If you happen to live in the Pacific Northwest, you know that we love our national parks out here! And I really do mean LOVE…two hour wait to get into Mount Rainier National Park on summer weekends anyone? I love all the love, but I don’t love all the peeps in the woods with me! If you don’t either, then let me suggest a smaller, sunnier, quieter park with views and vistas that rival the bigger attractions: Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon.
We love our dramatic Cascade peaks like Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, and Mount Shasta, so it may seem that visiting a place where a mountain used to be would be less of a draw. But you would be wrong! Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States, one of the deepest in the world, and definitely one of the most pristine. Crater Lake blue is a color all its own – on a clear summer day it’s electric, almost surreal, and very hard to capture on film. Standing on the rim of this crater feels like being in a gorgeous painting.
Crater Lake is one of my favorite parks to visit with kids. Many of the park’s most spectacular trails are short. Because the park is relatively small you spend less time in the car than in bigger parks. And even on a busy summer day you can still find a parking place. Expect (mostly) dry, warm, sunny weather from July until September, although snow can still surprise you any of those months so always throw in layers and cold weather gear, too.
Here are my top picks with the little ones in tow or leading the way.
Castle Crest Wildflower Garden – This short ½ mile loop is great for little hikers and yet is beautiful enough to draw the grown-ups too, especially if you hit it during the peak wildflower bloom (typically late July to early August).
Annie Creek – This roughly 2 mile loop is considered moderate for the climb in and out of the canyon, but is mostly level along the creek otherwise. Enjoy wildflowers, several creek crossings on log bridges, and many spots to stop and enjoy the creek.
Sun Notch – Another loop hike under 2 miles that is fairly steep on the uphill to the rim of Crater Lake, but offers one of the best views of Phantom Ship, a feature that always fascinated my kids.
Watchman Trail – For some serious views, hike 1.7 miles round trip up to a fire lookout tower on the rim of Crater Lake. With a 360 degree view, you can’t go wrong here.
Plaikni Falls – If you need an accessible trail for a stroller, this is the best one for you. In about 2 miles round trip you can wander back to a pretty waterfall, on a wide gravel trail with pullouts.
If touching the lake is on your bucket list, then Cleetwood Cove Trail is the only place to do that. The locals joke that the hike is 1 mile down, 11 miles back up. In other words, it’s tough! The kids’ will probably be fine on the steep sandy trail, just make sure you are up for it! And be aware this is the busiest trail in the park – it’s the lake experience you’re after here, not the solitude.
If you’re looking for a really unique hike and your kids are 3 and older, sign up for the Wizard Island Shuttle and spend half a day exploring the largest island in Crater Lake. Hike to the top of the cone of the “new” volcano!
For details on all the fun, head to the official park website at www.nps.gov/crla