A memorable Crater Lake family vacation awaits in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains
Crater Lake with kids? Oregon’s only National Park is a place of wonder, awe, and inspiration. Even better? It’s really easy to do lots of great Crater Lake activities with kids, all around or close to those amazing, world-famous blue waters.
Why Crater Lake is an incredible place for a family vacation or road trip
Located in the Cascade Mountains of southern Oregon, Massive Mount Mazama used to be nearly a mile taller… until the mountain blew up nearly 8,000 years ago.
Over the centuries, snow melt and rain have filled up the crater, or caldera, with water. Today, one of the world’s clearest, purest, bluest lakes is up to 1,943 deep. Over 700,000 people visit Crater Lake each year. Whether staying in nearby Bend or Klamath Falls, bunking up at the Crater Lake Lodge or camping in Mazama Village, your visit to Crater Lake with kids will be a trip you and your family can talk about for years to come.
Our family camping trip to Crater Lake National Park
Before you go to Crater Lake National Park with kids
Technically, Crater Lake National Park (or, in National Park-speak, CRLA) is open year-round. However, Crater Lake is also a remote location on top of a blown-up mountain that can receive up to 44 feet of snow per year.
Monitor conditions while planning and before your trip
When timing your trip for Crater Lake camping, the main thing to consider is the likely conditions. May and June, for example, are considered “months of transition,” where areas of the park may still be closed off due to snow. While July and August are prime visiting months, wildfires and smoke could also be concerns.
Many of Crater Lake’s attractions, including much of the Rim Drive, are only open from around June through September. Depending on school schedules, September can be an amazing time to visit. We made our start-the-school-year trip to Crater Lake in late September 2021, when autumn days were bright and clear, crowds had thinned, and the park was winding down from summer.
As you plan your family vacation to Crater Lake, keep an eye on the park’s current conditions and air quality.
Maintain safe distances from high cliffs and edges
Your main safety issue to keep in mind? Stay back from cliff edges. Distance is a funny thing, and while the lake can seem close, it’s up to 2,000 feet down from the rim to the surface. Talk with your kids about how they have to keep a safe distance back from edges and cliffs.
Crater Lake is beautiful, compelling, and awe-inspiring. It’s also a volcano that blew up, and what’s left of the mountain has been exposed to the elements for nearly 8,000 years. The edges of the caldera can be unstable. However, there are lots of family friendly areas where kids and adults alike can check out the full glory of one of the deepest, purest, bluest bodies of water on the entire planet.
1. Travel back to the eruption via the Sinnott Overlook
Experiencing beautiful landscapes is one thing. But getting to know some context can make every stop all the more meaningful.
Crater Lake delivers some kid friendly historical and geological info about the mountain, the area, the eruption, and its aftermath, at the Sinnott Memorial Overlook. Located at Rim Village a little down a paved (but not yet accessible) walkway, the Overlook’s covered, open-air viewing area gives you a stunning eastern view of the lake itself. Kids and adults can use the table-sized relief map of Crater Lake as a tactile way to examine the caldera and the surrounding lands. It’s a perfect way to truly get a feel for the area.
At the Overlook wall, the kids can also look over informational signs that break down what Mount Mazama was, the volcanic forces that erupted from it, and how, over time, that big blown-up mountain became one of the most beautiful lake areas in the world.
We found Sinnott Overlook a great way to fill out our understanding of Crater Lake and its history. And when we explored other parts of the caldera and attractions such as the Pinnacles, we could discuss and marvel all the more about the water, the land, and the incredible forces that have shaped this region.
2. Start Junior Ranger bingo
When you and the kids visit Rim Village’s Community House to pick up booklets for the Junior Ranger Program, the back cover gives you some fun bingo to keep track of during your Crater Lake adventures.
From buildings to rock formations, animals to insects, the More-Than-a-Lake Bingo is a great reminder that there is, indeed, far more to Crater Lake than just that marvelous blue water.
When driving around the rim or exploring parts of the park on foot, we found our Junior Ranger Bingo to be a way get all of us engaged in our surroundings and paying close attention to every wander.
