Winter at Crater Lake National Park is a quiet time. It begins with the first large snowfall in October or early November and continues into May or June. Tourists are few and generally spend a few minutes enjoying the lake, visitor center and gift shop before moving on. Craig Ackerman, Park Superintendent, told us that a group of Chinese tourists was bused the 85 miles from Medford to Crater Lake only to spend precisely six minutes at the rim tossing snowballs at each other before returning to Medford. It’s great that they saw the lake and experienced the snow, but it’s also sad that they missed so much that the park has to offer. If nothing else, winter at the rim is a time to absorb the beauty and power of nature at its finest. On a clear day with the blue sky reflected from the much deeper blue lake and contrasted with the whitest of snow, the scenery is the finest in the world. During a squall, the scenery may be limited to a few feet in front of you. A calm snow can blanket everything in minutes, adding a beauty of its own. These are the moods of Crater Lake. They are to be enjoyed, contemplated or endured, depending upon your frame of mind.
In the winter, driving is limited to the road to Rim Village as all other roads are buried in snow. Only the Steel Information Center at park headquarters and the restaurant and store at Rim village are open for visitors. There is no entrance fee in the winter. If you arrive on a weekday, you won’t have much company. On a sunny weekend, however, the rim parking areas may be nearly full as locals partake of the nordic skiing and snowshoeing opportunities around the rim. Of course with 15 feet, or more, of snow at the rim, park crews aren’t able to keep many parking spaces free of snow.
Park workers are focused on snow management and keeping the road open to Rim Village. In April of 2011, the calendar suggested spring, but it was still winter at Crater Lake. The road had been closed due to an avalanche for several days the week before our visit. To find out if the road to Rim Village is currently open, call 1-541-594-3000 (followed by option 1, then option 2) and listen to the recorded message. You may also call the visitor center at 1-541-594-3100. Workers use huge rotary snow plows, loaders and bulldozers to move the snow aside. It is, however, impossible to keep the entire rim road open in the winter. Later on crews begin breaking through the snow along the west side of the lake in a weeks-long effort to open the north entrance to the park. In 2011 it was particularly difficult. Some January rain soaked a six-foot layer of snow turning it to ice. That layer was compressed by new snow forming an almost impenetrable barrier. Not only that, as the snow began to melt the water reached the ice layer making it extremely slippery. Given the slopes upon which this snow rests, the avalanche danger was extreme
If you come to Crater Lake in the winter without snowshoes or skis, your options are fairly limited. It’s best to come in the morning, before the sunshine softens the snow. You’ll be able to walk up an often slippery snow slope to get spectacular views of the lake. Contemplate the winter moods of the park. Those moods are driven by the weather and can change from moment to moment on the many blustery days. Be aware that the snow overhangs the cliffs on the rim. Getting too close to the edge can lead to an exciting ride with a deadly ending. In 2011, significant snow lingered well into July when a visitor decided to get too close to the caldera and found himself 300 feet down the slope to the lake. It took park workers five hours to rescue him. He then spent several weeks in intensive care. He was lucky.
Visitors sometimes find a perch near Crater Lake Lodge. It offers protection from south winds and a wide open view of the lake. As the day progresses and the sun warms the snow, you’ll find your boots sinking deeper. When your weight breaks the fragile surface crust, you will be sinking to your knees or even deeper. It’s best to return to the parking area at this point as it becomes increasingly difficult to move on the snow. You may want to walk around the roads at park headquarters. For many people its a new experience to stand between vertical walls of snow 12-feet or more tall. The lovely rustic buildings that make up the Historic District are all but invisible under 12 feet of snow.
With snowshoes or nordic skis (our preference) it’s an entirely different story. If you’d like to try snowshoeing, guided walks are offered every Saturday and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. from late November or early December through the end of April. Snowshoes are loaned free of charge and no previous snowshoeing experience is necessary. Get all the details and sign up in advance at the Steel Visitor Center or by calling 541-594-3100. Beginning in January of 2012, the concessionaire at the park is offering snowshoes for rent in case you want to set off on your own. They are available at the Rim Village Gift Store.
During our April visit there were a few inches of fresh powder on top of the crusty old snow, a skiers paradise. When the weather is nice, skiers prefer following Rim Drive westward from Rim Village. It’s usually an out and back trip to one of several destinations: Discovery Point (1.2 miles, these are all one-way mileages), Wizard Island Overlook (2.3 miles), Union Peak Overlook (3.1 miles), Watchman Overlook (3.9 miles), Diamond Lake Overlook (4.6 miles) or North Junction (6.0 miles). Note that traveling is sometimes very hazardous past Watchman Overlook. When it’s windy or snowing, the rim can be uncomfortable and unsafe. In these conditions, skiers prefer the East Rim Drive, starting near the Steel Information Center. This is also an out and back opportunity. Popular destinations include Vidae Falls (3.1 miles), and Sun Notch (4.5 miles). There are avalanche chutes along the way, so get the details on alternative routes and current condition information at the Steel Center before you start out. The park offers several other trails as well. Be aware that these trails are not groomed. You may have to break trail, but those that follow will appreciate your efforts.
To us, the greatest winter adventure is to circumnavigate the lake on skis or snowshoes. Under the best conditions, this 31-mile trip can take 3 days. It requires winter camping, survival skills and knowledge of avalanche safety. Fewer than 100 people make this trip each year, usually in late March or April, when the days are longer and the weather is better. Like all back country camping in the park, a free permit is required. General snow-play is always an option at Crater Lake in the winter. Sledding and inner tubing can be great fun if you choose your play area carefully. Be sure there is no way to get in front of cars, that there are few obstacles in the way, and that you’ll be able to stop safely. Ask for help locating a spot when you are at the Steel Center or speak to one of the ski patrol members you may see around Rim Village.
Winter is a surprisingly great time to visit Crater Lake National Park. The view across the lake on a clear winter day is the best on the planet. Getting to the park in the winter can be an adventure in itself. With rapid weather shifts and deep snow almost any journey into the back country is threatening in a way that gets the adrenaline pumping. For those that make the trip around the lake, it’s a world class adventure. The variety of things to see and do at the park is limited in the winter. The great historic treasures in the park are mostly under the snow. There are some fun opportunities for kids if you bring sleds, inner tubes, skis and other equipment. Overall, our rating totaled a 7.0 on our scale of 10. If you’ve visited the park in the winter, give us your thoughts in the comment box below.
For more information about winter activities at Crater Lake, check out the winter edition of the park’s newspaper Crater Lake Reflections. It also includes a map of the park and here is a large PDF version of the official park map. The park also offers this flier about winter trails in the park. Check out the Crater Lake Web Cameras for a current view of the Lake (remember the photos will be black at night). Also, check out our blog post on driving in winter conditions, to help you get there safely.
This article, the photos and the video were created by Jerry Haugen, Pathfinder. ©2011-2016, Global Creations LLC. All rights reserved.