There are several great viewpoints along the edge of the caldera to see Crater Lake, but the Watchman Peak Trail provides a great opportunity to see the lake from up high. The vantage point offered at this fire tower is reached after a moderate climb. The hike is not challenging, but the reward for those that make the trek up to the top is a great view with fewer crowds than the more traditional viewpoints that are reached by your vehicle.
The trail is 1.8 miles long (round-trip), and its moderate elevation gain of just 360 feet makes this a great trail for families who are able to hike but may not be up for the more challenging Mount Scott or Garfield Peak Trails.
Many people decide to see Crater Lake only from their car, but even if you aren’t an avid hiker, we highly recommend taking this trail to see the lake from an entirely different view!
WATCHMAN PEAK TRAIL DETAILS
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Distance: 1.8 miles (round-trip)
- Trail: Out-and-back
- Elevation gain: 360 feet
- Peak elevation reached: 8,013 feet
- Best time of year to hike: Early summer to late fall
- To beat the crowds: Arrive before 10:00 am or after 3:00 pm
- Footwear: Sneakers (hiking boots are recommended if hiking before the summer melt-off)
- Watch out for: Sun exposure
- Restrooms: Located at the trailhead, but not on the trail
- Pets: Not allowed
- Time needed: 75 minutes
While Crater Lake National Park may seem to be “just a lake”, there is so many options and vantage points to see and experience this amazing place. Make sure you review our downloadable Crater Lake National Park itinerary ahead of your visit. Cell phone service is not reliable (at all!) in the park, and having a hardcopy guide will really be handy! We also cover other tips, such as where to stay and what else to see while you are in the area.
PARKING AND TRAILHEAD FOR THE WATCHMAN PEAK TRAIL
Map of the Watchman Peak Trail parking area, courtesy of the National Park Service
The trailhead for the Watchman Peak Trail is easy to find, and if you go to the park it’s likely that you’ll pass right by the parking lot. Even if you only go to a small portion of the popular West Rim Drive, (which connects the Rim Village and the Park Headquarters to the North Junction), you will no doubt find yourself right near the trailhead!
The lot is shared with the Watchman Overlook parking area. If you want to leave the park from here, you can go right to the North Junction, the road leaves the park to the north.
The West Rim Drive is only open during the summer, as Crater Lake tends to get an enormous amount of snow. The good news is that it is not like the East Rim Drive, which opens up much later in the summer than the West Rim Drive. Be sure to check information about the latest Crater Lake Road Conditions ahead of your visit, just in case the snow is sticking around later than normal or perhaps it’s melted off a bit early.
- Directions from the Rim Village to the Watchman Peak trailhead (this is a short drive and will take only about 11 minutes, though traffic may take it up to around 15 minutes)
The parking area for the Watchman Peak Trail has room for about 30 cars. Since it is on a very popular stretch of road and at one of the most popular overlooks, the parking area is routinely full. However, there is parking along the West Rim Drive. While this will extend the hike a bit, you should be able to find a spot fairly easily.
There are restrooms at the trailhead. Since the trail is so short, there are no restrooms available while on the trail or at the watch tower.
WATCHMAN PEAK TRAIL: TRAIL SURFACE AND ACCESSIBILITY
- Trail surface. Most of the trail is packed dirt, though there is a small amount of stairs at the end as you approach the observation tower. If you hike this trail in July, it’s likely that you’ll encounter some snow in the early part of the trail (which only has northern exposure and sees limited sunlight until the middle of summer). Hiking shoes or boots are recommended if you are traveling during the early part of the summer.
- Accessibility. No portion of the trail is wheelchair accessible.
PREPARATION FOR HIKING THE WATCHMAN PEAK TRAIL
Since this is such a short hike, there really isn’t much preparation needed. Still, ahead of your journey there are a few things that may come in handy while out on the Watchman Peak Trail:
- Water. Since Crater Lake National Park is over 6000 feet in elevation and this trail goes above 8000 feet, you need to realize that the altitude may take a toll on how you feel. The best way of combatting this while still being active is to drink plenty of water.
- Trekking Poles. We normally don’t recommend using trekking poles for such an easy hike, but since there is the potential for snow, they may come in handy. Poles certainly help out with the knees on the way down in particular!
