If you’ve ever wondered if you can go swimming in the clear blue waters of Crater Lake in Oregon, the answer is yes! Take the Cleetwood Cove Trail down to the shore to enjoy a refreshing dip. This is also the trail you’ll use if you’re taking the Wizard Island boat tour.
The deep blue hues of Crater Lake are beautiful from any angle, but one of the best ways to enjoy the water is to go for a swim. The only path from the edge of the caldera down to the shores is the 2.2 mile roundtrip journey on the Cleetwood Cove Trail.
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About Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake is located in southern Oregon, a little over 1.5 hours northeast of Medford, or 2 hours southwest of Bend.
Crater Lake was formed over 7,700 years ago, when the 12,000 foot volcano called Mount Mazama erupted and then collapsed. Mount Mazama was part of the Cascade Mountain Range, which includes thirteen other volcanos, from Mount Rainier in Washington down to Mount Shasta in California.
One of the perks of traveling to a national park with a kid is the Junior Ranger program – we learned the legend of the lake’s creation as told by native Makalak people. They believed that there was a battle between Llao, the spirit of the Below-World, and Skell, the spirit of the Above-World. Skell drove Llao deep into the Below-World, and collapsed Mount Mazama to trap him. He then filled the collapsed volcano with water to cover the dark pit.
Crater Lake National Park was established in 1902. It is the deepest lake in the United States with a maximum depth of 1,943 feet. The lake is fed only by rain and snow, which is why the water is so clean and blue. It’s considered the cleanest and clearest large body of water in the world. It’s also the only national park in Oregon.
Weather at Crater Lake
Crater Lake is one of the snowiest places in the United States, with an astounding average of 43 feet of fluffy powder per year. The extreme winter here means there’s only a few months where you’ll likely even consider going for a swim – usually July through September.
July and August see average highs hit 70°F, September is usually mid-60s, and by October you’re back in the 50s.
Water Temperature at Crater Lake
For a lake that’s fed by snow melt, the surface water temperature at Crater Lake reaches a surprisingly mild 57°F. This is warmer than most of the beaches where we live in the Bay Area, but it still feels pretty chilly in just a swimsuit (to me at least!). Obviously, as you go lower, the water gets colder. The average temperature below 300 feet is 38°F (but it’s the surface temp that matters here, right??)
I think the best way to get in is jump, maybe without testing the water first. 🙂
While there is a ton of snow in the winter and the weather is freezing, Crater Lake itself does not typically freeze over because of its size. According to the National Park Service, the last time there was a complete surface freeze was 1949. It got close again in 1985 with a 95% freeze.
Check the Road Closures
So much snow also means there are road closures. The Cleetwood Cove Trailhead is located on East Rim Drive. Depending on snow conditions, both the road and the trail are typically open from mid-June to late October. Check the current road status on the NPS Alert page.
Summer is fire season in the Pacific Northwest, so you’ll also want to see if there are any road closures around the park related to fires on Trip Check. While we were able to enjoy our time at Crater Lake, the rest of our Oregon road trip got cut short due to several fires in the area.
The Cleetwood Cove Trail
What to bring with you on the Cleetwood Cove Trail
Water: Make sure to fill up your reusable water bottle before you head down. I bring this Nalgene bottle just about everywhere. We also brought a mini water filter to refill our bottles at the bottom and try some the cleanest lake water in the world (even though it’s pretty clean for a lake, it’s still best to filter).
Hiking shoes: Something lightweight and comfortable is best. Lems makes my favorite hiking shoes that are really comfortable and don’t crowd your toes. Read this for a full review of some of my favorite minimalist hiking shoes.
Mineral sunscreen: Protect your skin, and keep harmful chemicals out of the lake with a mineral sunscreen.
Swimsuit and towel: You may want to wear your suit down, or change once you get to the bottom. There aren’t really areas to change, so I just did it under my towel. We brought this compact microfiber towel that’s perfect for travel. And you’ll probably want it to dry off after.
Warm, dry clothes: You’ll likely want to change out of your wet swimsuit for the hike back up.
What NOT to bring
The National Park Service is careful about preserving the clarity and cleanliness of the lake, and preventing the introduction of invasive species. Therefore, they’ve disallowed basically everything but you and your swimsuit from entering the water at Crater Lake. This means no goggles, snorkels, fins, life jackets, or other flotation devices.
Hiking the Cleetwood Cove Trail
And now, here is how you actually get down to the water! There is plenty of parking at the Cleetwood Cove Trailhead. There are also bathrooms there too, if you need them.
The Cleetwood Cove Trail is 1.1 miles each way, so about 2.2 miles roundtrip. The elevation from the rim to the shore is 700 feet. The elevation loss (or gain on the way back up) is equivalent to 65 flights of stairs.
The trail is mostly switchbacks down to the bottom. Going down it doesn’t seem too steep, but I definitely felt it on the way back up. If you need, there are a few benches along the trail where you can take a break, catch your breath, and enjoy the view of that amazingly blue water from above. A lot of the trail is shaded by the trees, so it’s not too hot even on a warm day.
Note that no pets are allowed on this trail or in the water at Crater Lake.
Where to go swimming and cliff jumping at Crater Lake
Once you reach the shoreline at Crater Lake, you’ll see a couple of spots to get in the water. You can head down to the boat dock, or climb over the rocks to slowly wade in.
My recommendation is to keep hiking along the shore and past the bathrooms to an overlook that makes a great cliff jumping spot. I saw someone else jump before so I knew the water was deep enough. The water was a bit choppy because of the wind, but on a calmer day I’m sure you could estimate the depth a bit better because the water is so clear (though it’s always best to check first!). I’d say the jump is about 30 feet at this spot – fun, but not too scary.
Wizard Island Boat Tours
Wizard Island is the cinder cone island popping up on the west side of Crater Lake. It’s easy to spot from the rim drive, but if you want to explore the island and see it up close, you can take a boat tour.
In order to take a boat tour, you must take the Cleetwood Cove Trail to the boat dock.
There are two boat tour options at Crater Lake:
Standard Lake Cruise: This is a two-hour cruise around the perimeter of the lake which typically runs from the beginning of July through early September. It gives you close-up views of Wizard Island and Phantom ship. This tour costs $44 for adults and $30 for children ages 3-12. Ages 2 and under are not permitted. Book tickets here.
Wizard Island Tour: This tour lasts about 5 hours and combines the lake cruise with a three hour stop at Wizard Island. During that time, you can swim around the island, or take the trail to the peak of the cinder cone. This tour also runs from the beginning of July through early September. It leaves twice a day, at 9:45am and 12:45pm. This tour costs $55 for adults and $37 for children ages 3-12. Ages 2 and under are not permitted. Book tickets here.
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