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.
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.
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.
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
Tap the Steel Information Center, inside the park in
Munson Valley, for free overnight backcountry permits (541-594-3000, nps.gov/crl0061).