Cleetwood Cove Trail and Boat Tour

Cleetwood Cove Trail and Boat Tour

Crater Lake National Park

Type: Out-and-back dayhike
Distance: 2.1 miles (3.4 km)
Cumulative Elevation Gain/Loss: 816 feet (249 m)
Date Visited: Sunday, July 30, 2017
Cleetwood Cove Trail Map (KTNP)

Planning and Disappointments

One activity we wanted to do in Crater Lake National Park was to get out on Crater Lake itself. The park does tours of the lake, and also has shuttles to Wizard Island. The island is a 316-acre landmass within Crater Lake and has several hiking trails. Months before our visit, we reserved tickets for the boat tour, including the Wizard Island shuttle.

Visitors can only get to the shoreline of Crater Lake via a steep 2.1 mile trail called Cleetwood Cove. It’s at the northern end of the lake and was constructed in 1962. The trail leads to a boat dock, as well as fishing and swimming areas. In the summer, the lake’s average temperature is 57 degrees Fahrenheit, and I planned to jump in.

When we travel, we typically plan detailed itineraries. Visiting Crater Lake National Park was one of few times when our plans went awry. And it started on day 1. This trip was back in 2017 when the park’s concessionaire was Xanterra. It’s now Aramark, so hopefully the issues we experienced have been resolved.

Crater Lake: Boat on Lake with Mt. Thielsen in background
A boat on Crater Lake with Mt. Thielsen beyond, taken from Garfield Peak Trail

Day 1 – Monday

After wrapping up a better-than-expected visit to Redwood National Park, we drove north to Crater Lake. Kristin was particularly excited about visiting Crater Lake, especially since we had scheduled our boat tour for the following day. But that soon turned to disappointment. A sign at the entrance kiosk stated that all boat tours were cancelled for the day. We asked the ranger at the entrance if he had any info – he didn’t. So we asked a Xanterra employee at Mazama Campground. He didn’t know either.

Concerned that our tickets would be cancelled, we drove up to Crater Lake Lodge. There, an employee told us the Wizard Island shuttles had been cancelled for the season. Since we had combined tickets for both the boat tour and Wizard Island shuttle, our tickets were also cancelled. We’d get a refund, but they didn’t know when lake tours would resume. Supposedly, we should have received a cancellation notice. We hadn’t.

Crater Lake: Front of Crater Lake Lodge
Arriving at Crater Lake Lodge

Day 2 – Tuesday

That morning, we woke up early, hoping the boats would be up and running. We went to Annie Creek to attempt to purchase any available lake tour tickets. A sign on the kiosk said that tours were cancelled for that day, too. We talked to two employees who didn’t know anything.

Next, we ran into the director of retail. He told us that the boats had been damaged over the winter due to a leak in the boathouse roof. With only one operational boat, they were unable to run tours. A repair tech was expected on Friday, (then three days out), so it was unlikely that boats would be running before then.

We headed to Crater Lake Lodge (one of few places we had a cell signal) to call Xanterra to ask about boat tour tickets for that Friday or Saturday. They couldn’t get us a reservation, but gave us another number to call. No one answered. Inside the lodge, an employee said there was a list of guests who would be given priority once the boats were up and running, if their tour had been canceled. We were skeptical, but put our names on the list anyway.

For the next few days, we routinely checked in with lodge employees, and were told various pieces of conflicting information. At least they tried to be helpful. In the meantime, we went to hike some nearby trails, like Boundary Springs and Mount Scott.

Crater Lake: View From Sinnott Overlook
Crater Lake and Wizard Island from Sinnott Overlook, near Rim Village

Day 6 – Saturday

On Saturday evening, we asked lodge employees about the boat tour status (again). We were finally told that boat tour ticket sales would resume the next day, but only for the standard lake tour. No shuttles to Wizard Island. Still, we were overjoyed! The downside was that tickets were only available the next morning at the trailhead of Cleetwood Cove, the trail that leads to the boat dock on Crater Lake.

Day 7 – Sunday

So excited, we woke up early to go get our tickets. As we headed out, we asked the lodge employees (who were starting to get to know us) if there were any updates. They told us that things had changed (surprise, surprise) and now there weren’t any tickets available. The tickets had gone to the people who had booked tours way in advance for that date. Like we had done for our original tickets.

Crater Lake: Boat Kiosk in Crater Lake Lodge
Signs on the boat kiosk in Crater Lake Lodge informed us that boat tours were combined – and tickets were not available

So we went back to our room and went to sleep. Just kidding. We were determined to get on a boat tour. We would at least hike Cleetwood Cove Trail and get a better view of the lake! Maybe glare at some of the folks who were lucky enough to have chosen this date for their tour months ago.

We arrived at the Cleetwood Cove trailhead around 8:15 a.m. The ticket kiosk is in a large parking lot across the street. At the kiosk, an employee reiterated that tickets were sold out. We spoke to the boat manager, who said the same thing. Many other visitors were there complaining, since tickets purchased the previous day were not being honored. It was very confusing!

