If you’re interested in the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest things don’t get much more wonderous than Little Crater Lake.
You’ve probably seen pictures of the “lake” before, a 45′ deep brilliant blue tree graveyard. You probably expect, as I did, that it would be in a remote place that is next to impossible to get to. Otherwise, why wouldn’t you be hearing about it all the time??
Well, I can’t answer why it’s not more popular, but I can tell you that Little Crater Lake is very easy to access and is a perfect addition to any trip through Oregon.
So let’s talk a bit about how we got there, what we found, and what we’ve learned about Little Crater Lake since visiting that would have made it more enjoyable at the time.
What Is There To Do At Little Crater Lake? (What To Expect)
From the name you might guess that Little Crater Lake is, in fact, near Crater Lake. I did and I was very wrong. Little Crater Lake is actually located more than 200 miles north of Crater Lake in the Mt. Hood National Forest and about 10 miles south (as the crow flies) from Mt. Hood itself (one of the mountains visible from Portland).
Little Crater Lake is one of the main attractions in the area and attracts thousands of visitors (although we had it mostly to ourselves).
The approach is a simple flat hike with no obstacles that, if you can walk, you can manage.
Once you get to the lake you’ll find a small lake with a wooden viewing platform at one end.
The lake is mainly a scenic stop as there isn’t actually anything to do there besides enjoy the beauty. Nothing lives in the lake and it’s too frigid to wade or swim.
While some intrepid souls have scuba-dived in Little Crater Lake it requires a full dry suit as the underground aquifer that feeds the lake keeps it at 34 degrees year-round.
I don’t want to be a downer as the lake is incredibly spectacular but I will say this – if you have small kids don’t plan on spending a day hanging around.
Little Crater Lake Photo Gallery
Getting To Little Crater Lake
These days, the best way to get anywhere is really just to put it into your phone or car’s GPS and let it show you the way. Simply route to Little Crater Lake Campground, drive 1/3 mile around the campground loop, and park at the pullout for Little Crater Lake Trail #500.
You’ll have to pay a $10 day-use fee (waived if you have a NW Forest Pass) but it won’t guarantee you parking so be sure to get there early if you want a spot on a weekend.
Little Crater Lake is located about .15 miles down the trail and only took us about 10 minutes to meander to with two little kids. The “trail” is a flat easy walking path with no obstacles that should be manageable by just about anyone that is capable of walking the distance.
After wandering through some meadows (which are packed with edible plants by the way…) you’ll reach Little Crater Lake’s small wooden viewing platform, information sign, and a bench where you can rest for a few.
Little Crater Lake Trail is also the access point to a much longer and more difficult hike to Timothy Lake if you’re up for it. If you’re trying to map it, the Little Crater Lake Trail actually only runs .15 miles past Little Crater Lake at which point is joins with the Pacific Crest Trail #2000.
We chose to turn around and head back to the car but many people choose to continue on for a bit. You can turn around at any point as it’s an out-and-back trail.
Where To Stay
Where you stay when visiting the Mt. National Forest will depend highly on what your travel plans are.
If you’re just passing through the area and want to stop by Little Crater Lake on a whim your best bet is to simply find a hotel in Government Camp, the ski town which sits about 5 miles from Mt. Hood.
If you’re going to be in the area for a bit longer and don’t fancy sleeping on the ground then you’ll want to book a stay at Timberline Lodge, one of the most picturesque lodges in the Pacific Northwest that we’ve stayed in.
Timberline Lodge is a historic hotel (built in the 1930s) located on the south slope of Mount Hood in Oregon. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the most popular historic hotels in the state. In addition to functioning as a ski resort, the lodge offers a variety of amenities, including a restaurant, bar, and gift shop.
Just be aware that Timberline Lodge is commonly regarded as haunted and guests have reported seeing ghostly figures in the halls and hearing strange noises in the night.
Timberline Lodge is located about 30 minutes from Little Crater Lake.
If You Want To Camp
There are a dozen different campgrounds within a short drive of Little Crater Lake.
The closest, Little Crater Lake Campground, has 16 tent sites that can be reserved online (seasonally).
If you are unable to find a spot at the Little Crater Lake Campground there are many more sites available (including possible RV sites and cabins to rent) at Timothy Lake Campground (aka North Arm Campground), Oak Fork, and Gone Creek.
Camping in this area is one of the most scenic places in Oregon (second only to the coast) and you get to enjoy a view of Mt. Hood from most campgrounds.
A Bit Of History
There is much talk about Little Crater Lake being some form of Caldera or that it was formed by a collapsed volcanic lava tube.
While the genesis of Little Crater Lake is likely related to volcanic activity in the region (there are lots of volcanoes in the PNW after all) it’s unlikely that it’s a direct result.
Because of the tectonic movement in the area, a plate shift at some point created a crack in the layer of bedrock, allowing water from an underground aquifer to be pushed to the surface.
This newly created underground spring dissolved the soft limestone above it until it combined with the small pool created by what is now called Little Crater Creek.
The underground aquifer is the reason for the crystal clear waters as it is fed by runoff that is filtered through layers of gravel on its way back to the surface.
However, the sapphire color associated with Little Crater Lake is more closely associated with reflections of the sky rather than the special minerals that the water is carrying. So if you want to see it really shine, visit on a clear day!
Other Things To Do In The Area
If you’re looking for other things to do after visiting Little Crater Lake there are several other things to do in the area.
Here are some of the things that we did (or considered)…
Timothy Lake is a great place for swimming, boating, and fishing. There are also several hiking trails in the area, and, in the winter months, the lake is a popular spot for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. No matter what time of year it is, there’s always something to do at Timothy Lake Oregon.
Mt. Hood is a beautiful destination all year round. In the winter, it’s a popular spot for skiing and snowboarding, and in the summer, people flock to the area to enjoy the mild temperatures and stunning scenery. However, there are plenty of fun activities to do on Mt. Hood regardless of the season. In the winter, visitors can go cross-country skiing, ice skating, or sledding. In the summer, there’s hiking, mountain biking, and fishing.
Explore The Columbia River Gorge
Straddling the border between Oregon and Washington, the gorge offers stunning views of the river and the surrounding mountains. There are plenty of things to do in and around the gorge, including whitewater rafting, hiking, fishing, and more.
For those looking for a more relaxed experience, there are also several wineries in the area that offer tastings and tours.
The geological oddity that is Little Crater Lake was one of my favorite stops on our recent drives through Oregon. But honestly, the best part might have come after as I get to hear people’s exclamations when I show them the otherworldly pictures.
Next on my list is to visit the area at night to get some amazing long-exposure moon pictures on the water. When I do, you’ll see them here (or on our Instagram).
So, if you’re in the area, take an hour or two and stop by Little Crater Lake!