The history of the Crater Lake National Park rim drive

It is probable that the first time any men saw Crater Lake, they were captivated by the breathtaking beauty of the sapphire blue lake over a thousand feet below. When it became a United States national park though, there was a problem. There were no roads into the park and getting to the point where the lake could be viewed was a tortuous climb. People with vision foresaw a time when people could circle the lake, at the rim. This was the thought behind the rim drive.

Access to the park

Before building what is now the spectacular rim drive, the park first needed road access. This was built originally as a narrow dirt and gravel road. There were few cars at the time, so this was adequate. The next step, though, was to build a road to the rim. This was more problematic since the last few miles were very steep. 

Working the last miles

The last few miles didn’t come easily and weren’t done quickly. Rock was blasted away and men with shovels did a huge amount of work, manually. Teams of horses and mules were enormously important in moving material. Switchbacks were built to get right up to the rim, to the spot where the Crater Lake lodge is presently located. 

Working the rim

In order to build a road all the way around the rim, the proposed roadway had to be leveled off, then gravel had to be laid down. The pumice around part of the lake was too light, making it necessary to haul harder and heavier gravel to where it was needed. Trees also needed to be removed. Though the distance around the lake isn’t great, the task of putting in the road was monumental.

This isn’t just because of the effort that had to go into the construction, but also because while rim drive was being made, crews worked hard to cause as little destruction to the environment and scenery as possible. This means that it often took longer to work a segment of the road than it otherwise would have. Additionally, the work could only be done during the short summertime, when the area wasn’t covered with snow.

In some areas, trees were even planted in order to maintain the soil on either side of the road. Today, some of these trees are enormous and give the illusion of having been there since the beginning, though they weren’t.


Along the way, the road included numerous viewpoints, where people can see beautiful and remarkable vistas. Today, these are bordered by native rock and cement guard rails. During the building of the rim drive however, large boulders were most often used. This necessitated not only leveling the pull-outs, but transporting huge rocks so they could be placed close enough together to form a barrier, for the protection of visitors.

Road widening

Once the road was put in, it was quite narrow. Cars were more common by then, but it was difficult for two vehicles to pass one another. The park service set to widening the roadway. Though this was easier than it had originally been to put in the road, it still required a huge amount of work. More area needed to be leveled and more gravel had to be hauled. At this point, the access was still a gravel road.

Paving and maintenance

The paving of the rim drive was one of the finishing touches made. It is a mistake to think that the process is complete though. Yearly maintenance must be done on the road to keep it in good shape. Snow and ice take their toll on both the road and viewpoints. Still, the paving of the roads made snow removal easier and the road surface was kinder to the vehicles of visitors. As put by a former roads and trails foreman at the park, “The two biggest responsibilities we have are snow removal and road repair. Three quarters of our time is spent doing one or the other. Thank goodness for asphalt, though. Otherwise, there would be no time or funds to do anything else.”

The rim drive took decades to complete and it still isn’t totally done. Work continues, both to make it more comfortable for park visitors and to allow people to enjoy the tremendous beauty the park has to offer. Time should be taken to appreciate the enormous amount of work that had to be done, under grueling conditions, to allow people to drive around the lake though. It wasn’t easy and is a testament to the dedication and willpower of those endeavoring to make Crater Lake one of the most scenic parks there is.

Additional resources:

Rim Drive Cultural Landscape Report, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon by Stephen R. Mark and Jerry Watson