How to See Crater Lake National Park in 24 Hours
The main goal of my trip to Oregon with my dad was to visit Crater Lake National Park. Crater Lake is about 4.5 hours south of Portland. It is located in the middle of nowhere. I’ve never felt so isolated from civilization before! There are a few tiny towns within an hour’s drive, but the nearest cities are Bend, Eugene, or Medford, which are all about two hours away.
Stay at Lemolo Lake KOA Campground
We booked our trip only a couple months ahead of time, so the campgrounds at Crater Lake NP were completely booked. After a little research, I came across the KOA campground at Lemolo Lake, which is about 40 minutes north of Crater Lake.
As we approached the campground, smoke from the nearby wildfire got thicker and thicker. The highway we were on was actually closed right after the turn to the KOA! We checked in at the office and they gave us tokens for the shower. We were staying two nights and they gave us enough tokens for eight minutes of shower time each. They said we would be able to buy more tokens if we needed to.
The campground is really nice. Bathrooms were clean and Lemolo Lake is only a few minutes’ walk from the sites. The lake has a pier with boats you can rent. The only downside, in my opinion, was that the tent sites are very close together.
Garfield Peak at sunset
After we had set up our campsite, we drove about 40 minutes south to Crater Lake. We had originally thought we would complete this hike earlier in the afternoon, but the high for the day was 90F!! We figured we could wait a little bit and start once it began to cool down a little. We brought our camp stove and cooked some dinner at the picnic area near Crater Lake Lodge.
My dad and I started the Garfield Peak hike around 6:45pm. The hike starts on the paved path behind the lodge and climbs upward, turning to a dirt trail after a little while. The trail climbs about 1000 feet in elevation over 1.7 miles. I didn’t notice the high elevation at first, but it started slowing me down about halfway up.
The trail is really beautiful and you can see Crater Lake to your left most of the hike. At one point, the trail turns towards the mountains to your right. It’s nice to get a little change of scenery! Then you climb up a little more and get the most beautiful view of Crater Lake the last half mile to the top. We made it to the peak around 7:45pm and enjoyed watching the sun set and taking pictures.
The hike down was much easier and only took us about 30 minutes. We were done at 8:45pm, just in time for the sun to set completely.
After the sun had set, we still had just over an hour before it would get totally dark. We drove a few minutes north to Discovery Point and enjoyed drinking some wine while watching the colors change during the twilight hour.
My dad and I were most excited to take pictures of the Milky Way after it was completely dark. Crater Lake is a designated dark sky area. This is because it is in the middle of absolutely nowhere, so there is no light pollution from nearby cities. My dad had mapped out the best spot to see the Milky Way and we decided on Meeriam Point. The Milky Way would be rising just over Wizard Island (the big island in Crater Lake).
When we arrived around 10pm, there was one other group set up to take pictures. I had never seen the Milky Way before and it was already out. This was an incredible experience! We were able to see it across the entire sky. It was so dark that we could see millions of stars shining brightly. We took pictures for a couple hours and then made the long drive back to Lemolo Lake.
Hike Watchman Peak at sunrise
Our alarms went off way too soon after arriving back at the campsite after midnight. We really wanted to see the sun rise over the caldera though, so we woke up at 4am and arrived at the Watchman Peak trailhead around 5am.
I thought this was the perfect time to start, as sunrise was at 5:40am. It was already light enough that we didn’t need headlamps. The trail starts from the Watchman Peak parking lot and follows the Rim Trail for 0.3 miles until the Watchman Peak Trail starts. From here, it’s another 0.5 miles to the lookout tower at the top. The views are incredible the entire way up. It’s a fairly steep but short climb.
We arrived at the top and there were three other groups of photographers already set up. One of them mentioned that they were able to see the glow from the nearby wildfires in their previous night’s Milky Way photos. I had noticed that too but didn’t realize it was the fire that was causing it! We stayed here for about 20 minutes before climbing back down.
Drive the Rim Road
The last thing we wanted to do was drive the entire Rim Road. We had already driven the western part a couple times on our way to our hikes. However, I was so glad we drove the east side because the terrain was completely different. I enjoyed getting to see Mount Scott (the highest point in the park) up close.
The entire 33-mile drive takes about 1.5 hours without stops. There are 30 overlooks you can stop at to see the lake from different vantage points.
-Make sure you get gas before entering the park. There are no gas stations inside the park.
-There aren’t many bathrooms in the park. The only ones we noticed were at the Rim Village Visitor Center and pit toilets at the Watchman Peak parking lot.
–Check wildfires before you go. There were two nearby and the smoke fortunately avoided us while we were there, but that could make your trip miserable!
-The elevation of the park is around 7000 feet. This can make hikes more strenuous if you aren’t used to a higher elevation.
Overall, I think 24 hours in Crater Lake National Park is plenty. It’s definitely worth seeing!