Back to school? Road trip! Crater Lake camping with kids, Oregon

Crater Lake camping with kids… After all, what better way to start the school year than with a road trip?

Hikes, trips to the Portland Zoo, day trips to here and there. The first week of school is when our alternative lifestyle, homeschool, freaky flag flies extra high. Ever since Connor started kindergarten, we’ve aimed to kick off the school year with some sort of outing.

This year, after so much travel and also so much pandemic time at home, we wanted to start Connor’s fourth grade year and Aster’s first grade year with something extra special.

So, naturally, it was time to load up the popup camper for one more 2021 campout.

Our destination? Oregon’s only National Park. A volcano that blew its top. A mountaintop lake that’s a blue the sky wishes it could be.

Crater Lake.

Learned

…September is an amazing time for Crater Lake camping…
…Moongazing on blue waters is always worth a late night…
…Critter-proof storage boxes should be at every campground…

Made

…The woods behind our campsite into a vast play space…
…Room on packed vests for a new Junior Ranger badge…
…An end-of-summer camping trip that was the perfect way to start the school year…

Crater Lake camping: The road trip that almost wasn’t

The campground at Mazama Village has good-sized camp sites, tucked into a forest of tall conifers.
The campground at Mazama Village has good-sized camp sites, tucked into a forest of tall conifers.

To us, our start-of-school-year outings aren’t just a because-we-can lark. They set a tone. A theme for the year: Explore. Enjoy. Get a fresh perspective. Learn what you can, and make the most of the ups and downs along the way.

The crazy thing, though, is this is about a camping trip that almost wasn’t.

Leading up to our late-September adventure, Jodie had been ill. She tested negative for COVID, and no one else in our family came down with anything. Ultimately we don’t know what she had. Maybe it was some sort of flu. Odds are we’ll never know.

And, this being the Pacific Northwest at the end of summer, we kept an eye on the sky. While the threat of wildfires seemed to be dropping, we knew not to take a clear sky for granted. We know how quickly fires can start and air quality can plummet.

About 2 days before our trip, Jodie’s symptoms went away and she started feeling better. The skies and forecasts were still looking good—and we were just coming up to the full moon. We realized we could indeed hitch up the popup, and start the school year with one last 2021 camping trip.

The wonder of Crater Lake

New family travel video!

At 6,178 ft. (1,883 m), Crater Lake lies at the top of what’s left of Mount Mazama. This mountain was once over a mile taller. In fact, Mount Mazama would have been one of the tallest Cascade peaks, and the highest in what is now Oregon.

Then the mountain blew up.

The explosion was so massive, it ripped off the entire mountain top. The blast lay down ash and stone 200 feet thick for miles around, decimating flora and fauna. Throughout the region, people saw, felt, and heard the eruption.

Yet.

Over time, as snow fell and melted, as rains soaked the earth, the mountain changed again. What was once bloated with magma, now filled with water. Crater Lake is so deep, so pure, that sunlight is thought to reach deeper into the water than any other body of water in the world. Plants and wildlife thrive (though they also face some current, very real, challenges).

Once it was a marvelous mountain that blew itself up. Then it became a wide, deep, mountain sapphire that has no equal in the world.

Mazama Campground: Crater Lake camping in September

On the North Rim, the Cleetwood Cove Trail is the only trail down to the water, and it has amazing vistas along the way.
On the North Rim, the Cleetwood Cove Trail is the only trail down to the water, and it has amazing vistas along the way.

Towing our popup camper to Crater Lake National Park (or in National Park-speak, CRLA) gave us an advantage: We could camp inside the National Park, just minutes from the rim. In addition to the forested Mazama Campground, Mazama Village also includes a cafe, restaurant, gift shop, and more. 

For being on top of a mountain that blew itself up less than 8,000 years ago, there’s actually a decent amount of amenities—even a gas station.

