National Park Service
Crater lake Phantom Ship
Design and Construction of Circuit Roads
Construction of Rim Drive
Other Designed Features along Rim Drive
Postwar Changes
Design and Construction of Approach Roads
Construction and Use of Other Roads

History of Rim Drive
Crater Lake

Taken from Pumice Castle Overlook (formerly "Cottage Rocks" substation) on East Rim Drive. Cloudcap is the highest point at right.


Located in south central Oregon, Crater Lake National Park embraces a portion of the Cascade Range. The park's main feature, Crater Lake, is the deepest volcanic lake in the world. Framed by jagged, steep-walled cliffs of a caldera produced by the climactic eruption and collapse of Mount Mazama approximately 7,700 years ago, Crater Lake is renowned for both its clarity and intense blue color. The rim rises anywhere from 500' to almost 2,000' above the lake's surface, creating a spectacular visual effect.

Crater Lake National Park was established in 1902 and has been expanded twice from the original 156,902 acres reserved for the "protection and preservation of the game, fish, timber, and all other natural objects therein." It currently encompasses 183,224 acres and ranges from the summit of Mount Scott at 8,929' above sea level to a point on the park's southwest corner where the elevation is 3,980'. About 80 percent of the park area is formally recommended as wilderness, though one legislative proposal submitted in 1994 supported wilderness designation for 97 percent. The latter includes all but a small buffer around the developed areas and roads currently in use during the summer season.

More than three-quarters of the total number of park visitors come during the four summer months (June, July, August, and September). Annual totals reached a plateau of a half million in the early 1960s and have remained around that figure ever since, though these numbers can fluctuate as much as 20 percent from one year to the next. A majority of summer visitors make their first trip to the park, but the time spent within its boundaries averages just four hours. Visitor services and access are restricted during the winter months, when snow removal operations are necessary to maintain a road connection from the west or south entrances to an observation point at Rim Village. Winter weather over this period of eight months thus forces closure of roughly two-thirds of the park's road system.

Circuit Roads

Route 7 — Rim Drive

Encircling much of the caldera rim is a scenic, two-lane road extending a little more than 29 miles from the main visitor use area at Rim Village to Park Headquarters in Munson Valley. Linking the two developed nodes is an approach road (Route 4) that extends for about 3 miles so motorists can drive a full circuit during much of the summer season. The entire loop is below timberline, but remains above 6,500' in elevation. Past volcanic activity made for predominately poor soils whose productivity is also limited by drought conditions in summer. Stands of subalpine conifers (mountain hemlock, Shasta red fir, and whitebark pine) appear in varying density and can be interspersed with largely barren pumice fields. The loop avoids repetition by offering different views of Crater Lake from parking areas developed for that purpose and alternating them with glimpses of the hinterland. Rim Drive's presentation of the lake and surroundings has been successful enough for the American Automobile Association to name it among the ten most beautiful roads in the nation.

Discovery Point
Interpretive marker at the Discovery Point parking area.

Beginning at its junction with the main roadway through Rim Village, where signs notify motorists of the 35 miles per hour speed limit, Rim Drive heads west on elongated curves for just over a mile before the first large parking area is encountered near Discovery Point. Masonry guardrails, whose otherwise monotonous line is punctuated by crenulations at regular intervals, provide a safety barrier at most of the developed viewpoints and in many places along the roadway where there is danger of vehicles falling down steep banks. It is almost 5 miles from the Discovery Point Overlook to the next junction with an approach road, and motorists pass over a summit at 7,350' in between these points. The parking areas along what is called "West Rim Drive" are more heavily used during the summer months than elsewhere on the circuit, largely because this road segment serves as a through route for visitors who use the north entrance.

Commencing at the junction with the North Entrance Road is the "East Rim Drive," which extends for 23.18 miles before it terminates at Park Headquarters. Motorists begin by climbing to traverse the back of Llao Rock, going more than 2 miles beyond the road junction for their next glimpse of Crater Lake. Viewpoints along this northern section are not generally crowded, though traffic congestion is often acute in the vicinity of Cleetwood Cove. This is where motorists leave their vehicles, and pedestrians try to cross the roadway so they can access a trail leading to the lakeshore.

North Junction
Looking south to the North Junction parking area with Hillman Peak in the distance.

