CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK, Ore. — Skiing and snowshoeing are not just the best ways to get around Crater Lake in the winter; they’re the only ways.
Although the road to Crater Lake National Park’s south entrance is open all year, the one around the nation’s deepest lake is not. Instead, the whole area beyond the gift shop and visitor center at the caldera’s edge becomes a playground for human-powered activity. Think Mount Rainier but with a giant blue pool at its center.
Also think less-crowded. Since there are no big cities for many miles, and because the main activities most people do at Crater Lake (drives and short walks to viewpoints) are not options during its long winter, the park is lightly trafficked in the colder months. Bonus: It charges no admission fees between mid-October and May.
One of the easiest, most enjoyable and most educational ways to experience the park in winter is to take a ranger-guided snowshoe tour. It’s not a race — you travel about 1.5 miles in two hours — but it’s enough to get heart rates up and give beginners some practice.
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“Many times, we’ll get people on these programs who’ve been to Crater Lake in the summer, but this is their first time here in the winter season,” park ranger Michael Frederick said while about a dozen visitors tightened their snowshoe straps to begin the tour. (Snowshoes are provided, free of charge, for the ranger tours; the park rents them for a fee to those exploring on their own.)
Frederick gave a few basic snowshoeing tips before leading the group away from the lake, through stands of trees and across open meadows. He pointed out things you might miss on your own: animal tracks in the snow, evergreen cones pecked open by birds, lichen growing down only to the point where snows tend to pile up.
Like much of the West Coast, Crater Lake is in the middle of a drought, with less than 20 percent of the usual snowfall for the season. But since the usual snowfall is more than 500 inches a year, the landscape is far from bare. Luckily, a few inches of snow fell the day before we arrived, giving the place that national-park-in-winter postcard look.
The snow had covered trees that were hit a few days before with freezing rain, making for a festive look of glistening white powder atop evergreen mountain hemlock branches with beautiful icicles hanging from their tips. Although the day before had been cloudy, the skies were bright blue during our excursion.
Abby Vaughan, one of our fellow snowshoers, planned this trip as an “adventure gift” for Gabriel Basham. The couple lives in Portland, but despite a love of national parks, they’d never visited Crater Lake before. “We’ve done a lot of ranger-led hikes, and we love the amount of information you get,” Vaughan said after the tour.
On our own
After the group disbanded, we struck out on our own, exploring a bit of the West Rim Drive trail. As its name suggests, the trail is atop the paved West Rim road, which makes for pleasant, easy travel.
A handful of designated skiing and snowshoe trails are marked with brown signs and range from 1.3 to 7 miles each way, with difficulty levels from easy to advanced. But you’re not required to stay on trails. One nice thing about this place is that with so much terrain (the park encompasses 286 square miles), you can pretty much chart your own course as long as you keep your bearings.
Sledding is also permitted in the park: Bring a sled, find a likely spot and go for it. Whatever you do, don’t try getting too close to the lake itself. The combination of steep bank and slippery snow can make for a sudden and unfortunate 1,000-foot slide — and yes, it does happen.
More-adventurous folks can add camping to the skiing and snowshoeing repertoire. As we started out along the West Rim trail, we came upon some backpacking snowshoers heading out for an overnight trip.
Experienced winter campers with more time and hardy constitutions can make a multiday, 31-mile journey around Crater Lake’s rim. Just be sure you’re prepared: At about 7,000 feet elevation, it gets very cold at night.
Not being keen on snow camping, we stayed in Klamath Falls, the closest city of any size, and drove to the park (a little more than an hour each way).
Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.