Parents’ Guide to Crater Lake

Crater Lake is one of those spots in America that must be on your bucket list, whether you actually have a bucket list or not. It is a geological marvel, and one heck of a spot to take a family photo. More than that, you can show your children the clearest, deepest lake in America, teach them about volcanoes, and spot a bit of wildlife, flora and fauna along the way, and that’s only from driving around the crater rim- just image if you got out of the car to hike one of the many trails, or pitched a tent at one of the numerous campsites in the National Park.

Getting to Crater Lake isn’t as hard as you might think, especially if you live in the Pacific Northwest. I’ll be walking you through a visit based on our road trip from Seattle, but you can easily make a short trip from Portland and San Francisco. As long as you can get to I-5, you can get to Crater Lake.


Things to pack

The weather is unpredictable on Crater Lake, especially in the spring and fall. Snow is a constant in the winter thanks to the elevation. When visiting in the summer make sure you pack warm coats and pants. If you spend the entire day, and the sun goes down or it rains, it can get very chilly on the crater rim.

Other things to pack:

  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray
  • Water
  • Snacks
  • Light layers
  • Hats


Where to stay

Ashland, OR is the perfect spot to set up camp while touring around Crater Lake. It is 1.5 hour drive from the park, but still gives you plenty of time each day if you don’t want to camp in Crater Lake National Park or stay in Crater Lake Lodge.

  • Ashland Hills and Suites was the perfect spot to set up for our family. Their one-bedroom suites allowed the adults to stay in the bedroom while the kids took over the living room on a rollaway bed and a pull out couch. It is not in downtown Ashland, but the price was right (just over $100 a night) and it was a quick drive into town.


Where to eat


  • Morning Glory: Fuel up for a day at Crater Lake with a huge breakfast at Morning Glory, right near the university in Ashland, and a local dining favorite. French toast, eggs, muffins (don’t miss the muffins), bacon and scrambles will fill you up with carbs and protein before sending you on your way.
  • Noble Coffee: Don’t miss this little coffee window on the main street through town. The cappuccinos will wake you up and the peach turnovers satisfy your morning sweet tooth as you drive out to Crater Lake.
  • Mix Sweet Shop: Pop in before you head to the crater for great coffee, cookies, and sandwiches to take on your hikes, or eat in the car.

Crater Lake

  • Annie Creek Restaurant and Gift Shop: Average food just outside of the park gates. Prices are moderate, but there is soft serve ice cream if you and the kids need a pick me up. Behind Annie’s is a snack shop with microwaveable food, gas and groceries. It is a great spot to grab something to go or load up if you are staying at one of the campsites. Note: if the electricity goes out, the gas station will not work.


National Park fees

Entrance fees: national park fees do apply. Your general cost will be $10 per vehicle unless you have a yearly pass ($80/year), senior pass ($10 lifetime pass) or other type of pass to enter the National Parks.

Fee free days: There are a number of National Park fee free days throughout the year. Take advantage of these days to bring the whole family to Crater Lake without having to pay the entrance fee. If you can’t make it on one of these fee free days, don’t worry. The day fee is worth it if it keeps our national parks open for future generations to visit and explore.

  • Martin Luther King Jr. Day (January)
  • Presidents Day weekend (February)
  • opening weekend of National Park Week (April)
  • National Park Service Birthday (August)
  • National Public Lands Day (September)
  • Veterans Day (November)

Gas stations in Crater Lake National Park

Enter the park with a full tank of gas. Not a half tank, a full tank. If you get to the park and need gas, fill up as soon as you enter so you don’t run out while touring around the crater rim.

  • Gas in the park: Mazama Camper Store in Mazama Village offers gas only in the summer months. If storms knock out the power the gas pumps will not work.
  • Nearest gas outside of the park: Prospect (on OR-62 from Roseburg) or Chemult (on Hwy 97 from Oakridge)


Forest Fires

Be aware that forest fires are no joke in central Oregon. Keep a careful eye on the weather and ask at the ranger stations if there are any active fires in the park you should be aware of. Lightening storms pass through during the summer, sparking new fires as they roll through. If you are camping pay particular attention to any campfire notices so you keep everyone in the park safe.


