TRAIL TIPS // CAMPING

Crater Lake Backcountry Camping for PCT Hikers

This summer, Crater Lake NP (CRLA) is changing their backcountry camping regulations. With two of the park’s five designated camp areas closed due to fire damage and/or tree hazards, the remaining camps are being reserved for park visitors only. PCT hikers are being asked to exercise dispersed Leave No Trace camping in permissible areas (see map). If a trip through CRLA is on your itinerary as part of a PCT section- or thru-hike, consider these strategies for ease of travel through the park. See more about the park’s backcountry camping and permit changes HERE.

NOTE: If you’re using the Hiking the PCT: Oregon guidebook to plan your trip, these suggestions supersede what’s recommended in the latest edition.

Northbound PCT Hikers

The following recommendations are for the traditional northbound PCT route. The options include a PCT-only route, and the alternate Rim Trail route. Both recommendations presume a departure from Mazama Village, as this is a popular resupply and overnight destination for PCT hikers, as well as a common launch point for those starting PCT section-hikes. If you’re coming in from places farther south and plan to just breeze through the village, you will need to adjust these itineraries accordingly. Whether you’re passing through, or just beginning your hike, be sure to sign the trail registers at the park’s boundaries when you enter and/or exit.

PCT Only Route »

From Mazama Village, Day 1: Hike the Annie Spring Trail 1 mile north to the PCT. Continue north on the PCT for approximately 16.5 miles to Red Cone. Much of this area has burned in recent years, but water can usually be acquired at Dutton, Bybee and Copeland Creeks. Find dispersed dry camping around the north side of the cone. Stay at least 1 mile from the park’s north entrance road and the Red Cone trailhead. Day 2: Continue hiking the PCT north for another 10 miles to exit the park at OR-138. Across the highway, there are campsites near the North Crater junction; Thielsen Creek Camp is another 8 miles north.

For those on a lower mileage itinerary, you can split the distance between Mazama Village and Red Cone in half by camping a night near the Copeland Creeks. Try to find a site in green forest, and not in recent burn areas. The nearby Bybee Camp is reserved for stock users only.

PCT + Rim Trail Route »

From Mazama Village, Day 1: Hike the Annie Spring Trail 1 mile north to the PCT. Continue north on the PCT for 1.3 miles to the Dutton Creek Trail. Turn onto this trail and climb 2.5 miles to Rim Village. Tank up with water at the Village, as there’s none northward for 26 miles (see water advisory below). Hike the Rim Trail clockwise 10 miles to the PCT junction just north of Grouse Hill. With the Grouse Hill Camp now reserved for park visitors, turn onto the PCT and hike approximately 1.5 miles west (PCT southbound) to find dispersed dry camping near Red Cone. Day 2: Backtrack on the PCT northbound to the Rim Trail junction, then continue north on the PCT for 9 miles to exit the park at OR-138.

For a more leisurely hike, you can split the hike around the rim in half. Just south of The Watchman, 2.5 miles north of Rim Village, descend the Lightning Spring Trail for 1 mile below the road. Find dispersed camping near Lightning Spring Camp. PCT hikers should leave the designated sites for park visitors, but can access the spring for water refills. The next day, retrace your steps back up to the Rim Trail and continue onward.

NOTE: In previous years, a convenient option was to catch a ride on the Crater Lake Trolley from Mazama Village to Rim Village. This saved time, and a big climb. This year however, the trolley will not be running due to the current pandemic situation. 

Crater Lake Backcountry Camping Zone

Crater Lake’s backcountry regulations require all dispersed camping to be at least 1 mile from any park road, and at least 100 feet from any trail, water source or meadow. Camping on the Crater Lake rim is strictly prohibited (see map). All backcountry campers should exercise Leave No Trace practices, and use extreme caution with stoves and campfires (when permitted). More info at CRLA.

Crater Lake backcountry camping zone map. Click for full size.

Southbound PCT Hikers

For southbound PCT hikers, chances are you’ll be coming from either the Theilsen Creek Camp in the Mt. Thielsen Wilderness, or launching from the North Crater Trailhead near OR-138. When you reach the park boundary, be sure to sign the trail register as you enter. After about 9 miles you also get to choose between the PCT-only route, or the alternate Rim Trail route. The former has more access to water, the latter offers all the views.  

PCT Only Route »

From Thielsen Creek Camp, Day 1: Hike the PCT south for approximately 18 miles to Red Cone. Find dispersed dry camping at least 1 mile from the park’s north entrance road and Red Cone trailhead. Day 2: Continue south on the PCT for approximately 15.5 miles to the Annie Spring Trail. Along the way, water can be obtained at Copeland, Bybee and Dutton Creeks. Turn onto the Annie Spring Trail and descend 1 mile south to Mazama Village. 

From North Crater TH/OR-138, Day 1: Hike the PCT south for approximately 18.5 miles to the Copeland Creeks. Find dispersed camping at least 100 feet from trail, water and meadows. Look for sites in green forest, and not in recent burn areas. The nearby Bybee Camp is reserved for stock users only. Day 2: Continue south on the PCT for approximately 7 miles to the Annie Spring Trail; descend this way 1 mile to Mazama Village.

PCT + Rim Trail Route »

From Thielsen Creek Camp, Day 1: Hike the PCT south for approximately 18 miles to Red Cone. Find dispersed dry camping at least 1 mile from the park’s north entrance road and Red Cone Trailhead. Day 2: Backtrack on the PCT to the Rim Trail junction. Turn onto the Rim Trail and continue south 10 miles to Rim Village. Descend the Dutton Creek Trail for 2.5 miles to the PCT. Turn south on PCT for 1.3 miles to the Annie Spring Trail. Hike this trail 1 mile south to Mazama Village. 

From North Crater TH/OR-138, Day 1: Hike the PCT south for 9 miles to the Rim Trail junction. Turn onto the Rim Trail and continue south for 6.5 miles to the Lightning Spring Trail. Descend this trail for at least 1 mile from the road and find dispersed camping near Lightning Spring Camp (but not in the designated camp area). Day 2: Backtrack to the Rim Trail and follow the same directions as above to Mazama Village.

For shorter mile days, just cut any of long stretches above in half with an extra night in any of the recommended camp areas. Just remember to carry enough water to get you through.

Crater Lake Water Advisory

For PCT hikers traveling through CRLA, this can be one of the longest waterless stretches in Oregon. From Mazama Village, traveling northbound, hikers who stick with the PCT may have intermittent access to water for the first 10 miles. This usually includes Dutton, Bybee and Copeland Creeks; Red Cone Spring is no longer reliable. Beyond here, the next water source is 25 miles north at Thielsen Creek. For hikers opting for the Rim Trail route, there is no water for more than 26 miles, between Rim Village and Thielsen Creek—with the exception of a 2-mile (roundtrip) detour to Lightning Spring.

A few years ago, the park installed a bear box at the Red Cone Trailhead for hikers to self-cache water to help them get through the long, dry stretch. Local Trail Angels and volunteer groups have also set up water caches at Red Cone and near the North Crater junction to help out thirsty PCT hikers. While water caches can be a great resource when they’re available, remember that these caches are maintained by volunteers, they often have limited supplies, and they can run out at any time. PCT hikers should still plan to be self-sufficient and tank up with enough water to get through this stretch. Despite its higher elevation, CRLA can still be very hot and very dry through the summer months, so don’t risk dehydration.

Plan Your Hike

This summer, with changes to backcountry use guidelines, in combination with pandemic safety measures in some areas, it will take everyone’s cooperation to make the park safe and enjoyable for all. The best way to enjoy your visit is to be prepared. Andrew Hoeg, CRLA’s Trail Maintenance Supervisor, has the following suggestions:

  • Call backcountry offices, visitor centers and camp stores ahead of your park visit for the latest news and updates. You can also check CRLA’s online resources.
  • Be patient and courteous with fellow hikers and employees in the park.
  • Face masks and limited entry may be required in some park facilities.
  • Information and conditions can change at any time, so be prepared.

“We’re all trying to get through this together,” says Hoeg. “These are our public lands and we all have a duty to protect them.”

Eli "Lounger" Boschetto

Eli "Lounger" Boschetto

Eli is the founder of PCT: Oregon, and the author of three Mountaineers Books guides: Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon, Day Hiking: Mount Hood, and Urban Trails: Portland. He is also a brand ambassador for SPOT and National Geographic Maps, and is on the advisory council for the Oregon Trails Coalition. Eli lives in Portland, Oregon.

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