Visiting Crater Lake During the Wildfires

a landscape of trees and mountains

My luck with Crater Lake is rather nonexistent. Or perhaps its my planning abilities? The first time I went to Crater Lake I was not expecting huge snow drifts in the 70 degree weather over Memorial Day. This time I hadn’t anticipated the lake being entirely obscured by smoke.

a foggy mountain landscape with trees
View of Wizard Island obscured by smoke from wildfires
a snow covered mountains and a body of water
View of Crater Lake last May

A trip with friends to the Rouge Valley that was months in the planning, stalking the Crater Lake Lodge website multiple times a day in the hopes that two lakeside rooms would open up over a weekend, finally happened at the end of July. That also happened to be around the time lightning strikes set southern Oregon forests ablaze and the Northern California wildfires were at their peak.

A few days before we were due to arrive, I received an email saying our boat tour had been rescheduled to an earlier time because visibility on the lake in afternoon was so poor.

Driving to Crater Lake from Medford was rather eerie. The air in Medford had been pretty thick with smoke, but as got closer to Crater Lake, visibility dimmed quite a bit. We’d stopped to pick up smoke masks and there were times we were pretty grateful for them at times.

a road with trees in the background

At the park entrance, many cars were turning around and leaving, having been informed the view of the lake was completely obscured by smoke in the afternoon. When we arrived at the top around 5PM we discovered the reports were correct. You couldn’t even tell there was water! So much for that Lakeside view room.a railing with trees in the background

We checked in and decided to go for a hike. The air was slowly clearing and by 7 or 8PM we had a great view of the lake and a fiery red sunset.

a person walking on a dirt path on a mountain
View from the Garfield Peak Trail

a body of water with trees and mountains in the background

Hotel staff mentioned the air tended to clear in the mornings and cloud up in the afternoon, as our luck had it, the air didn’t clear in the morning and the views were pretty obscured.a view of a lake from a mountain

Due to the smoke and mechanical problems, boat tours were extremely limited. Anyone with existing reservations were welcome to cancel for a free refund. Anyone who didn’t already have reservations was pretty much out of luck.

Pro tip: During the summer, it can be extremely difficult to get same-day Crater Lake boat tour tickets for more than one or two people. Plan ahead and book your spots early.

After a very candid conversation with a helpful park ranger, we decided to skip the boat tour, which would have been little more than two hours on the water listening to the park’s history with the smokey outlines of cliffs in the distance.

a view of a body of water from a mountain

a sign with a waterfall in the background

a close up of a plant

a stone path in a grassy area with flowers

Instead, we drove around the lake which was delightful, despite the limited visibility. We finished up with drinks on the Crater Lake Lodge terrace. They offer a variety of cocktails, local wine, and beer on the terrace, which normally has one of the best views you can imagine.a glass of wine and a mask on a railing

The next morning, the air was somewhat clearer, so we re-traced our steps to get some truly beautiful views before we left.

a sunset over a body of water
Smoky sunrise at Crater Lake

a body of water with mountains in the background

Should you visit Crater Lake during the wildfires?

One benefit is fewer crowds, but it still might not be worth it. The smoke definitely wreaked havoc with our respiratory systems.

We had a great stay, but given the cost of rooms at Crater Lake, and the uncertainty of seeing the lake at any point during the day, I’d advise anyone planning to go to postpone if at all possible. Even if you’re just making a day trip, it’s a long way to go and there is no guarantee that the winds won’t shift and obscure your view.

Crater Lake is utterly beautiful, but to get the “full experience” you should be able to see from one rim to the other.

Full Disclosure: I may receive affiliate credit from links in this post or on this site which will help fund my travels. Thank you for your support!

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