Aside from the Cleetwood Cove vicinity, that portion of East Rim Drive between "North Junction" and the spur road to Cloudcap boasts a greater variety of shoulder and slope treatments than elsewhere on the circuit. Not only are the remnants of the earlier Rim Road better hidden through planting and some regrading, but also some cut slopes in this section were covered with layers of dark soil to reduce scarring that could be seen at a distance. This part of Rim Drive also retains some original paved ditches connected to drop inlets for cross drainage. These features reflect thinking by designers during the late 1930s who believed that the road's subgrade should not be exposed to spring runoff from snowmelt.

A series of seven "parking overlooks" begin roughly midway between North Junction and Cloudcap. These retain almost all of their stone masonry and a good deal of the planting done in the 1930s to "naturalize" what in essence serves as a foreground to the visual spectacle of Crater Lake. The first overlook is located above Grotto Cove, about halfway around the lake from Rim Village. It, like the other overlooks, features masonry guardrail, stone curbs, and planting islands used as a traffic separation device. The next parking overlook is less than a half mile from Grotto Cove, at Skell Head, and is followed by five more (Cloudcap, Cottage Rocks, Sentinel Point, Reflection Point, and Kerr Notch) over the next 7 miles. Each provides distinctly different views of Crater Lake, while the intervening roadway also allows for impressive vistas that include Mount Scott and the Klamath Marsh.

Visitors catch their last look at the lake from Rim Drive at Kerr Notch, located some 21 miles from where they began their circuit at Rim Village. The remaining stretch of road, however, cuts across the precipitous face of Dutton Ridge before it offers an expansive view of the Klamath Basin from near the road summit. Rim Drive then descends toward Sun Notch, where a short trail goes to another viewpoint where the lake can be seen, before following along the outer edge of Sun Meadow to a parking area in front of Vidae Falls. The falls are a cascade about 100' high, but motorists pause at a parking area built as part of a large fill that covers the lower part of the cascade. A few visitors take the short access road below the falls to a picnic area, which also contains a trailhead to a cinder cone called Crater Peak.

The remaining 2.5 miles of Rim Drive from Vidae Falls do not allow for motorists to pull over and examine an impressive subalpine forest of large trees, but some stop at the parking area for the Castle Crest Wildflower Garden. There is a profuse display of flowering native plants in this wetland during July and August, made by a short path. Rim Drive terminates less than a half mile from the parking area, at its junction with the Munson Valley Road near Park Headquarters.

Approach Roads

Route 1 — West Entrance Road

West Entrance
Superintendent Dave Canfield and a new entrance sign, 1936. NPS photo by George Grant.

Extending from the western boundary of the park to the road junction at Annie Spring, this segment of a state highway leading to Medford and the Rogue Valley is 7.7 miles long. This asphalt road consists of two lanes, each of them measuring 10' wide, not including the shoulder. Signs notify drivers of the 45 mph speed limit on both ends of this road, but numerous and relatively short curves make it difficult to maintain that speed for any appreciable distance. The slowest section is just over a mile from the Annie Spring junction, in an area misnamed the "corkscrew," where a reverse curve allows motorists to climb or descend the Cascade Divide.

The West Entrance Road possesses few stopping places or parking areas, even in comparison to other approach routes. With the numerous curves and forested roadside demanding the motorist's attention, some visitors remain unaware they are in the park until reaching the entrance station located next to the road junction at Annie Spring. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) nevertheless crosses the roadway within a mile of the junction and a sign points to an adjacent unsurfaced parking area for trail users. Heading west from the PCT crossing, drivers have virtually nowhere to park alongside the roadway for about 5 miles until a paved pullout delineated with bituminous curb called "Elephant's Back" is reached. It permits those who stop on either side of the road to see where the canyons created by Castle Creek and Little Castle Creek meet. A half mile to the west is another paved pullout overlooking Castle Creek Canyon that once served as the park's west entrance before boundary expansion in 1980. The pullout features a vault toilet and information kiosk installed during 2001. Visitors can also stop at the current west entrance a little less than a mile further on, where a sign built in 1998 replicates a rustic log structure erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935.

The lodgepole pine and Shasta red fir are densely stocked along this route, so most visitors rarely see more than the road prism while traveling. Elephant's Back furnishes something of an exception, since the canopy is open enough to indicate the expanse of a stream canyon just a short distance beyond the parking area. Some visitors notice the outline of Castle Point, a prominent feature seen as an outline through the "dog hair" stands of lodgepole pine, while driving in either direction a short distance east of Elephant's Back. From there toward Annie Spring the forest canopy is dense and largely closed, though a portion of Whitehorse Bluff can be seen before climbing the divide on the reverse curve.

