Situated in the southern Pacific Northwest, Klamath serves as the gateway to three unmissable National Park sites; while each park has something unique to offer every visitor, you’ll be missing out if you don’t add them all to your itinerary. With the bottomless blue Crater Lake National Park, the intriguing Lava Beds National Monument, and the history preserved at Tule Lake National Monument, Klamath is the perfect jumping-off point for diverse adventures.
Whether you're a seasoned explorer or looking for a memorable family vacation, Klamath offers a unique blend of nature, history, and recreation. This is the place where you can experience the force of volcanoes and explore inside them. Here, history lives on at the homeland of Native Peoples and some of WWII's most controversial sites. Don’t forget your gear: these parks offer classic hikes, scenic drives, over 800 caves, and the opportunity to dive into America’s deepest lakes. With so much to explore, you’ll just need to decide which park to visit first!
BEHOLD THE RING OF FIRE
Crater Lake National Park: the nation’s deepest lake, carved out of the inside of an ancient mega volcano. Crater Lake's origin is a tale of fiery eruptions and cataclysmic events. The lake owes its existence to the eruption of Mount Mazama, which, in a colossal display of nature's fury, underwent one of the most significant volcanic eruptions in the Cascade Range. This eruption was so powerful that it blew the top off of Mount Mazama, leading to a cataclysmic collapse of the volcano and the formation of a vast caldera (erroneously called a “crater”). Over time, rain and snow accumulated within this caldera, giving birth to the pristine Crater Lake we see today. The lake's waters remain incredibly clear and pure, with no streams flowing in or out.
Crater Lake is part of the Cascade Range of volcanoes, created by the tectonic interactions between the Juan de Fuca and Pacific plates on the Pacific edge of the Ring of Fire, the Pacific Ocean basin, where many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur. You may have heard about other famous volcanoes that are part of the Cascade Range, like Mount Rainier, Mount Saint Helens (which erupted in 1980), Mount Lassen (which erupted between 1914 and 1921), and Mount Hood, the tallest peak in Oregon. Although the peak of Mount Mazama has been gone for more than 7000 years, visit Crater Lake to behold the scale of Mount Mazama’s eruption and to understand the sheer force that has shaped (and continues to affect) this volcanic region.
Explore Inside Volcanoes
Continue your volcanic exploration at the Lava Beds National Monument, home to a subterranean wonderland of over 800 lava tubes that lets you venture above and below a vast volcanic landscape. These caves provide a unique opportunity to venture below the surface and witness the aftermath of ancient volcanic flows. Imagine famous volcanic landscapes like at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, without the need to keep your distance from erupting lava: Lava Beds offers a distinctive experience where visitors can actually step inside and beneath the lava flows.
The monument also boasts diverse geological environments within the tubes, from vast caverns to intricate formations. Above ground, the landscape is dotted with craters, buttes, and expansive lava fields. Notable features include Mammoth Crater, Schonchin Butte, and the Lava Fields viewed from Gillem’s Camp. Adding to its otherworldly appeal, NASA once used this area to train astronauts and test equipment for off-planet environments, drawing parallels between the rugged volcanic terrains of Lava Beds and those of celestial bodies like the moon and Mars.
UNCOVER NATIVE AMERICAN HISTORY
The Lava Beds National Monument stands as a testament to the rich history and culture of the Modoc people, who called this place the “Land of the Burnt Out Fires.” The homeland of the Modoc bore witness to the tumultuous events of the Modoc War, one of the last conflicts of the American Indian Wars. At the heart of this conflict was Captain Jack's Stronghold, a natural fortress of lava beds and trenches. Here, under the leadership of Chief Kintpuash, also known as Captain Jack, a small band of Modoc warriors held off U.S. Army forces for months. Visit the stronghold to understand more about the Modoc homeland and the conditions through which the Modoc and the U.S. Army fought for this territory.
Not far from the stronghold is Gillem's Camp, which served as the U.S. Army's base during the conflict. It starkly contrasts the Modoc's natural defenses and is a stark reminder of the two opposing sides of the war. A somber monument, Canby's Cross, marks where U.S. General Canby was killed by Captain Jack, making him the only U.S. General ever assassinated during a peace negotiation.