HIKING THE WATCHMAN PEAK TRAIL
Map of the Watchman Peak Trail, courtesy of the National Park Service
The Watchman Overlook is a must-do while you are here, but you have the option to check it out at the start of the hike or at the end. If you do the overlook, it won’t ruin the hike at all. We really recommend that if the overlook isn’t crowded, that you check it out. If there are a lot of people there, then hit the trail and check it out on the way back.
The trail starts on the southern side of the parking lot. The first 0.1 mile is along the road, though the trail that you walk on is actually off the road. Still, you should be careful and watch your children, as the trail is right near the road.
At the 0.1-mile point, the trail starts to ascend slowly along the north side of the Watchman Peak. This part of the trail is actually shared with the infamous Pacific Crest Trail. The Watchman Peak trail is an optional spur off the PCT, but many take it as the official trail heads to the west slightly and misses Crater Lake National Park altogether. If you happen to see any hikers that appear to be over-geared, then there is a decent chance they are on mile 1,825 of their journey from Mexican border to the Canadian border. Of course, if you are hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, this 1-mile diversion to the Watchman Peak fire tower is likely worth your time as well, though we can’t speak authoritatively on that since we’ve never hiked the PCT!
After you’ve been on the trail for 0.4-miles, the hike heads to the east. This is where the incline starts to get more noticeable. When the angle of the mountain is at its steepest, though, switchbacks start to help aid you in your journey up the mountain. There are eight such switchbacks in all. While the trees on this part of the trail are not tall, the white bark pines help break up the scenery and really make this part of the trail quite enjoyable.
At the top of the peak is the Watchman Peak Tower. This view, which is from the westernmost point of Crater Lake, is amazing. There is a clear shot of Wizard Island, which is also another great place to explore if you have the time. You can read about what to do on Wizard Island in our article on Wizard Island in Crater Lake National Park.
The tower was built between 1931 and 1933 for keeping an eye out for wildfires. You can read more about the Watchman Observation Tower in this article from the National Park Service.
After you get to the top, there is plenty of space to relax, though you may have to find a spot not on the observation tower platform since it can get tight here, depending on the time of year and time of day. This is a particularly great spot to go to see sunrise and also to stargaze in the late evening.
The hike back is quite easy and will go quickly, particularly since it’s all downhill. If you haven’t stopped off at the Watchman Overlook, make sure you do before you depart the area!
WATCHMAN PEAK TRAIL: TOP LIKES AND DISLIKES
- Amazing Views of Crater Lake. The view from the fire tower provides a different perspective of the lake that you just can’t see from any overlook accessible by car.
- Family Friendly. This hike is not easy, but if your kids can walk, then they can make it up this trail without too much complaining.
- Crowds. While the trail wasn’t too crowded, there were plenty of people in the parking area when we were there, and we had to contend with plenty of others on the trail. It was still a great experience, but just be advised that this is a very popular trail.
THINGS TO DO NEAR THE WATCHMAN PEAK TRAIL
This west side of Crater Lake National Park has a ton to do. We’re not going to list everything, but there are a few things that you should consider checking out while in the area:
- The Rim Village Visitor Center is definitely worth stopping in to ask questions of the rangers and also check out the concessions and clothing. There is also a small café.
- The Garfield Peak Trail is commonly considered to be the best hike in Crater Lake National Park. This 3.3-mile (round-trip) hike also has panoramic views of Crater Lake, along with Phantom Ship.
- We loved the lobby in the Crater Lake Lodge. This historic lodge has a wonderful look and feel to it, and the back porch has chairs to sit and look at the lake.
FURTHER INFORMATION ON CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK OR THE SURROUNDING AREA FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- Don’t forget to get a copy of our Crater Lake National Park Itinerary before you leave on your trip.
- We have several other blogs on Crater Lake, including our tips on how to see Wizard Island and one of the more unique hikes in the park, the Pinnacles Trail in Crater Lake.
- You should view our blog on Camping in Crater Lake National Park if you are planning on camping in the park.
- We have a large selection of national park posters, including our Crater Lake National Park poster.
- If you like vintage posters, then be sure to check out how you can make a custom, vintage-style travel poster from a photo that you send to us. We’d love to work with you!