In Superlative Hikes, we search out the biggest, wettest, and beariest trails in America.
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. (One thing you likely won’t see: a frozen lake. 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.)
Leave your car at Rim Village, your last chance to 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.
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.
How to Get to Crater Lake National Park
From Medford, OR, take OR 62 north and west 65 miles to the park’s south entrance at Munson Valley Road.
Available at the visitors’ center (open 8 a.m.-4 p.m.) up to 1 day in advance.
Last updated December 10, 2021