Expect lots of questions too, such as how to identify a Clark’s nutcracker, or how there can possibly be snow on top of the mountain even in the height of summer. At parts of the park where you can get cell service or wifi (such as Rim Village and Mazama Village), take the time to use the Internet to look up info about the things on the bingo. We learned so much about the area’s wildlife, weather, and formations, and it made the visit all the more meaningful for us all.
3. Picnic at the Pinnacles
A great first-day activity is to actually leave the lake area. A few miles’ drive to the southeast, you come to the end of the road at a place called the Pinnacles. A short, paved hiking trail takes you along viewing points of fascinating formations, made when hot gases bubbled up through the eruption’s ash and lava.
Seeing the Pinnacles is like seeing jagged teeth, say from a How to Train Your Dragon dragon. They’re like monster fangs sticking out of the ground, as if from buried jawbones.
Time your visit for lunch or snack time: Just back from the trailhead, a flat spot off the trail overlooks a canyon full of pinnacle rocks. It’s a lovely spot to spread out a Pinnacles picnic and have some pre-hike family together time. The paved, accessible trail takes you along fascinating formations all the way to the edge of park itself.
When driving to the Pinnacles from the South Rim, also stop by Vidae Falls. Depending on water flow and time of year, the flow varies from proper waterfall to barely-there trickle, but if the flow is good, it’s an easy waterfall to check out even from your vehicle. Nearby, the Phantom Ship Overlook brings out everyone’s imagination as you stare down at the jagged formation—which is actually connected to the main mountainside by a submerged stretch of rock.
4. Stay up late for stargazing and moongazing at Discovery Point
After a full day exploring Crater Lake, it can be tempting to call it an early night.
If the evening sky is clear though, make it a late one instead.
Fortunately, while Oregon is famous for its rain and clouds, Crater Lake’s season and location corresponds with a much higher probability of clear skies, especially during the dry summer months. The remote mountain makes for incredible dark sky viewing. All the better? You can watch the moon rise over the lake’s blue waters. This sight is especially entrancing when the moon is full or in a crescent.
For best viewing, head out after dark, as the stars are coming out. Depending on the time of year, this could be anytime after 8:30pm, but in the height of summer may not be until closer to 10 pm.
On the West Rim, Discovery Point’s large parking lot makes a wonderful stop for clear views of the lake, Wizard Island, and constellations. It’s also a great spot to try your hand at some night photography.
5. Watch sunset or sunrise from Watchman Overlook (West Rim) or Cloudcap Overlook (East Rim)
Catching sunrise and sunset can be little tricky: When the sun actually rises and sets doesn’t perfectly correspond with when the light is actually spilling over the caldera rim down to the water itself.
When checking listed times for the area’s sunset and sunrise, you’ll want to make a few adjustments. For early risers, aim to arrive around the set sunrise time or a little after, but be ready to wait around: It’ll take some time for the sun to rise high enough for early rays to make their way down the slopes and light up the water.
Even while the sun lingers in the evening sky, the lake will already be in shadow. For team sunset folks, arrive at least thirty minutes earlier than the listed sunset time. That should help you take in the last daylight glittering up that beautiful expanse of blue.
The West Rim’s Watchman Overlook and East Rim’s Cloudcap Overlook can be kid friendly spots for sunrise and sunset viewing. Pack hot beverages, snacks, and plenty of warm layers though. Dawn and evening mountain time is chilly, and the change in temperature can also bring in some cold winds.
Cloudcap Overlook gives one of the lake’s best panoramic views, and you’ll get to drive much of the Rim Drive. After leaving Cloudcap, head a little farther to the south to check out the Pumice Castle Overlook: When you arrive, look at the eastern slope for a bright orange castle-like rock formation. It’s a great spot for a little picnic or snack stop as well.
On the West Rim, Watchman Overlook gives a more up-close view of Wizard Island, and it’s only about a 20-minute drive from Mazama Campground. A viewpoint at the parking lot makes for easy access to excellent lake views. Or, for something a little more strenuous but with a panoramic view, hike up to the lookout tower at the top of Watchman Peak.
Either way, sunset and sunrise at Crater Lake is a great time to get some family photos that bring together orange sun, blue water, and your family.
6. Wander wildflowers, forests, and a pumice desert
Crater Lake National Park’s main attraction, of course, is the lake itself. However, from wildflower fields to fascinating rock formations, the park’s attractions expand far and wide from the caldera.
Driving in from the north, the Pumice Desert has viewpoint pull-offs and parking for trailheads. The layers of pumice here are too porous to hold water, so patches of land throughout the northern part of the park support little in the way of plant life.
Depending on the time of year, your Crater Lake visit can also include spectacular views of wildflowers, waterfalls, and mountaintop vistas. The park’s extensive trail system also includes kid friendly, accessible trails.
Here are some of the trails we suggest looking into for Crater Lake hiking with kids (distances are round trip):
- Castle Crest Wildflower Loop (East Rim): easy .4 mile hike
- Near Annie Spring, Godfrey Glen Trail is an accessible loop trail
- Sun Notch (East Rim), easy .5 mile. Goes through a meadow and has overlooks for the lake and Phantom Ship
- Watchman Peak, 1.4 miles, “moderately strenuous”
- Plaikni Falls, 2 miles, easy trail through old-growth forest
- Boundary Springs, takes you through the Pumice Desert West area
- Lightning Spring, easy, 2.6 miles, and the first .8 are especially noted for the views
- Garfield Peak, moderate, 3 miles
- Park HQ at the Steel Visitors Center , easy .7 mile “historic walking tour”
- Annie Creek, easy 1.7 mile
For figuring out your hikes, here are some resources we suggest and rely on:
- CRLA hiking trails – AllTrails
- Maps of Crater Lake National Park from U.S. National Park Service
- Oregon Adventures: Diamond & Crater Lakes
- Trails of Crater Lake National Park, by William Sullivan (this link goes to the author’s site, or here’s the book on Amazon)
- 100 Hikes/Travel Guide: Southern Oregon & Northern California by William Sullivan (this link goes to the author’s site, or here’s the book on Amazon)
- Hike Oregon: Crater Lake
7. Once they resume from pandemic closures: Take the boat tour to Wizard Island, ride the trolley, watch the film, check out ranger talks…
In non-pandemic times, CRLA is full of other activities. Sadly, though, as of 2021 many awesome options aren’t currently on offer, but hopefully will return in 2022.
As you plan your family vacation to Crater Lake National Park, be sure to see if any of these are up and running again:
- Take the Crater Lake Trolley Tour: Ride a trolley around Crater Lake’s rim.
- Check out Summer Ranger Programs: Typically from May through September, Rangers at Crater Lake lead informative, entertaining talks and hikes throughout the day and evening.
- Add Crater Lake lab and study ideas to your schoolwork: Videos, study guides, and other resources help students learn more about the science and discovery awaiting at Crater Lake.
- Watch The Crater Lake Story: When you and your family need a break and a sit-down, check for showing times and location for the park’s short film, The Crater Lake Story, which details the history of Crater Lake and the park.
- Ride the boat tour and explore Wizard Island: You’ll have to hike down the steep and winding Cleetwood Cove Trail, but it’s worth it to be able to hop on a boat, ride around Crater Lake, and then spend a couple of hours exploring Wizard Island, the cinder cone island on the western side of the lake.
Crater Lake is an incredible place to travel with kids
Anthony first saw Crater Lake on a visit to Oregon when he was 20, and it was part of what made him fall in love with the Pacific Northwest. The natural beauty of the lake gets right to people’s souls, especially for kids. The park area itself is full of activities, from playing in the campground woods, to kid friendly hikes of curious rock formations leftover from the Mt. Mazama eruption.
Plus, Crater Lake is full of stories. Indigenous peoples lived in this area when the mountain erupted. Those stories and history are woven throughout the park experience. Signs and other resources showcase the science and ongoing observations that tell us more about the lake, the volcano, and the overall park. It’s an eye-opening way to show kids the wonders of science, history, story, animals, plants, and human understanding at work.
In short, Crater Lake is an incredible place to travel with kids. With wildflowers, waterfalls, hills, hikes, overlooks, scenic drives, gift shops, and even a few comforts-of-home amenities such as cafes and restaurants, there is a little something for the entire family.
As for us, our 2021 visit to Crater Lake National Park was only our first proper trip there. We hope that your visit will be the first of many as well.