Yet our main draw for Crater Lake camping at Mazama Campground? A comfortable camp site, full of tall pines and fresh, clean air, that seemed scrubbed and gently perfumed by the conifers encircling us. Mazama’s D Loop is also near the campground amphitheater. The woods behind the sites are a make-believe wonderland for children. Our first evening there, the kids explored the downed trees, stumps, and seemingly infinite supply of sticks.

The next morning, Connor gave Anthony a guided tour of each place they had designated: the training area, the play area, and town.

Each space was a different configuration of fallen timber. Later, we played a game where criss-crossing logs were roads and the stump were buildings. Anthony ran the library, and the kids would balance along a timber road to check things out. We went to a restaurant for 47 pounds of shrimp (all of us), a dozen orders of French fries (Aster), 12 million cheeseburgers (Connor), and half a dozen fish tacos with extra lime and jalapeños (Anthony).

“I love this campground,” said Connor. “We should camp here often.”

Agreed.

Why visit a volcanic mountain in September?

On the southeast rim, Pumice Castle Overlook is also a great picnic spot.
On the southeast rim, Pumice Castle Overlook is also a great picnic spot.

A September trip to Crater Lake National Park is a fine way to kick off the school year. Or, at the least, to see one of the world’s deepest, purest, bluest lakes with hardly any crowds.

With annual snowfall of up to 44 feet, Crater Lake has snow around the rim even throughout the summer. Technically the park is open year-round, but many areas are not maintained during the snowy winter (winter access is typically only from the south). Come May, the park starts plowing more roads and opening more areas. Visitors start increasing in June, but the height of Crater Lake travel season is July and August.

If your circumstances allow and if your preferences lean toward having more park to yourself, this can make September a brilliant time to visit. After Labor Day, crowds decrease as the school year gets underway and many folks finish up their summer vacations. When we were there, we hardly saw any other families with young children. (In fact, more than a few senior citizen visitors had a look of surprise when they saw Connor and Aster bopping about the trails and the lake rim.)

The case for traveling to Crater Lake in early fall

During our visit, Crater Lake added four more Pinnacles to its fascinating rock formations.
During our visit, Crater Lake added four more Pinnacles to its fascinating rock formations.

Yet the end of summer, early fall transition is a beautiful time to see Crater Lake. Summer days can still be warm (though when it comes to Crater Lake camping, the nights can have you wanting to rug up well). Skies tend to be clear, with clouds and snow typically not setting in until October. (However, a couple of days after our late September visit, snow closed some of the roads we had just been driving.) Rich autumn sunlight illuminates the deep greens of the conifer forests, the brown and gray rocks of the mountaintop, and the sapphire waters of the lake.

To visit Crater Lake in fall is to take in a hearty dose of vitamin W: Wonder. The kids, especially, took in the beauty of the lake, gazing in rapture at the incredible blue.

Our 2-day, 3-night Crater Lake camping itinerary

Jagged mountains abound from around the Cascades.
Jagged mountains abound from around the Cascades.

When Anthony first visited Oregon in 1998, his best friend took him to Crater Lake. It was July, yet pockets of snow still dotted the top of the caldera. The gleaming blue water spoke of a purity and beauty in the world, not always easy to identify, but when you do, it’s a salve for the soul.

And that visit was just a couple of hours.

For our September 2021 Crater Lake camping trip, we stayed two full days and three nights, arriving mid-afternoon on the first day, and leaving mid-morning on our departure day. 

For starters, we had to plan around the things that were not available, due to pandemic precautions. These were things we did not do—but they are on our list for our next visit to the only National Park in our backyard:

Day 1

  • Arrive in the afternoon and set up camp
  • Evening drive to West Rim to see the lake

Day 2

  • Morning: Rim Village: Pick up Junior Ranger packets from Community House (and do a bit of souvenir hunting)
  • Drive South Rim
  • Check out the Phantom Ship Overlook
  • Stop by Vidae Falls (while this can be a cool waterfall visible from the side of the road, in September it’s more of a trickle)
  • Lunch at the Pinnacles, followed by hiking the short, accessible trail
  • Drive back the way we come to return to camp for some downtime
  • Night: Stargazing and moongazing at Discovery Point