This was our last day in the park; tomorrow we’d be driving to Bend, Oregon. I got the boat manager’s e-mail, in case tickets became available the following week when we’d still be in the area. With that, we decided to hike down Cleetwood Cove Trail. We had heard there was another kiosk at the bottom, so we figured it couldn’t hurt to check there as well.

Crater Lake: Kiosk at the top of Cleetwood Cove
Cleetwood Cove kiosk

Cleetwood Cove Trail

Okay, we’re done complaining for a bit. We started hiking down Cleetwood Cove Trail, a dusty series of switchbacks with great views of Crater Lake. Along the way were a few benches and trees for periodic shade. Sun exposure along the trail is pretty intense, especially as you get closer to the lake.

Since Cleetwood Cove Trail is the only access to Crater Lake, the trail was crowded. Hiking down is easy, but we tried not to think about the hike back up. As we descended, we saw the boat dock and other buildings below. The trail was named after a boat, called the Cleetwood, used to survey the lake in 1886.

Crater Lake: Cleetwood Cove Trailhead
Cleetwood Cove trailhead
Crater Lake: View of Lake from Cleetwood Cove Trail
Crater Lake from the trail
Crater Lake: Switchbacks on Cleetwood Cove Trail
One of the many switchbacks on the way to the lake
Crater Lake: Falling Rocks Warning Sign on Cleetwood Cove Trail
Falling rocks are possible given the steep terrain. Watch your step and stay on the trail.
Crater Lake: Boat dock from Cleetwood Cove Trail
First glimpse of the boat dock

When we reached the bottom, we headed straight for the ticket kiosk. There, we asked an employee if tickets were still available. Initially, she said no. After chatting more, she mentioned the possibility of getting on a tour if someone doesn’t show. So she could add our names to a waitlist, and we could purchase our tickets at 9:15 if there were at least two no shows.

If we purchased tickets, and the other party showed up at the last minute, their tickets would be honored, not ours. We went for it and asked her to add our names to the waitlist. After thanking her profusely, we walked over to the shore and watched people jump into the lake.

At 9:15, we returned to the kiosk, as our new friend had recommended. She asked us to wait as they checked everyone in. We waited…fingers crossed. And finally. Finally. Our persistence (and being annoying) paid off. Three people didn’t show up, so we were able to buy tickets! We boarded the boat, and nervously looked toward Cleetwood Cove Trail, hoping the original ticket purchasers weren’t coming down. They weren’t, and we were off!

Crater Lake: Cleetwood Cove Restrooms
Thankfully there are restrooms near the dock
Crater Lake: Popular Outcropping on Crater Lakeshore
A popular rock outcropping where visitors can jump into the lake
Crater Lake: Guests Getting on the Boat for a Tour
Visitors boarding the tour boat
Crater Lake: Boat Tour Tickets
The coveted boat tour tickets
Crater Lake: As the Boat Leaves the Dock
We actually made it onto the boat!

A Lake Tour

Finally, we were out on the lake…it was an ordeal to get there! The boat began its counter-clockwise circumnavigation of the lake, which would take two hours. We got to hear from Park Ranger Margaret, who provided historical and geological information about the lake and surrounding area.

A man named William Gladstone Steel campaigned for 17 years to persuade congress to designate Crater Lake as a national park. To promote the park, he gave features interesting names to attract tourists. Ranger Margaret pointed out a rocky ridge called Devil’s Backbone – a feature named by Steel. We saw other rock features named after an elephant’s trunk, a wine glass, and many other objects of our imagination.

The boat paused at various points, giving Ranger Margaret an opportunity to elaborate on the history and geology of the area. As the boat sped up to get to the next viewpoint, Ranger Margaret moved around and chatted with passengers. Turns out we grew up in the same area, near Roanoke, VA!

Crater Lake: Pulling Away From Boat Dock
This is the spot where the crazy people jump in
Crater Lake: Llao Rock
This prominent rock formation is Llao Rock, the highest point on the rim of the lake. It would make a great lookout, but it’s seasonally closed due to some unique and fragile plant species.
Crater Lake: Devil's Backbone
This vertical spine of rocks, called Devil’s Backbone, extends from the water’s edge to Crater Lake’s rim

As the boat traveled past the tree-covered Wizard Island, we caught a glimpse of a rocky beach and dock. We were tempted to jump in and swim for it. Like Devil’s Backbone, Wizard Island was named by William Steel to promote tourism. It’s the largest island in Crater Lake, and the only place you can swim other than the dock area at Cleetwood Cove.

Crater Lake is formed entirely by snowmelt – there are no streams, creeks, or rivers flowing into it. Ranger Margaret pointed out a landslide area that had formed a shelf above the lake, which collects snow during winter. As the temperature warms, it melts to form many beautiful waterfalls. When the boat slowed down, we could hear water cascading into the lake.

