Best Damn Weekend Ever: Oregon's Crater Lake

Circumnavigate Oregon's Crater Lake on snowshoes
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Circumnavigate Oregon's Crater Lake on snowshoes

Don't let winter in Crater Lake scare you off. Sure, the 183,224-acre

national park receives 44 feet of snow annually. But all that powder—along

with a sturdy pair of snowshoes and some avalanche awareness—is your backstage

pass to a Southern Cascades few hikers ever see.

The fourth season at Crater

Lake redefines solitude (only 115 backcountry overnight permits were issued

from December to May 2007), and locals say the area's trophy trip, a 33-mile

circumnavigation of the lake, is the best multiday loop in the Pacific Northwest.

Crank it out clockwise, and you'll cross open meadows teeming with pine martens,

wind through hemlock forests draped in ice, and see the lake from every possible

angle. (Keep a safe distance from overhanging snow cornices, draping the caldera's

rim like frosting on a surrealist cake.) You can complete it in three moderately

strenuous days, but pack an extra day's food and fuel just in case.

Leave your

car at Rim Village, your last chance to down a hot bowl of soup and use a sheltered

loo. Then follow the gently graded Hemlock Trail west until it hooks up with

an unplowed section of Rim Road. Continue west for 3.8 miles to Watchman Overlook,

the turnaround point for day-trippers. Looking south across the crater and the

startlingly blue lake, you'll see the white pyramids of Mt. McLoughlin, Union

Peak, and, on the clearest days, California's 14,162-foot Mt. Shasta.

The last

time the 1,943-foot-deep lake froze completely over was in 1949; it stores a

large amount of summer's heat, while windy surface conditions and relatively

mild air temperatures keep the surface from icing.

From Watchman, turn north,

and head down a moderate slope to Wizard Island Viewpoint for a vantage as airy

as any quidditch player spied. (Check out the 800-foot cinder cone rising from

the west side of the lake.) As you continue on to North Junction, you'll pass

through the first of a few avalanche-prone sections. Exercise caution and come

prepared with beacons, probes, and shovels. An avy report and detailed maps

of any bypasses come with your backcountry permit.

Camping choices are endless,

but for the best wind protection, pick Cleetwood Cove, 10.7 miles from Rim Village.

After breakfast, head south out of Cleetwood. A fresh snowfall is common, making

the surrounding pines look candy-coated. As you gain elevation the park's highpoint,

8,900-foot Mt. Scott comes into view. The trail zigzags along the rim, then

skirts Scott's base. At 21 miles, the road splits. Take the left fork toward

Kerr Notch, and plan to camp here. You'll have upper-deck views of Phantom Rock,

a tiny island bathed in alpenglow.

Mellower route-finding and terrain make day

three a cruise. As you near Sun Notch, a popular day trip east of Rim Village,

ski and snowshoe tracks signal your reentry to civilization. After passing ice-encrusted

Vidae Cliff and the turn-off to Crater Peak, you'll enjoy a mile-and-a-half

downhill before the last big climb back to Rim Village and another steaming

bowl of Campbell's.

The Way

From Medford, OR, take OR

62 north and west 65 miles to the park's south entrance at Munson Valley Road.

Map and Guide

Crater Lake National Park provides detailed trail maps for winter

use of Rim Road and other popular trails at the information center. Find good

route descriptions in Snowshoe Routes in Oregon, by Shea Anderson ($17, The

Mountaineers).

Permits

Tap the Steel Information Center, inside the park in

Munson Valley, for free overnight backcountry permits (541-594-3000, nps.gov/crl0061).