Challenging Hikes in Crater Lake

While Crater Lake National Park has a plethora of easy hikes I already detailed, the park also offers some challenges. I made it a goal to take on these challenges back when I started planning this trip in January, so I was grateful that none of my goal hikes were closed due to fires. 

A week’s worth of entry to the park is covered by a one-time fee of $15 for a vehicle (or use your America the Beautiful interagency pass). As it is a National Park there are no dogs allowed on the trails. The park itself is at over 5,000 feet altitude, so bring more water than you think you’ll need (as well as sun protection).

CLEETWOOD COVE

The stunning blue waters of Crater Lake

Even though this hike is on my challenging list, it’s the most popular hike in the park. Why are people of all ages and abilities clamoring for a hike where you lose (and then have to make up) 700 feet elevation in slightly over one mile? Because it’s the only way to access the waters of Crater Lake! Regardless if you’re dipping a toe or taking a boat tour of the lake, you’ll have to make the trek down. Luckily, the park tries to accommodate by providing tons of benches to rest.

If you plan on doing the hike, think about going in the morning. Due to its popularity, parking at the trailhead is extremely crowded, with most cars on the shoulder (they were even in the process of making a new parking area while we were there). There were toilets at the top, and pit toilets are also at the bottom. Once you park, begin descending into Switchback City. There weren’t too many wildflowers here, which was probably a good thing, as you really needed to watch your step. There are signs everywhere saying to not kick rocks–as they’re going to be pelting the people below. We saw dozens of minuscule rockslides happen here, and I’m amazed at the trail upkeep to fight erosion that must occur every year.

Relaxing by a cairn someone had built earlier.

We found our way to the bottom and picked a spot to relax. The water inside the lake is supposed to be freezing, but we found it so pleasant we were both kicking ourselves for not bringing swimsuits down with us. Unfortunately, due to thick smoke from nearby fires the water wasn’t nearly as beautiful as it would be on a normal day, but we still had a great time taking in the sights and the crystal-clear water. Further down were people jumping off cliffs into the water, but I was content wading in up to my knees.

The climb up, for lack of a better word, sucked. Luckily most people climbing up were also huffing and puffing as hard as I was, and surprisingly people were very good about pulling over or adhering to trail etiquette. Take your time and take in the sights as you climb back up to reality.

GARFIELD PEAK

Love that pure blue water.

If Annie Creek was my favorite of the easy hikes, then Garfield Peak was my favorite of the challenging hikes. It offers killer views and the location and parking are extremely convenient right by the historic Crater Lake Lodge and Rim Village. The lodge even has a restaurant where you can treat yourself afterwards! We checked out Rim Village (another place to get your Crater Lake cancellation) before topping off our water bladders and hitting the trail. You wander through a large meadow of wildflowers before your dusty climb up begins. The great thing about this hike is there are tons of viewpoints along the way that are great to stop at and check out the view, so if heat or altitude get to you, you can still reap the rewards without finishing the hike. This is an upward climb that starts at over 7,000 feet, so if you’re a person who struggles with altitude like I do, be ready to huff and puff.

Visible smoke from a nearby fire.

The huffing and puffing was *not* helped by the fact that we could see smoke from a wildfire billowing high as we got closer to the peak. When oxygen is already thinner, the addition of smoke had me cursing my pitiful VO2 max as I heaved for air. As we got close to the top, I had every passerbyer telling me I was almost there–even four hikers less than ten feet apart felt the need to individually tell me each time, making me incredibly self-conscious. I’m sure on a clear day that’s not 87* this 3.4 mile hike isn’t nearly as strenuous as I’m making it sound, so don’t let me scare you! Despite the breathtaking views at every lake-facing switchback, we vowed to make it to the top for the final payoff. There was a small snow patch that was sooooo pleasantly cooling to walk by, even if I was worried I’d skid onto my rear on the way down (I didn’t–phew!).

Surveying the land from above.

We somehow timed it perfectly to be at the top right when it cleared out of other people. It’s a nice flat space to look down at the lake, but the full 360* views around us were stunning too. I felt like we were on top of the world, despite only being 1010 feet higher than when we started! Like much of the park, there were butterflies (apparently California tortiseshells) everywhere–this year they were abnormally abundant. I still am a little bummed as it was *so* smoky at the top that all of my pictures have a weird hazy tint to them, but that’s nature sometimes.

MOUNT SCOTT

Mount Scott daunted me from the beginning. Oregon’s tenth highest peak has you finishing your climb at nearly 9,000 feet above sea level, and reaching that high in just 2.2 miles up (4.4 round trip). Parking here also looked to fill up fast, so we tried to roll in early. You can see the fire lookout from the road, and it was a little intimidating to know we were going to end up way up there. A small downhill into a meadow and then you’re going up.

For both Garfield Peak and Mount Scott, the only trees you’ll see as you get higher are five-needle whitebark pines, which only grow above 7,000 feet and can sustain punishing winter winds and temperatures. After a mile the terrain will turn into a pumice slope–this means you’re about halfway! I was too focused on making it to the top to take in too much of the scenery around us, but as we were further from the lake, the scenery was mostly thick forests below us.

“Did I remember to lock my car?”

The top…could have been more pleasant. This gets into ‘get off my lawn’ territory, but a bunch of teenagers were at the top, spread way out and having a very loud conversation. Yes, parks are for all, but they clearly weren’t aware they were spoiling this great viewpoint for others. I noticed all adult hikers were hiding tucked into the firewatch far from them to try to get some peace at this beautiful view, but read the (outdoor) room–if everyone is murmuring in a library voice and you’re belting out Disney songs, maybe don’t. 

Regardless, the view at the top was still stunning (see header)–you can fit the entire lake into one picture and see your car parked below! However, I still preferred the view from Garfield–you were closer to the lake and got to appreciate it more. Mount Scott, to me, was more about the experience and getting to say I hiked Oregon’s tenth-highest peak than it ended up being the view. For comparison, I checked out Washington’s highest peaks–almost all of the top twenty involve climbing, something far too advanced for me.

I had such a wonderful time in Crater Lake National Park. I feel like I achieved many accomplishments–I don’t know if I’ve ever done nearly every hike in a park before! I waded in the lake, I successfully peed while hiking for the first time (TMI?), and again–I made it to the top of Oregon’s tenth-highest peak. As summer winds down rapidly (I already have my space heater going at my office desk), I have a few more ‘firsts’ in me, but for now I’ll keep reminiscing of my time atop Garfield Peak.

6 Replies to “Challenging Hikes in Crater Lake”

  1. These hikes sound lovely! I can’t wait for next summer already:)

    1. I know! As excited as I was for fall, it’s too soon for snow in the mountains!

  2. Looks like a fun adventure!

    1. It was a blast!

  3. Very impressive blog.

    Interesting article right on the subject.

    1. Thanks!

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