Crater Lake: Wizard Island from Boat Tour
Wizard Island…this is as close as we can get for now
Crater Lake: Waterfall Into Lake
One of many waterfalls due to snowmelt
Crater Lake: Lodge from Tour Boat
If you squint, you can see Crater Lake Lodge on the southern rim

We continued on to an island known as Phantom Ship. The boat sailed around the rocky yet colorful lichen-covered formation. As we went around it, we saw a rocky shelf in the water below us. Suddenly, the shelf dropped off into a dark blue expanse.

Ranger Margaret passed out a Secchi disk – a tool used to determine the visual clarity of the lake. Crater Lake is strikingly clear. And it’s so clean that you can drink the water without filtering. Ranger Margaret offered to fill up water bottles to drink directly from the lake. Sadly, we didn’t have any bottles with us, only hydration bladders in our backpacks. Next time…?

There are typically three boats that operate on Crater Lake, each named after a nearby river – Klamath, Umpqua, and Rogue. Today, only two were in service, one of which was on standby in case of an emergency. Also, capacity for each boat is limited to only 38 people.

As the boat arrived back at the harbor, we were satisfied, even though we didn’t make it to Wizard Island. It was amazing to see the lake from a different vantage point. The tour was very informative and we highly recommend it!

Crater Lake: Phantom Ship on Crater Lake
A rocky island known as Phantom Ship
Crater Lake: Shallow Waters Around Phantom Ship
Shallow water around Phantom Ship
Crater Lake: Phantom Ship with Wizard Island
Phantom Ship and Wizard Island
Crater Lake: Park Ranger Filling Water Bottles from the Lake
Ranger Margaret filling water bottles from the lake
Crater Lake: Departing the Tour Boat
Until next time

Swimming in Crater Lake

We decided to fully immerse ourselves in Crater Lake – literally. Lots of people were at Cleetwood Cove and many were in the water. I wanted to jump in, so we went to a small cliff by the restrooms where others were jumping off. We watched, as I mentally prepared. The 20 foot drop seems much greater when you’re up there, but I was determined.

I walked up to the cliff, and looked back at Kristin. Camera in hand, she nodded to indicate that she was recording. Looking down at the water, I was scared. But it was now or never. I jumped off the cliff. It was exhilarating in the air…and then the cold water shocked me as I plunged in. Underwater, I felt disoriented for a moment, since I had to keep my eyes closed so my contacts wouldn’t fall out.

Surfacing, I headed to shore. I looked up at Kristin. She yelled down to me, “it didn’t record – you have to do it again!” Everyone within earshot area laughed. She wasn’t joking. I got out of the water, slightly exasperated. I had to do it again. The second time was easier than the first, and I made sure water didn’t get into my nose this time.

Crater Lake: One of the Swimming Areas Around the Boat Dock
One of the swimming areas
Crater Lake: Travis Jumping into the Lake
I jumped in the lake…twice! And it was freezing both times.

Kristin’s turn. But she decided to wade in. She hates the cold, but turns out the water wasn’t as cold as she expected. Perhaps because she chose a shallow area? We dried off, and put on our boots to hike back up Cleetwood Cove Trail. The trail was grueling with switchbacks, elevation gain, and hot weather. Every so often we stopped at a bench to rest. You can equate hiking back up to climbing 65 flights of stairs.

When we got back to the parking lot, it was packed. Good thing we had gotten there early. And with that, our lake adventure was over. It was an experience – both the tour itself, and getting on the boat in the first place. Hopefully the change of concessionaires to Aramark has alleviated some of the communication issues. Someday, we’ll be back to visit Wizard Island.

Cleetwood Cove Trail itself wasn’t that interesting, but it boasts close-up views of Crater Lake. The Crater Lake tour was informative, breathtaking, and provided a perspective of the lake you can only get from a boat. We highly recommend it, if you can get tickets.

Crater Lake: Kristin Swimming in the Lake
Kristin waded into the lake
Crater Lake: Heading Back up Cleetwood Cove Trail
Time to head back up Cleetwood Cove Trail
Crater Lake: Bench on Cleetwood Cove Trail
A much-appreciated bench with shade along the trail

Cleetwood Cove Trail

Cleetwood Cove Trail Map (1:5,500)

Date: Sunday, July 30, 2017
Out and Back Dayhike
Total Distance:
2.1 miles (3.4 km) round-trip
Cumulative Elevation Gain/Loss:
816 feet (249 m)
Time: 20-25 minutes to descend, 30-35 minutes to ascend
Trail Markings: None
Difficulty: Easy on the way down, moderate on the way back
Crowds: Yes
Water: Crater Lake view and access
Highlights: Views, Swimming, Boat Tour, Unique Experience
Directions to Trailhead: Google Maps Directions

Trail Directions

  • Mile 0.0 – From the trailhead, follow the trail as it descends
  • 0.9 – You’ve reached the bottom. You can take a side trail to the dock, or continue to a swimming area.
  • 1.0 – The trail ends near the restrooms and swimming area. Jump in the lake (or watch others jump in), then head back up when you’re ready.
  • 2.1 – Back at the trailhead




Elevation Graph

Interactive Map

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