The Modoc's rich cultural heritage is further preserved at Petroglyph Point, home to the largest petroglyph panel within the National Park Service. Historians believe that the ancient ancestors of the region, standing in canoes, carved these intricate designs when Tule Lake extended below the rock face. Don’t miss the opportunity to learn more: the Lava Beds Visitor Center offers interpretive exhibits that delve deeper into Modoc culture, traditions, and the legacy of the Modoc people.
LEARN FROM Unmissable WWII HISTORY
Although the National Park Service protects some of the most striking natural wonders of the United States, it also preserves the memory of some of America’s most challenging moments. Don’t miss an essential visit to Tule Lake National Monument, the site of the largest and most controversial site where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II, a testament to a turbulent period marked by fear, prejudice, and hotly debated wartime decisions. This legacy, though painful, offers invaluable insights into the resilience and spirit of those unjustly incarcerated. The Monument also preserves the nearby Camp Tulelake, a site used to incarcerate Japanese Americans and, later, German and Italian prisoners of war.
Whether you’re a history buff, someone who experienced the tumult of wartime, or simply willing to learn more about important and somber moments of American history, be sure to add Tule Lake National Monument to your itinerary. Open during the summer months, the Tule Lake National Monument Visitor Center offers guided tours that breathe life into these stories of resilience and resistance. Be sure to engage with National Park Service Rangers, who can provide a deep and unforgettable understanding of this pivotal chapter in American history.
FIND YOUR TRAIL
One of America’s first National Parks, Crater Lake offers many hiking trails, each with its unique charm and challenge. Choose from highlights like Watchman Peak Trail, a moderate trail that climbs 1.7 miles to a fire lookout, offering breathtaking lake views. Looking to make a splash? Try Cleetwood Cove Trail, the most popular trail in the park; this 2-mile hike takes you down to the shores of Crater Lake. With an elevation change of 700 feet, it's a bit challenging but worth every step for the stunning views and the unique experience of being at the water's edge. For those seeking a challenge, the Mount Scott trail takes you to the highest point in Crater Lake at 8,929 feet. The views of the lake and the surrounding area from the summit are unparalleled.
Lava Beds offers geological and interpretive hikes that provide physical activity and a deep dive into the Modoc culture and history. Trails like Captain Jack’s Stronghold offer insights into the region's past, while others, like the trail to Mammoth Crater, let you experience the area's unique geology up close. Additionally, visitors can immerse themselves in the region's history with the Modoc War Audio Tour, an engaging activity that narrates the significant events of the Modoc War as you explore the area.
Don’t miss some of America’s best DIY caving! With its vast network of caves, the Lava Beds National Monument offers a unique underground exploration experience without needing a guide or a tour. The park employs a three-level cave rating system to guide visitors, ensuring everyone from the novice to the expert spelunker finds a cave tailored to their skill level.
Green Circle Caves: Ideal for beginners, these caves are characterized by high ceilings and smooth trails. Try out Mushpot Cave, located adjacent to the National Park Service Visitor Center, for an excellent introduction to lava tubes. The cave is illuminated and features interpretive signs explaining the formation and significance of lava tubes. It's an adventure and an educational journey, making it perfect for families and those new to caving.
Blue Square Caves: These are for the more adventurous. Expect to navigate rough terrains and occasionally stoop. Kneepads and gloves are recommended. A prime example is the Sunshine Cave. As you traverse its depths, you'll encounter sections where the cave's roof has collapsed, allowing sunlight to filter in. This creates a surreal environment where vegetation thrives amidst the darkness, with features resembling natural stone arches. It's a testament to nature's adaptability, blending the subterranean and the sunlit.
Black Diamond Caves: Reserved for the seasoned spelunker, these caves challenge with tight spaces, crawling sections, and maze-like passages. Hopkins Chocolate Cave is a prime example. As the name suggests, the cave boasts rich, brown rock formations that evoke images of flowing chocolate. While navigating this cave requires skill and a sense of adventure, the stunning formations and chambers you'll discover make the effort worthwhile.
Want to find your perfect spelunking spot? Check out our guide to the Top 10 Caves at the Lava Beds to learn more.
GET ON THE WATER
Crater Lake, often admired for its visual splendor, is both a sight to behold and a vibrant experience waiting to be delved into. The Cleetwood Cove Trail, spanning 2.2 miles round trip, is your exclusive gateway to the lake's edge. Here, you can immerse yourself in the crystal-clear waters of an ancient volcano or cast a line to catch Rainbow Trout and Kokanee Salmon. These fish, interestingly not native to the lake, can be caught without limits, and there's no need for a fishing license. Just make sure you bring your gear, as rentals are unavailable, and only artificial lures are permitted.
