By Ryan Dawes

As the winter snowpack melts, thousands of summer visitors crowd Crater Lake National Park’s Rim Village and Drive. One of the park’s best attractions, however, is beyond the pavement.

Towering 800 feet above the pristine waters of Crater Lake, the Watchman Lookout Station offers prime vistas, a close-up view of Wizard Island, and a sweeping panorama of the Cascade Range. Built in the early 1930s entirely out of materials from the area, the station features exhibits of the park’s changing firefighting history and, during summers, the lookout is still used for fire watching.

“The Watchman is rather unique,” says Steve Mark, a Crater Lake National Park historian. “Not only is it a rustic lookout, but in a sense it is both functional and interpretive.”

At the base of the tower, signs explain the lookout’s history and also point to the nearby Cascade peaks, including the rugged spire of Mount Thielsen and, on clear days, as far as California’s mammoth Mount Shasta. From the tower’s viewing deck , a team of friendly rangers watch for forest fires and when they are outside, they’re happy to answer questions from visitors.

Reach the lookout tower by a 0.7-mile hike from the Watchman Overlook parking area, only 3.8 miles down Rim Drive from Rim Village. From the parking lot, an old dirt roadbed—part of the original Rim Drive—meanders through pumice fields toward the jagged Watchman Peak. This ancient lava flow, a high point on Crater Lake’s rim, survived Mount.Mazama’s cataclysmic collapse, which created Crater Lake’s caldera some 7,700 years ago.

After roughly a quarter of a mile, a narrower trail forks left and switchbacks up through windblown mountain hemlock and whitebark pine to the summit at 8,013 feet. Along the way, flat-topped cream-colored boulders make superb spots for rests and photo shoots. Wildflowers spring from the volcanic landscape in splashes of color: blue and white lupine, white-tufted Western pasqueflower, deep-blue penstemon, and pink phlox. Clark’s nutcrackers, chipmunks, and other small alpine wildlife provide company for hikers.

Unfortunately, the Watchman Lookout isn’t available for overnight rentals. However, nearby overnight options make up for it. The historic Crater Lake Lodge, open May through mid-October, offers a rustic atmosphere, stunning lake views, and a grand Great Hall with fireplace. For those preferring an outdoor setting, Crater Lake offers two developed campgrounds in the alpine forests south of the lake—the reservable Mazama Campground for tents and RVs and the no-reservations, tent-only Lost Creek Campground.

The park also hosts three restaurant options. Crater Lake Lodge offers fine dining made from local, gourmet ingredients. For lighter appetites, the Rim Village Café serves grab-and-go grub and, for a reasonably priced meal in a national park, Annie Creek Restaurant features a hearty breakfast menu, burgers, pizza, and a soup and salad bar.

After visiting the Watchman Tower, check out other activities including catching a boat to Wizard Island from Volcano Boat Cruises and exploring the emerging volcano, and taking a chilly swim in the lake itself at Cleetwood Cove. Or prime yourself by watching a short video on the lake’s violent formation at the Steel Visitor Center. For another adventure, hike Mount Scott, which at 8,929 feet claims the highest point on Crater Lake’s rim. The closed-to-the-public Watchman’s sister lookout tower perches here.

From unique vistas to a stunning history, the Watchmen Lookout Station offers an unforgettable experience that can only be found in Oregon.