Located along the west side of Crater Lake, this reasonably short, and only slightly strenuous, hike takes you to a fantastic view of the lake — and especially, Wizard Island. As a bonus, there’s an historic fire tower at the top.
I was visiting Crater Lake in late September, and I knew I was pushing the limits of the summer season. So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that, the day before my arrival at Crater Lake, a very generous snowstorm hit. West Rim Road was closed for the first day, and it wasn’t until the second day that I could get to the Watchman Trail.
And guess what? They may have plowed the road, but they didn’t plow the trail. So, if I was going to hike it, I would have to deal with some snow.
The trail begins, just south of the parking area. When there’s no snow, I’d imagine that you could stay off the road to hike here. On this day, however, it was easier to walk on the edge of the road until I got to this sign. From here, the trail parallels the road for a few hundred feet, before it turns around the side of the hill.
As you can see on the sign, it’s a 7/10 of a mile trail, one way, to the fire tower. Trudging through snow seems to multiply that number. Fortunately, a few other crazy people had already attempted the hike, which meant I had some hard-packed footprints to follow.
As soon as the trail split away from the road, I was surrounded by a quiet, peaceful winter wonderland. Walking through a perfect winter scene like this one helps you forget the cold.
If I had been the first person up this trail, I’m not sure I could have followed it. Those footprints were greatly appreciated.
There’s no mistaking it — when you get here, you’ve reached your destination. Go ahead and climb up to the observation deck…
… for a fantastic view of Crater Lake.
You can also sneak a peek inside. The old Watchman Peak fire lookout tower was built in 1932, and is still used during the fire season. Sadly, you’re not allowed to duck inside to escape the howling wind.
From the observation deck, you’ll enjoy a fine view of the road, down below. The parking area is just out of the frame, on the right.
Looking straight down, you’ll have an unobstructed view of Wizard Island — the volcanic cone in the middle of Crater Lake. During the summer months, you can take a boat over to the island, and hike to the top of the cone. Those boats stopped running in mid-September, just a couple of weeks before I arrived.
You might want to bring along a wide-angle lens to get the entire lake in one shot.
If it has snowed recently, you’ll gain an appreciation for the harsh elements which the lookout must endure. It simply gets blasted by ice and snow…
… leaving every corner frosted and frozen.
I was feeling frosted and frozen after a short while at the lookout structure. I quickly learned the spots that were shielded from the biting wind. I took shelter against a wall for a few minutes, giving my fingers a chance to warm up, before heading down the trail again.
This is the final stretch. The road is to the left, and the parking area is directly ahead.
If you don’t feel like hiking up to the Watchman tower, or the snow is too deep, you can always enjoy a nice view from the viewpoint adjacent to the parking area.
Wizard Island is not quite as perfectly unobstructed here, but you’ll probably be satisfied.
The Bottom Line
At just 7/10 of a mile (one way), and just about a 300-foot elevation gain, the hike up The Watchman is well worth the effort. If there’s no snow, it will be easy. If there’s a moderate amount of snow, and a few people have gone ahead of you, this trail is still hike-able.
The Watchman Trail is located along West Rim Drive — if this portion of the loop road is closed by snow, then you’ll have to cross-country ski to get here. Keep in mind, Crater Lake receives a massive amount of snow, and the loop road may not open until mid-summer, and can close again in mid-fall.
If you’re lucky, and the road is open, head north from Rim Village. Just before you’ve traveled 4 miles, watch for a parking area on the right. It has some very noticeable wood fencing. The Watchman Trail begins at the south end of this parking area, and parallels the road on which you just arrived.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video tour of the Crater Lake area: