocolate in the lodge sounded much better.
In this photo you can see Wizard Island, the lone hikable land mass within this giant lake. Wizard Island is a cinder cone that rose up out of the lake after the eruption. It was the mountain’s attempt at rebuilding itself but the pressure of the water was just too much. During the summer season you can take a boat tour to the island and spend a few hours exploring. The boat tours had shut down for the season at the end of September, but I’ve been told it is a wonderful tour.
Instead of a second loop of the lake, we went out for pizza and wifi in the itsy-bitsy town of Prospect. Prospect Pizza is the only restaurant outside of the local hotel, but the pizza was great, the owner friendly, and again, there was wifi. Oh, and they also serve beer. So basically, everything you need to sustain life as a traveler all in one place!
This will be our last stop in Oregon. From here we’re continuing our southerly wanderings to the redwood forests of California.