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Exploring Crater Lake's Winter Wonderland 

From day trips to multi-day outings, what's on your bucket list?

A winter trip to Crater Lake National Park is one often filled with superlatives: Incredible. Awesome. Spectacular. Stunning. Bluebird days at the park represent a combination of these descriptors stacked atop each other—surely a Top-10 highlight for the year.

But with that high reward comes some risk, namely, just getting to the caldera's rim, and contending with storm clouds obscuring the lake.

A spectacular winter view across Crater Lake from the West Rim Drive. - DAMIAN FAGAN
  • Damian Fagan
  • A spectacular winter view across Crater Lake from the West Rim Drive.

Winter comes early to Crater Lake and tends to stay late. The first snows start in September and, generally, by November the park's 33-mile Rim Drive is shut down to vehicle traffic. The maintenance staff spends the following six months working hard at keeping access open, from the Annie Creek entrance on the park's south side up to Rim Village on the lip of the caldera, as well as Highway 62 that connects to Medford. The North Entrance is closed in winter.

The park averages 42 feet of snowfall a year and has been operating a weather station at Park Headquarters since 1931.

"We used to tell people the average annual snowfall was 44 feet, but that average has dropped over the past several decades," a park ranger told me.

Wintery bliss, nonetheless.

From Bend, a visit to Crater Lake can be done in a long day or as an easy overnighter with a stay in Chiloquin or Klamath Falls. The BIG challenge isn't necessarily planning ahead, it's how the current conditions will dictate your visit.

Park staff highly encourage visitors to check the park's website prior to any visit to review the Alerts & Conditions tab which provides up-to-date information on road conditions and weather, as well as the boilerplate information that the North Entrance is closed and that services in the park such as food, gas, and lodging are limited. Even if the forecast looks great, the main issue to check: Is the road open from the Visitor Center to the rim?

Skiers and snowshoers explore the winter wonderland in Crater Lake National Park. - DAMIAN FAGAN
  • Damian Fagan
  • Skiers and snowshoers explore the winter wonderland in Crater Lake National Park.

If the road is closed due to snow, snowshoers and skiers can take the Raven Trail, a 1-mile trail with around 630 feet of elevational gain, which connects the VC parking area to the rim. This trail crosses an avalanche run-out, so safety is advised when crossing, and it's marked with blue diamonds.

If the road is open, visitors can drive up and park at Rim Village (7,100 feet).

"There's about 5 feet up there right now," said Mark Cobb, owner of Sky Lakes Wilderness Adventures, who has led snowshoe trips into the park over the past three years. "There are three main trails that we take, depending upon the conditions." Besides the Raven Trail, Cobb takes his clients out along the West Rim Road. "Since most of our clientele is families, the West Rim Road is pretty easy and gets them incredible views of the lake," said Cobb. "That's what people want to see—the lake in winter—and you get several great vantage points out that way."

Snowshoers or skiers follow the trail over the closed road out toward Discovery Point, Wizard Island Overlook or to Watchman Peak for a day outing, depending upon the distance. Since the Mt. Mazama eruption some 7,700 years ago, the mountain's remnant caldera has been steadily filling with rain and snow, creating an immense lake with a maximum depth of 1,949 feet. The clarity of the water creates the stunning blue color. The lake water also has surrounded the base of Wizard Island, a volcano within a volcano, having formed post-Mt. Mazama eruption in the base of the caldera.

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Another option for snowshoers or skiers is to take the East Rim Drive from Park HQ out toward Sun Notch. Around 1.8 miles down the road, at a spot called "The Summit of the First Climb," winter adventures can turn north and traverse the open slopes to the caldera rim between Garfield and Applegate peaks. After a nearly 1,000 feet of gain in about 1.5 miles, every adventurer is rewarded with stunning views and a top-of-the-world feeling. Skiers can carve turns on the downhill past stunted whitebark pines and through open meadows while snowshoers can retrace their trail.

In normal, non-pandemic years, the park has a cadre of volunteer ski patrollers and the rangers lead free snowshoe hikes along the rim. Cobb leads a three-day, two-night snow "circle the crater" snow camping excursion that is a certain Bucket-List highlight for adventurous types in a post COVID-19 world. For now, Crater Lake visitors will just have to be content with spectacular views in this superlative-laden place.

Crater Lake National Park: nps.gov/crla
Sky Lakes Wilderness Adventures: skylakeswild.com
Crater Lake Information 541-594-3000

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