Day 3

  • Morning: View lake from West Rim’s Sinnott Overlook
  • Driving North Rim and East Rim
  • Walking a little bit of the Cleetwood Cove Trail (which you would also take down to the water’s edge and for catching a boat tour)
  • Back-to-school photos at an overlook on the East Rim
  • Lake viewing at Cloudcap Overlook
  • Picnic at the Pumice Castle
  • Drive back the way we came for down time
  • Sunset lake viewing at Discovery Point and Watchman Overlook

While the lake is, obviously, the park’s biggest feature, CRLA is full of hikes, waterfalls, climbs, wildlife, and lots more to see. For this first trip, we focused on the lake, while checking out cool things like the Pinnacles (more on that in a bit). We could also get an idea of things we wanted to see on our next visit.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown of some of our favorite moments and spots:

Rim Village

Even at the top of the mountain, there’s a village. Along the southwestern side of the caldera, Rim Village is a cluster of community buildings, complete with a cafe, gift shop, the Sinnott Overlook, and the famous Crater Lake Lodge. 

We stopped to pick up Junior Ranger booklets for the kids, and to stock up on stickers for our water bottles and cooler.

From the east-facing Sinnott Overlook, we could also gaze across the lake. While Crater Lake is one of the deepest lakes in the world, it’s not very wide, only about 21 miles across. This is quite a wonderful thing. From any vantage point around the lake, you can see the entirety of the surface. From different angles, various formations take the fore. But when it comes to seeing the full expanse throughout changing daylight and shifting seasons, there’s something magical about knowing that whenever you look on the waters, you see the fullness of the lake as it is in that moment.

Phantom Ship Overlook

Along the South Rim, we pulled off the road for a quick stop at the Phantom Ship Overlook. The evocative name doesn’t disappoint, either. Located along the southwestern side of the lake, Phantom Ship’s multiple stacks and points do indeed look like some sort of wonder-inducing, perhaps slightly terrifying, fantastical ship.

“It does look like a ship,” said Connor.

“Or a castle,” said Aster.

Picnic at the Pinnacles

Dragon fangs? Weird chimneys? The Pinnacles are a near other-worldly experience—and a wonderful, easy family hike on an accessible trail.
Dragon fangs? Weird chimneys? The Pinnacles are a near other-worldly experience—and a wonderful, easy family hike on an accessible trail.

A few miles to the southeast of Crater Lake itself, at the very edge of the park, the tall, skinny formations of the Pinnacles look like the lost fangs of one very strange, very large dragon. The area also has a lovely paved hiking trail, fairly flat and fairly easy.

Up to 100 feet tall, the Pinnacles themselves are the strange chimney stacks left over from the eruption, when hot gases bubbled up through ash and lava. Now, these disparate monster teeth jut out from all over the grounds, forests, and canyons just off the hiking trail.

We found our first full day at the park to be a great time to work in the Pinnacles. Driving the South Rim, the Pinnacles made a great destination at the end of our drive—and a perfect spot for a picnic lunch. Just off the parking lot and trailhead, overlooking the pinnacles peeking out of the wooded canyon, we set our blanket in the sun, enjoying a simple meal and a timeless view.

Throughout the hike itself, little vantage spots along the trail gave us a chance to see dozens of pinnacle rocks in all their jagged glory. It’s a reminder of what a caldera of surprises the mountain and the park are.

Crater Lake itself is a rarity in the world for its color, depth, and clarity.

The remains of Mount Mazama are what’s left from what at one time was probably one of the tallest peaks in the Cascades.

The Pumice Desert has an eeriness to it, yet it’s ringed by healthy forest.

And here, at the Pinnacles, the unique rock formations are another reminder that our planet’s forces do some rather crazy—if incendiary—cool stuff.

Moongazing and stargazing at Discovery Point

As a Dark Sky location, Crater Lake National Park is an ideal place to try out some nighttime photography.
As a Dark Sky location, Crater Lake National Park is an ideal place to try out some nighttime photography.