Route 2 — South Entrance Road

This portion of Highway 62 links the road junction near Annie Spring with the park's south boundary, a distance of 10.24 miles. It is an asphalt road consisting of two lanes with shoulders and posted at 45 mph, but elongated curves and greater sight distance in comparison to the West Entrance Road encourage motorists to go consistently faster than the speed limit. There is ample opportunity for visitors to stop and view the stream canyon formed by Annie Creek that cuts through pumice and ash ejected by Mount Mazama during its climactic eruption. Within a mile of the road junction at Annie Spring is the Godfrey Glen Overlook, a paved parking area separated from the canyon's edge by masonry guardrail. The "glen" is where headwater streams join erosional remnants called "pinnacles," which occur along the edges of the canyon and can be seen downstream near several other parking areas.

Some separation from the road can be found in any of the three picnic areas on this route. Less than 2 miles south of Godfrey Glen Overlook is the first picnic area, one largely bereft of scenic vistas but located directly across the road from a trailhead leading to Pumice Flat and Union Peak. Two miles further south is a picnic area where Annie Falls can be seen from the southern end of a short loop road. Across the canyon is Crater Peak, a feature easily seen from the highway by looking east. The last picnic area is set amid a forest dominated by ponderosa pine and conifers such as Douglas fir, sugar pine, and white fir. It contains a vault toilet and information kiosk completed in 2002, with only a short walk down slope from these facilities required for visitors to reach Annie Creek.

The last picnic area, one located less than a half mile from the park's south entrance, is the only place motorists can stop within the so-called "panhandle," an area transferred from an adjoining national forest in 1932. The size of what amounts to a road corridor, it extends for 2.3 miles and contains large trees that arguably provide the most impressive portal for visitors entering the park. Just over 3 miles from the boundary, however, the ponderosa pine quickly gives way to more monotonous lodgepole pine and some mountain hemlock. These tree species, along with an occasional western white pine, line the roadway toward the Annie Spring junction, though not so oppressive that they keep motorists from the occasional glimpse of features like Crater Peak.

Routes 3 & 4 — Munson Valley Road

From the Annie Spring Junction this road runs north to the junction with Rim Drive at Park Headquarters (Route 3), and then to Rim Village (Route 4). The two-lane asphalt road averages 24' in surfaced width (including shoulders) and measures 7.06 miles in length. It is posted at 45 miles per hour like both parts of Highway 62 within the park, but there are two long tangents where vehicle speeds often exceed the posted limit. A long spiral curve at grade less than 2 miles from Annie Spring counteracts the tendency to go faster than the speed limit for a short distance, as do a series of shortened curves above Park Headquarters that allow motorists to enter or exit the upper end of Munson Valley.

Route 3 contains the only bridges in the park, starting with a wooden span about 40' over Annie Creek, and located just a short distance from the spring. It and the bridge over Goodbye Creek, 1 mile to the north, were the first glue-laminated spans in any unit of the National Park System when constructed in 1955 and 1956. The Goodbye Creek Bridge is 70' high and measures 218' abutment-to-abutment (see HAER No. OR-107A). Two parking areas on the north side of this bridge form the Goodbye Creek Picnic Area, though the stream separates one set of tables from the other. Both parking areas are delineated with bituminous curb, as are eight roadside pullouts along Route 3.

Although Route 4 is roughly the same length as Route 3, it contains more curves of short radii in having to pass from Munson Valley to Rim Village, and is effectively part of Rim Drive in that it allows motorists to complete a full circuit. Roadside slopes on Route 4 are banked to achieve a rounded appearance, though the vegetation on them is often sparse due to frequent rock fall. Several drop inlets with stone masonry faces are the means of facilitating cross drainage in the steep sections, especially near Munson Springs. The road reaches Munson Ridge (the Cascade Divide) about a half mile beyond the springs and runs largely on contours to Rim Village. One short curve near the village can surprise motorists if they are traveling above the posted speed of 35 mph, not far from where many of them obtain their first glimpse of Crater Lake at the road junction with Rim Drive.

