Crater Lake Changes Permit and Camp Requirements for PCT Hikers in 2021

Crater Lake National Park (CRLA) is one of Oregon’s most spectacular natural scenic wonders, and is a highlight of any Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hike across the state. The park is located in Oregon’s southern Cascade Mountains, sandwiched between two remote wilderness areas. While it is fairly easy to reach the park by road (via Roseburg or Medford from the west, or Bend or Klamath Falls from the east), hiking the PCT to the park requires multiday treks through either the Sky Lakes Wilderness to the south, or the Mount Thielsen Wilderness to the north.

Hiking the PCT in Crater Lake NP

From the park’s southern boundary to its northern boundary, the PCT winds for a little more than 33 miles through the western part of the park. Most of this route stays in the trees, within mid-elevations. This route affords few views, and does not climb to the rim of the crater. This is where most hikers opt instead to detour off the official PCT and hike the more scenic Rim Trail alternate route. It typically takes most hikers at least two days to traverse the park, regardless of which route is taken, and there are pros and cons for each.

For “purists” who choose to stick with the official PCT route, there is better access to water sources and camping locations. The downside to the PCT route is there are no views of the spectacular Crater Lake. In addition, much of the trail through this part of the park has burned in recent years, making the trek fairly bleak and uninspiring. Conversely, the Rim Trail offers plenty of gobsmacking views, plus access to the resources at Rim Village. Another bonus is that the Rim route is nearly 5 miles shorter than the PCT route. The Rim route however, has no water (except for the Village), and nowhere to camp.

Regardless of which route you opt for, this year the park has made a few changes to their backcountry regulations that will make some things a little easier—permit requirements—and some things a little more challenging—backcountry camping. These changes are largely dependent on how you’re hiking through the park, so read on to see what’s new and how it may affect your hiking plans.

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Backcountry Permit Changes

Typically, any overnight travel in CRLA’s backcountry requires a permit. This is in the form of a PCTA-issued long-distance permit (for PCT thru-hikers), or a park-issued backcountry permit (for PCT section-hikers and park visitor hikers). While PCT thru-hikers holding long-distance permits are permitted to proceed through the park uninterrupted, PCT section-hikers not holding long-distance permits have been required to detour off the trail and obtain a park backcountry permit. Since these permits are only available at the ranger station at the Steele Visitor Center, several miles from the PCT, this has been a time-consuming chore for section-hikers. However, that is changing this year.

For the 2021 hiking season, in adherence to COVID safety measures, the park is not requiring any hikers passing through the park on the PCT to detour for a backcountry permit. Instead, park officials are simply asking all hikers (section- and thru-) passing through to simply sign the trail registers as they enter and/or exit the park. These registers are found near the park’s boundaries with the Sky Lakes Wilderness (south entry) and OR-138 (north entry). Hikers passing through the park are also allowed to camp in the backcountry, sans permits, following the park’s camping regulations (see next).

The only hikers that are still required to obtain a backcountry use permit are those who plan on leaving a vehicle at a trailhead or other approved parking area inside park boundaries. The purpose is to register your vehicle with the park, and prevent it from being towed. This summer, these permits can be obtained at the self-service kiosk at the ranger station at the Steele Visitor Center on Munson Valley Road (OR-209).

Backcountry Camping Changes

In previous years, PCT section- and thru-hikers passing through CRLA had access to several designated backcountry camping locations. These were especially beneficial considering the park’s strict dispersed camping regulations. This year however, Dutton Creek and Red Cone Spring have been closed due to fire damage and/or tree hazards; Bybee Creek is designated for stock users; and Lightning Spring and Grouse Hill are being reserved for park visitors. Because of this, the park is now requesting that all PCT hikers exercise dispersed Leave No Trace camping in the park’s permissible areas (see map). “The purpose for this change,” says Kean Mihata, CRLA’s Chief Ranger, “is to try to minimize user conflicts.”

For PCT hikers sticking with the official route, this is not such a big deal. Hikers can plop their tent down just about anywhere between Dutton Creek (PCT mile 1823) and Red Cone (PCT mile 1838). The park still requires any site selected to be at least 100 feet from any trail, water source or meadow. But for Rim Trail hikers, who relied on the Lightning Spring and Grouse Hill locations, this presents an additional challenge. Because CRLA prohibits camping on the Rim, PCT hikers opting for this route must descend below the Rim, and be at least 1 mile from any park roads.

Andrew Hoeg, CRLA’s Trail Maintenance Supervisor suggests finding dispersed campsites in the woods nearby Lightning Spring or Grouse Hill, or anywhere along the PCT, but leaving the designated sites in the camp areas for park visitors. “PCT hikers should be pretty used to dispersed camping,” says Hoeg. “So we don’t expect that this new requirement will be too much of an inconvenience.” When choosing a campsite, Hoeg also suggests avoiding areas that have recently burned, as these areas may not be safe. For more information about backcountry camping at Crater Lake, visit the CRLA backcountry page.

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

Backcountry Camping Recommendations

If you’re planning on passing through Crater Lake NP this summer as part of a PCT section- or thru-hike, CLICK HERE for hiking strategies to help you follow the park’s new PCT camping requirements.

Prepare for Your Visit

In addition to the permits and backcountry camping changes this year, visitors to CRLA should be aware of a few other changes, namely due to ongoing pandemic safety precautions. As of this posting, most of the park’s visitor facilities and campgrounds are still closed in winter mode. Some of these are scheduled to reopen in some capacity as the summer season approaches. It is expected that the Mazama Village store and hiker’s camp will be open this season. The Crater Lake Trolley will not be running this year. As required by both state and federal guidelines, face masks and social distancing may be required in some park areas and facilities.

Hoeg suggests that visitors call ahead (backcountry offices, visitor centers and camp stores), and check CRLA’s conditions page for the latest news and updates. If planning a visit or hike later in the season, check back occasionally as operating conditions may change at any time. “Please be patient and courteous with fellow hikers and employees in the park,” Hoeg asks. “We’re all trying to get through this together.”

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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