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On Memorial Day Weekend my brother-and-law and I spent some time visiting Crater Lake as part of a quick getaway to southern Oregon. I’d only visited Crater Lake once as a teen, so I was eager to see this amazing park again.
I knew the park is at a fairly high altitude (~6,500 feet), so I definitely expected some snow. What I didn’t realize was how much snow there would still be. I read up on the park later and realized that they are not typically able to open all or Rim Drive until at least mid-June. Due to the lingering drifts of snow, we were only able to access a few viewpoints at the south end of the lake around Rim Village. That was the extent of our “day” at Crater Lake (we stayed less than 2 hours). Still, Crater Lake is quite beautiful, and completely worth a visit!
Our experience taught me several things, which I would like to share with you before you plan on visiting Crater Lake. Here are my 5 tips:
Check the conditions!
This is an extremely important tip for visiting Crater Lake. Unless you are visiting Crater Lake in midsummer or later, you are likely to encounter snow. Even then, I would double check. When my brother-in-law and I visited, the ranger at the gate station told us that there had been 50% above average snow this year and that the west rim road probably wouldn’t be plowed until around the Fourth of July!!
This is substantially later than the typical estimate given by the park for when it will be fully accessible. It typically takes the park service into July to plow the east rim road, so my guess is that this won’t be done until close to August. The window this year to experience the full park may be less than 2 months.
In the winter, you will probably not want to visit Crater Lake. The park is closed except for Rim Village. Even so, there will be temporary complete closures of the park due to heavy snowfall. On average Crater Lake sees 44 feet of snow each year! It is little wonder there were 8 to 10 foot drifts still lingering alongside (and over) the roads. I should have figured this would be the case given the wet winter we’ve had in the Pacific Northwest.
Get there early
We arrived at about 10:30. There were maybe 6 cars in front of us, and it took less than 10 minutes to pay and enter the park. I really didn’t think anything of the line.
When we left, my mouth dropped open at the enormous line of cars. Vehicles were backed up all the way to the highway turnoff, and then stretched at least a quarter mile down the highway to the west (unsure how far to the east, but it was long, too). My guess is that these people would be waiting well over an hour to enter the park.
Maybe this was a fluke, given that it was both a holiday weekend and a Saturday. But I wouldn’t count on it. My gut tells me you’re still likely to encounter significant traffic during the middle of summer. I would plane to arrive at or before 10:00 a.m. to beat the line. There is only a single ranger kiosk where you can pay to enter.
Have a lunch plan when visiting Crater Lake
While you could definitely eat at Rim Village or at the Crater Lake Lodge, you’d probably be better off packing a lunch. There are some places to eat about 30 minutes back down the road at Union Creek along highway 62. Other than that, there is literally nothing in or near the park. Just be aware of this when planning to visit Crater Lake and prepare accordingly. We took a look at the menu at Rim Village, but we opted to wait until we got back to Medford to eat. Lunch came at a very late 2:30 p.m., and we were more than ready for lunch at that point!
One of the best tips for visiting Crater Lake: bring sunblock and sunglasses
It was a warm, clear day when we visited. I knew if I was out in the sun for more than one or two hours, I’d end up burnt. The glare off the snow was. Had we not been restricted to viewing the lake from the south, the reflection off the water would probably get you as well.
Remember that you’re also at an elevation over 6,000 feet. Your UV exposure will be greater than at a lower elevation. Don’t let the mild temperatures fool you. Snow is also a great reflector of sunlight. One of the previous trips I did with my brother-in-law included getting horribly sunburned during a full day of skiing.
Sunglasses are something I never carry, and this always comes back to bite me. It’s rare that I need them, but when I do, I really wish I had them. Our visit to Crater Lake was one of those moments. I need to just buy a pair and leave them in our van.
Visiting Crater Lake is something you should definitely do someday, if you haven’t already. Just make sure you keep these tips in mind when planning. If you have a fourth grader, you can even get in for free (SEE: Every Kid in a Park – FREE National Park access for families).
Have you been to Crater Lake? What are your tips for visiting this amazing park?