Ranger-led boat tours offer a unique perspective for those seeking a deeper connection with the lake. These boats proudly bear names in indigenous languages, paying homage to the region's rich tribal heritage. Whether you find yourself aboard the modokni, meaning “belonging to Modoc,” the ʔewksiknii, translating to “people of the lake” chosen by the Klamath Tribe, or the nɨmɨ, which means “people” in Paiute, each name carries a story, intertwining the lake's natural beauty with the cultural tapestry of the area. Venturing to Wizard Island or simply cruising around, these boat tours emphasize that Crater Lake is not just a marvel to gaze upon but a living testament to nature and culture, inviting visitors to experience its depths and stories truly.
TAKE THE SCENIC ROUTE
Crater Lake's Rim Drive is more than just a scenic route; it's a 33-mile journey of discovery that stands shoulder to shoulder with the most iconic drives in America's National Parks. As you traverse this historic loop, you're not just driving but exploring a tapestry of natural wonders. Every turn reveals a new spectacle, from the verdant forests to cascading waterfalls and the east rim's unique sights. With 33 pull-outs dotting the route, each stop offers its own panoramic story. The Cloudcap Overlook, Oregon's highest paved road, unveils a sweeping vista blanketed in pumice from Mount Mazama's legendary eruption.
If you'd rather soak in the views without the responsibility of driving, hop on a trolley tour for a relaxed and informative journey around the lake. But for those seeking a more visceral connection with the landscape, cycling Rim Drive offers an adrenaline-pumping adventure. Feel the wind rush past as you tackle the challenging terrain, especially during the renowned Ride the Rim event. On a bike, you're not just observing Crater Lake's majesty; you're living it, with every pedal stroke taking you further through its grandeur. Whether by car, trolley, or bike, Crater Lake promises an experience that transcends the ordinary, urging you to dive deeper into its captivating embrace.
STAY AMIDST THE GRANDEUR
For those looking to immerse themselves in the region's natural beauty, camping and accommodations in and around Crater Lake and Lava Beds offer a range of options to suit every traveler's needs.
Mazama Campground at Crater Lake: Located within the boundaries of Crater Lake National Park, Mazama Campground is a popular choice for visitors. The campground boasts 214 sites, each equipped with essential amenities to ensure a comfortable stay. Surrounded by towering trees and with easy access to the lake, it's an ideal spot for those looking to surround themselves with nature. Reservations can be made online at recreation.gov.
Lava Beds Campground: Situated in the heart of Lava Beds National Monument, this campground offers 43 sites on a first-come, first-served basis. It's a prime location for those keen on exploring the monument's extensive cave systems and rich history. The proximity to numerous trails and caves makes it a favorite among adventurers.
Backcountry Camping: For those seeking a more secluded experience, both Crater Lake and Lava Beds offer backcountry camping options. However, a permit is required to ensure the pristine wilderness remains undisturbed.
Crater Lake Lodge: Looking for more comfort in a classic National Park setting? Crater Lake, the lodge offers majestic views and a cozy retreat after a day of exploration. Some accommodations provide breathtaking views of the lake, while others offer vistas of Rim Village or the surrounding landscape. Be sure to book beforehand, as the lodge commonly fills reservations months early.
Three Parks, One Destination
Klamath stands as a testament to the diverse beauty and rich history of the Pacific Northwest. With three national parks at its doorstep, it offers visitors a unique opportunity to experience a range of landscapes and stories. From the volcanic wonders of Crater Lake to the underground mysteries of Lava Beds and the deep-rooted history of the region, Klamath is the ideal base for a multi-park adventure.
While national parks often steal the limelight, Oregon's State Parks offer experiences that rival their more famous counterparts. Imagine kayaking through serene springs, the water's surface mirroring the sky, or cycling the OC&E trail, feeling the rush of wind as nature blurs past. For history enthusiasts, the Logging Museum offers a deep dive into Oregon's timber heritage. These state parks are not just stops on an itinerary; they're destinations in their own right. So, as you plan your Klamath adventure, add these National-Park-equivalent experiences to your list. Dive deeper, explore, and let Oregon's State Parks surprise you.