The two parts of the Munson Valley Road provide a dramatically different experience for visitors in terms of what they can see. Large mountain hemlocks and Shasta red fir line the roadside of Route 3, but the absence of understory vegetation provides filtered views into the forest. A parking area separated from the road a short distance uphill from Goodbye Creek allows visitors to leave their cars for a 1 mile walk called the Godfrey Glen Trail, a path that provides them with dramatic views of Annie Creek Canyon not seen from the road. Steep slopes and distant ridgelines are pervasive over most of Route 4, with Castle Crest (a massive ridge below Garfield Peak) dominating the scene above Park Headquarters. As motorists climb toward Rim Village, views of the Klamath Basin and major peaks to the south can be seen.

Route 5 — East Entrance Road

What was once one of the major approach roads in the park is now limited to connecting Kerr Notch on the East Rim Drive with the renowned "pinnacles" on Wheeler Creek. Motorists descend 5.9 miles on a two-lane asphalt road averaging 18' in surfaced width and then have to turn around at a parking area placed for viewing the pinnacles. Visitors have the opportunity to walk another half mile on a trail from the parking area to the actual east entrance. The through route was discontinued in 1956 after traffic there had fallen to less than 4 percent of all park visitors. Much of the decline stemmed from a relocation of Highway 97 from the Sun Mountain vicinity some distance to the east in 1949. This came after the opening of two major state highways across the Cascades nine years earlier made travel through the park's north entrance far easier than it had been previously.

The East Entrance Road runs immediately below the East Rim Drive for its first mile, with damage to the pavement evident due to falling rock from Dutton Ridge. This route is at a virtual tangent for the next 2 miles, until it reaches the road junction at Lost Creek Campground. The road closely follows Sand Creek for another mile or so, before veering south to Wheeler Creek and its pinnacles. Partial views of both stream canyons can be obtained in a few places, breaking the monotony imposed by thick stands of lodgepole pine. Once motorists turn around, they have the option of returning to Kerr Notch and rejoining Rim Drive or taking the unpaved "Grayback Road" (Route 6) west to Vidae Falls at Lost Creek Campground.

Route 8 — North Entrance Road

From the Diamond Lake (North) Junction on Rim Drive, the North Entrance Road runs 9.2 miles north to meet state highway 138. It is a two-lane road averaging 24' wide, not including a shoulder 3' in width on each side. Much of the road has a higher posted speed (55 miles per hour) than anywhere else in the park, commencing at a point 2.5 miles below the rim. This is due to a relatively straight alignment with no real curvature. Total relief on this road is about 1,000', half of which is traveled in the first 2 miles below the North Junction.

Open pumice fields and features like Red Cone (7363'), Bald Crater (6478'), and Grouse Hill (7412') dominate the panorama as visitors descend from the rim and head north. Thick stands of lodgepole pine obscure distant views after the first mile, though the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the highway between Red Cone and Grouse Hill. Visitors enter the Pumice Desert another 2 miles north of the trailhead, and can stop at a paved parking area where the largely barren terrain resulting from the great eruption of Mount Mazama can be better appreciated. The road then disappears into the lodgepole pine forest less than a mile from the parking area on the Pumice Desert, and remains there until the road junction with Highway 138 is reached. There is one short break from the monotony, on a descent toward the entrance station, where part of Mount Thielson (9178'), a jagged peak located on the Umpqua National Forest, can be seen in the distance.

Other Roads

Route 6 — Grayback Road

This one lane secondary road averages just 12' wide over the 4.4 miles between Lost Creek Campground and the Vidae Falls Picnic Area, with the latter located just a quarter mile below Rim Drive. It is presently unsurfaced, though the remnants of past oil treatment can be seen in several places. Circulation on the Grayback Road is only in one direction (west), with the surface and curvature such that few vehicles can attain speeds greater than 35 miles per hour for even short distances.

A lodgepole pine forest dominating Lost Creek Campground quickly gives way to mountain hemlock and Shasta red fir as motorists cross over Lost Creek and begin climbing Grayback Ridge. They also cross Wheeler Creek (dry during summer) in less than a mile and have to negotiate several curves at grade before reaching points where Sun Creek Canyon, Crater Peak, and much of the upper Klamath Basin can be seen after 2.5 miles of travel. The descent toward Sun Meadow remains almost entirely in the subalpine forest, with limited views of the opening attainable where the road terminates at the picnic area.