Seeing Crater Lake by the changing light of day was one thing, but it was another to make a night of it. As one of the top dark sky locations in the National Park System, Crater Lake deserves staying up late to check out the stars.

And the moon.

As Mazama Campground darkened, we loaded into the car with snacks, warm layers, and cameras. Along the way from Mazama Campground to Discovery Point on the West Rim, we meandered past deer out for a late snack. While light lingers long during northwestern summers, late September has the sky darkening just early enough to where the kids could stay up late, a bit sleepy, sure, but they also knew they were in for a special sight.

Our Crater Lake camping coincided with the moon just coming off full. As we passed Rim Village and pulled into the parking lot at Discovery Point, the moon shone bright and high. Silver and white ripples sparkled on the deep blue waters below.

Aster preferred to gaze from her seat, looking through her window at the rising moon. Connor came out with us. On the cusp of turning 10, the past year has seen him growing not only in height, but in maturity. His appreciation of the world, his awareness of life’s challenges and beauty, is increasing. He stood by the low rock wall, gazing at the moon, his blue eyes bright and wide as the moonlit lake.

Anthony hugged Connor tight. “I’m so glad to be here with you.”

Driving the North Rim and East Rim, or, a road trip is the perfect time to take back-to-school photos

Our last full day of Crater Lake camping, we returned to the West Rim and drove our winding way to the North Rim and East Rim.

Along the western and northern sides of the lake, the road took us past views of the imposing Llao Rock. We stopped at the Cleetwood Cove parking area and walked down some of the Cleetwood Cove Trail. In non-pandemic times, the switchbacking path can take you down to the one area of the lake where it’s okay to play in the water, and where you can catch the tour boat for Wizard Island. We contented ourselves with the first short section of the trail, which was paved and accessible, and sat on a bench to gaze at the water.

As we made our way to the East Rim, though, we sought our true purpose: finding the perfect spot to take first-grade and fourth-grade pictures of the kids. After all, what better time than a road trip to snap back-to-school photos?

At the Pumice Castle Overlook, we spread out our picnic blanket, noshed on bread, ham, fruit, and baby carrots, while gazing at the strange orange castle-ish formation on the nearby slope. The tall white pines around us rippled in a slight breeze. Jodie dipped a baby carrot into a tub of hummus we brought.

Connor grinned. “It’s hummus at Pumice,” he said with a chuckle. Then he turned serious. “You know, Mama, Daddy, I like to explore the desert but walk in the forest.”

The past, present, and future converge at Crater Lake

Cold. Dark. Late. Didn't matter. Connor stood entranced. It was the sort of night we know he will remember the rest of his life.
Cold. Dark. Late. Didn’t matter. Connor stood entranced. It was the sort of night we know he will remember the rest of his life.

Two days is barely a start on all the wonders of Crater Lake. It was a great trip to let us experience some of the main attractions, not to mention giving the kids a memorable start to their first grade and fourth grade years.

Yet it was still only the beginning of the explorations and appreciations we could have at Oregon’s only National Park.

You see, Crater Lake is one of those places that no writer can aptly describe, no painter can perfectly paint, no photographer can properly snap, and no videographer can fully film. We cannot convey the fullness of the experience, the sensation, that comes from being there, in your own full body, senses, and presence of mind. When you get down to it, all we can do justice to is the sense of wonder, beauty, and care that Crater Lake evokes.

Crater Lake shows the power of life, death, and rebirth the world over. The story of life and planet. Despair and home. Decimation and transformation.

No wonder a wee Crater Lake camping trip there was an excellent way to start the school year for a first grader and a fourth grader. It was a chance to have one more summery adventure (albeit with some chilly nights). Our late September timing gave us a chance to drive along the rim of a volcano and look across an expanse a blue the sky wishes it could mimic.

Crater Lake reconnects us with life and wonder, with the power of time and earth. It’s beautiful. It’s terrifying. A lot like life itself. And maybe, just maybe, that’s what we were hoping the kids took home with them.

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.