Activities at Crater Lake

Rim Drive: The easiest way to see the crater in the summer months is to simply drive around it. This allows families with babies and toddlers to still get out into nature, but also get those naps in while you drive. Mom and dad don’t have to worry about putting extra stress on their backs if they aren’t up for a hike with the kids yet either. The Rim Drive normally opens up by July (yes, Crater Lake holds on to its snow that long) and stays open until the snow comes back in October or November. The summer months can bring construction on the rim. Be prepared to stop and enjoy the view while you wait for construction vehicles to move fallen rocks and repair roads.

Volcano Boat Cruises: One of the best ways to see the lake is to hop on a boat tour and cruise around the lake. The Standard Lake Cruise teaches you the history, geology, and cultural significance of the lake. If you have time, add on the optional Wizard Island stop to do some hiking and take in spectacular panoramic views of the lake. Note that you will have to hike down the Cleetwood Trail (see below) to get to the boat launch. This is a strenuous hike and one parents with young children may not be up for, as well as anyone with a medical condition.

Hiking: Cleetwood Trail is a must… if you are up for it. Hike 1.1 miles down (700-foot ascent in elevation) to the lakeshore to jump in for a swim or take a boat cruise (see above). In the summer months be prepared to sweat as you hike back up to the crater rim. Is it worth it? Absolutely, but parents be warned that little ones will need help getting up and down and that may mean you are carrying them on your back.

Animal sightings: Keep your eyes open for bald eagles, ravens, jays and chickadees, bears, elk, mule deer, coyotes, bobcats, porcupines, marmots, hares, squirrels and chipmunks.


Sample itineraries

It’s hard to know where to start when you are headed to Crater Lake. If you aren’t staying in the National Park, you will want to set up in one of the nearby towns off of I-5. Although you could certainly spend more than a day at Crater Lake, if you are coming from Seattle and have limited time, you can do the trip in three days (two days of driving plus one day exploring the park).

3-day Itinerary

Day 1: Ashland, OR

  • Head south to Ashland, OR
  • Pit stop at Multnamoh Falls outside of Portland, OR

Day 2: Day at Crater Lake

  • Drive 1.5 hours out to Crater Lake in the morning
  • Pack a lunch or eat at Annie’s just before the south park entrance
  • Tour the Crater Rim
  • Hike down the Cleetwood Trail for swimming and a boat tour

Day 3: Drive home

  • Have a leisurely breakfast in Ashland
  • Play at the playground in Lithia Park
  • Browse through a few stores in the plaza and Main Street
  • Drive straight home with as few stops as possible

Extended Itinerary

If you have time to explore more, the area around Crater Lake is definitely worth it. You can see a lot in the park alone, or you can head to the coast to explore the dunes and beaches of Oregon.

Day 1: Ashland, OR

  • Head south to Ashland, OR
  • Pit stop at Multnamoh Falls outside of Portland, OR

Day 2: Day at Crater Lake

  • Drive 1.5 hours out to Crater Lake in the morning
  • Pack a lunch or eat at Annie’s just before the park entrance
  • Tour the Crater Rim
  • Hike down the Cleetwood Trail for swimming and a boat tour

Day 3: Drive to the Oregon Dunes

  • Enjoy a leisurely breakfast in Ashland
  • Play at the playground in Lithia Park
  • Browse through a few stores in the plaza and Main street
  • Drive 3 hours to the Oregon Dunes to explore
  • Sleep in Newport, OR

Day 4: Drive to Cannon Beach

  • Spend the morning at the Newport Aquarium
  • Drive to Cannon Beach

Day 5: Explore Cannon Beach

  • Walk to Haystack Rock
  • Dig in the sand
  • Explore Ecola State Park or Hug Point State Park

Day 6: Drive back to Seattle


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About The Author

5 thoughts on “Parents’ Guide to Crater Lake”

  1. Heather Greenwood Davis

    Love this Keryn. Exactly what I could’ve used as we explored the area this summer. Bookmarking it for next time. 🙂

  2. Wandering Educators

    What a great guide! I’ve always wanted to visit!

  3. Colleen Lanin

    Very thorough tips! Thanks!

  4. Corinne

    Looks like an awesome spot!

  5. Nika Jane

    I like your photos particularly the lake. It looks like a perfect example of peace. By the way, thanks for the tips.

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