Early Travel to Crater Lake

Mount Mazama's climactic eruption left an indelible impression on the region's native peoples, some of whom came to Crater Lake for spiritual and ceremonial purposes over the course of many centuries. The first recorded account, however, of reaching the rim came from a failed attempt by a party of would-be miners to locate a "lost" gold mine. They "discovered" what later came to be called Crater Lake on June 12, 1853, but failed to publicize the find from their home base of Jacksonville, the only town of any size in southern Oregon at the time, and one located about 60 miles southwest of the lake. Another group of miners reported seeing Crater Lake in the fall of 1862, though it hardly set off a barrage of publicity in the region's newspapers.

Fort Klamath — Jacksonville Wagon Road

What made the lake a destination for the comparatively few tourists of the nineteenth century willing to make the trip lasting two weeks or more was a road built to connect Jacksonville with an army outpost established in 1863 at the upper end of the Klamath Basin. One road across the Cascade Range near Mount McLoughlin became a tortuous second choice to a route located in 1865 that followed Annie Creek to a fairly gentle divide, and one leading down from the upper reaches of the Rogue River toward Jacksonville. Once soldiers began building this new road, two hunters hired to supply the company with meat saw Crater Lake and reported it to their commanding officer, Captain Franklin B. Sprague. He wrote to the Jacksonville newspaper about the find as part of publicizing construction of the new road to Fort Klamath. Sprague's letter focused on the locations of various camps along the road and estimated distances between them for the benefit of teamsters and others bound for the post, but he also described how his men were the first to reach the lakeshore.

A group led by the editor of the Jacksonville newspaper visited Crater Lake in 1869 and gave the lake its name after having used a canvas boat as the means to reach Wizard Island. The resulting publicity spurred subsequent visits by other tourists, though in numbers that rarely exceeded several hundred per season until the mid 1890s. They had access by way of the army's wagon road within 3 miles of the rim, and many followed another road blazed by the Sutton party up Dutton Creek to the site later known as Rim Village. The upper portion of the Dutton Creek road was one way, and for the last mile, those with wagons faced a situation as late as 1904, where: "One of the older boys or a man would ride to the top or come down from the top to make certain the trail was clear and then fire a signal shot for the wagon to come up or down. Wagons on the way down would tie a log to the back to serve as a drag."

Establishment of the park in May 1902 brought limited funding for road maintenance, but the first park superintendent, W.F. Arant, soon favored abandoning the road blazed by the Sutton Party and several miles of the wagon road built by the soldiers in 1865. Instead of having to climb this "almost impassable" road up Dutton Creek, Arant proposed veering away from it and then climbing to the drainage divide by means of a "corkscrew" so that visitors could go to the rim by way of Annie Spring and Munson Valley. He began building the new route in 1904 and continued with road construction over the next two seasons, yet the need for more improvements and repair of the wagon road elsewhere in the park were prominently featured in his annual report to the Secretary of the Interior in 1906. Much of the army's wagon road, in Arant's words: " never had any improvement work done upon it; it is washed out, is sliding, crooked, and rough."

Arant was able to do some additional repair and regrading of the wagon road built in 1865 before his tenure as superintendent ended in 1913, but funding from the Department of the Interior allowed for only a small number of laborers and horse-drawn equipment to be hired each year. As park visitation tripled from 1,400 in 1904 to 4,200 six years later, Arant observed how wagons and automobiles cut into the road surface, making it into a "very fine and deep dust." He recommended that the road be thoroughly sprinkled with water since the very dusty condition of this and other roads constituted "the most disagreeable feature of traveling in the park."

This "History of Rim Drive" is part of the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) study of Crater Lake National Park Roads, HAER No. OR-107. HAER (Eric DeLony, Chief) is a division of the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. This project was funded by the Federal Lands Highway Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation, through the NPS Park Roads and Parkways Program. Fieldwork, drawings, and photography were completed under the direction of Todd A. Croteau, Program Manager, and Tim Davis, Program Historian. The recording team consisted of field supervisor and historian Christian Carr (Bard Graduate Center) and architectural technicians Sarah Lehman (University of Oregon), Walton Stowell (SCAD Savannah, Georgia), and Simona Stoyanova (ICOMOS, Bulgaria). Jet Lowe of HAER produced the accompanying large format photography. Stephen R. Mark, Historian, produced the historical report, which was edited by Justine Christianson, HAER Historian.

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