Camping at Crater Lake National Park

With plans to explore Oregon after the redwoods of California, we had settled on camping near Mount Hood. I was hoping to explore the Bend area and was looking for a place where we could camp nearby for a night or two before reaching the Mount Hood Wilderness. As I was pouring over maps of the area, I came across Crater Lake National Park.

While the park was further from Bend than I had intended, it was hard to resist a giant, deep lake. In fact, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States. And surprisingly, despite my efforts being last minute, a campsite was available. I booked a site for one night, figuring we would check it out and be on our way. Surprisingly, camping at Crater Lake National Park offered a very special experience.

The Search for a Campsite

We entered the park in the late afternoon and headed straight for Mazama Campground. The campground is next to a restaurant, general store and gift shop. It is certainly nice to have so many amenities nearby. There is even a laundry facility, which of course we were happy to utilize.

The campground works different than any others we had experienced at National Parks. Our reservation, it turned out, was to stay in the campground. However, we had not reserved a particular site. Upon checking in we were given a map and told to find an available campsite and set up there. This made us a bit nervous as it was late in the day. Would we find something that worked for us?

The campground has multiple loops and we began exploring them. The first loop was full but as we traversed the second loop we found a few options. Sites at Mazama campground are spacious and offer plenty of shade. Rather than continue to explore the loops we chose a site and started getting set up. Sites offer so much room that we had no problem setting up three tents. The weather was perfect and the sun was shining.

While my husband went for firewood, the kids occupied themselves by throwing the football around. I enjoyed some time to myself breathing in the fresh air. The campground felt peaceful and though it was full, the spacing of the sites is such that you don’t feel crowded. I loved sitting in my comfortable camping chair with a book and some coffee.

Before long it was time to prepare dinner. With the kids’ help my husband prepared what he deemed his “best camping meal ever”; a pretty serious accomplishment for someone who does as much camping as he does!

It was late by the time we cleaned up and got the kids to bed. My husband went for a walk around the campgrounds to explore in the dark. I read my book until he returned and asked me to join him for a few minutes.

We walked out to the dirt road that took you through the campground loop. We laid down on the road together, looking at the stars above. The sky was so clear and the stars so bright. It is the kind of experience that makes the extra effort of camping so worth it.

My husband expressed that he had always wanted to come to Crater Lake and was thrilled to be there. We laid there for a long time, taking in the nighttime sounds of the wilderness. Finally we got up and headed to bed, looking forward to the day ahead.

The Adventure Begins

I was the first one awake the next morning and enjoyed the quiet along with my coffee. Before long the others started to rise. Though we had only booked a night at the campground, we decided that we would love to stay a second. My husband went to reserve a spot and do some laundry, and I went on a short hike.

Initially, I could not find a trail and wound up walking around the campground; I checked out the gift shop and general store. I kept walking and wound up crossing into different loops. After about 45 minutes of this I noticed what looked like a trail and I started to follow it. It seemed like the trail led to the edge of something, and I wondered if that could be Crater Lake.

I am not sure why but I had not looked at map of the area and was not sure where the lake was in relation to the campground. For all I knew it was right there! When I made it to the edge, I peered over it; no lake. There was a trail though that headed down. I was up for some more exploration and headed down the steep trail. I found that if I listened closely I was able to hear what sounded like running water. Well there was no turning back once I heard that sound!

The trail had switchbacks and I took them down. Before long, I was at the bottom of a canyon, with a beautiful creek running through it. I would later learn that this is Annie Creek Canyon Trail. The creek and the canyon rank high among the most special places I have seen. The water of the creek was crystal clear and very cool. There were wildflowers all around, the colors a vibrant contrast to the green of the trees.

I sat down on a rock in the creek and took off my shoes and socks. I put my feet in the water and it was ice cold! After maybe 20 seconds I had to take my feet out of the water. I stretched by legs out on a large rock and let my feet dry in the sun while I enjoyed the sounds of the water rushing by me. After getting my shoes back on I headed up the trail; I had been gone awhile and it was time to get back to my family.

My husband was making burritos for everyone when I got back and while we ate I shared my discovery with my family. It was one of the coolest hikes I had taken and it had been such a surprise. After eating and cleaning up we were ready to explore the lake. As we were piling in the car we noticed that dark clouds were coming in. Knowing we would be gone awhile, we decided to be safe and cover the tents with the rain flies and a large tarp. Once everything was set we made sure we had our rain jackets and were on our way.

Unbelievable View

Our first stop was at the visitor center for a park map. Since we had not read up on the park at all we were not sure if we could drive right to the lake or if we would have to walk a significant distance. Looking at the map, we could tell that there was a place to park near the lake however the only way to get to the water was to hike down a trail for about a mile. It did not look too difficult but the kids were not enthusiastic.

We drove along the road to the trail, stopping several times along the way to get views of the magnificent lake. The view was incredible. The lake appeared a sapphire blue color and had an island in it. At one stop I walked up a hill and noticed a trail that seemed to circle the lake; I would have to come back and try that one day.

It did not take long for us to find the parking area for Cleetwood trail which would take us to the lake. Despite the short length of the trail (one mile each way) the kids were not interested. Fortunately the 17 year old was happy to watch the two younger ones and we decided to check out the lake on our own. I figured it would be too cold to swim but brought my suit anyway. You never know.

The Experience of a Lifetime

Heading down the trail was easy, though the steep incline was going to be rough coming back up. It did not take long for us to reach the lake, which was surround by large rocks. We made our way across the rocks to the water. Looking around, we noticed some kids wading into the water, but no one swimming.

We felt the water, which was cold, but did not seem frigid. We got our suits on and my husband got right in. I was a bit more hesitant and waded in slowly. Before long I was swimming;being in the water in such a beautiful location was hard to resist. There was something about being in this giant, gorgeous lake of cold water, practically by ourselves. Despite being a bit cool, the lake was absolutely perfect.

We swam around for about ten minutes until we were too cold to stay in. After drying off, we changed back into our clothes and walked around to another part of the lakeThis part had giant rocks and several swimmers jumping from them. My husband was bummed he had not jumped off of those but decided not to put his suit back on. We enjoyed watching the others jump in and then started to work our way back up the trail. We both felt exhilerated from having had the chance to swim in the cold and beautiful lake.

Even with the steep incline it did not take long to get back to the car and the kids, who had enjoyed time together with the football and assorted snacks. We headed back to the campground, where we got to see several marmots on the side of the road. We were all excited; it seems we never get over the thrill of seeing wildlife. It was raining at our campsite when we arrived back; it was a good thing we had put the tarp and rainflies up.

Vidae Falls

Once the rain stopped, my husband and I decided to drive to Vidae Falls. It was not far from our campsite and we could not miss the opportunity to see a waterfall. The kids were not interested so off we went on our own. Within minutes we were at the base of the waterfall. On its own the falls were beautiful and were made even more so by the brightly colored wildflowers all around.

We followed a trail that took us up the falls; however the trail was steep and muddy and the rocks were slippery so we turned around after we were about three quarters of the way up. In a short time we had both gotten so muddy that we had to take off our shoes as we got into the car.

When we got back to the campsite I took the kids for a walk to the general store for some ice cream and we walked back in the rain. Unfortunately, the rain continued through dinner and we all felt wet and cold. We managed to get a good campfire going which helped, but it was the kind of night that reminds you to bring an extra tarp to set up for a rain shelter so you have a place to spend time outside of your tent. Despite feeling sort of damp, we went to bed very satisfied with all that we had experienced.

A Little More Exploring

There is nothing like waking up to wildlife and that is what happened the next morning; we woke to a deer hanging out at the campsite next to ours. Awesome! After some coffee I went on another hike, determined to explore the Annie Creek Canyon Trail.

I started the trail at a different place than I had the day prior; I realized that there were two places to access the trail from the campground. I felt fortunate to be camping such a short distance from this beautiful place. I followed the trail into the canyon and along the creek. I enjoyed the scenery as I had the day prior and loved the opportunity to explore the trail in its entirety. This may be one of my all-time favorite hikes.

I worked my way back to the campsite and helped my family finish packing up. Before long we were on the road, Crater Lake National Park in our rearview mirror. I am so glad I decided to check out this amazing place. I thought it was just a stop on the way to Mount Hood; yet it turned out to be an incredible destination on its own.

  • Updated March 1, 2017
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Ilyssa is a mother of four who is employed full-time as a grant writer and who enjoys writing freelance articles in her spare time. Ilyssa has a great love of adventure and the outdoors, which she hopes she is passing along to her children. Last summer Ilyssa and her family took a five week road trip, camping and exploring most of the western United States. The trip inspired Ilyssa to work towards achieving flexible employment and/or financial freedom, so that she and her family may continue to travel and explore all nature has to offer, and not just for a few weeks out of the year.