Crater Lake in Southern Oregon is well-known for its intense and pristine blue color and spectacular views in the summer. In the winter months, the lake is typically socked in with fog and snow as Crater Lake National Park receives an average of 44 feet of snow every year. This was my first visit to Crater Lake and my friend Christian and I thought a snowshoeing and overnight camping trip would be a memorable adventure a few days before Christmas.
Due to the substantial snow pack in the winter months, most of the park facilities close for the snow season. However, plenty remain open for snow enthusiasts to enjoy cross-country skiing and snowshoe hikes. Due to the snow, Rim Drive which is a 33-mile road around the crater, closes early in the season which creates an ideal unplowed trail for skiers and snowshoers. As winter can be a challenging time with blizzards, avalanches, and icy slopes; all backcountry campers must register at the park’s Visitor Center for a free permit before camping.
We decided to make the drive from Portland to the small town of Shady Cove to spend the night in a motel and wake up early the next day and drive the remaining hour to the park. We drove on snow packed roads with four-wheel drive to the Visitor Center where a very friendly Ranger went over our planned trip with us and filled out our camping permit. We planned to shoe from the Rim Village parking lot 1.1 miles to Discovery Point and set up camp. The Ranger told us that we would be the only ones snow camping at Crater Lake that night and that the forecast was for temperatures in the low 20s with 12 inches of snow. He warned that due to the expected snow, the gate to the road up to Rim Village may be closed and snow plows might not be able to plow the road. If that happened, our vehicle would be stranded up at Rim Village and we would have to snowshoe the 3 miles back down to the Visitor Center for assistance. My friend and I felt that we had the necessary gear to handle an extended stay or an extra few miles of snowshoeing if necessary and decided that we were still up for an overnighter, despite the weather warning.
As planned, we began our snowshoe at a marker of two poles in the ground, which were a couple of hundred yards down the plowed road from Rim Village. The poles marked the completely snowed over and unplowed Rim Drive which became our winter trail. Right from the start, this was a tough trip! Due to the fluffy and unpacked snow, every step we took sunk us down to our knees and every once in a while I found myself waist deep in snow and had to pull myself out. Approximately a quarter of a mile into the trip, we passed a group of 5 park personnel who were part of their Snow Patrol and were on cross-country skis. We spoke with them for a few minutes and they thought were in for quite an adventure that night and seemed equally as enthusiastic as we were for our overnight trip. They thanked us for making our own trail and not stomping through their previously made ski trail and wished us luck on our journey.
After about another hour of pushing and pulling ourselves through the snow, we made it to Discovery Point and scouted for a camp spot. We decided to call our home next to a row of 12-foot pines which made a natural wind break, and underneath 3 mammoth-sized pine trees which offered some protection from the falling snow. At this time it was getting late in the afternoon and with falling snow and deep fog, there was no view of the lake, as we were completely socked in. However, this trip was never about the view; it was about the adventure, and after setting up our tents and lighting a fire with the Duraflame logs we carried on our backs, we felt the satisfaction we were looking for. After getting semi-full with our dinner of freeze-dried Sweet and Sour Pork, we sat by the fire, drank some booze and finally went back to our tents once the snow really starting coming down. Before I went to bed I noticed that my thermometer read 18 degrees and that night it really snowed hard. With the snow and the wind, it felt like someone was shaking and beating on my tent all night long. When I awoke, I saw that it warmed up to 28 degrees and that it did snow the 12 inches as forecasted and all of our tracks from the previous day were snowed over. After packing up our wet and frozen tents and gear, we started back on Rim Drive and made our way back to the parking lot where we saw that the road had indeed been plowed. Thankful we didn’t have to make the 3 mile trek back to the Visitor Center, we drove down instead and checked back in with the Ranger to let him know that we made it back safely.
The night we spent at Crater Lake was the same night the state of Oregon was pummeled with a severely cold arctic blast which covered the state in snow and ice. In the Portland area, this storm accounted for making this December of 2008 the snowiest month since January 1950. Needless to say our drive back to Portland was very slow and icy. We experienced 7 degrees and freezing rain in Bend and had to maneuver around stuck semi-trucks going up the Santiam Pass on Highway 22. When we made it to Salem, we were going 15-35 miles on I-5 the whole way back to Portland due to treacherous conditions. Fortunately, despite the bad weather, we made it back safely to Portland and have that memorable snow camping adventure that we were after. The trip certainly exceeded my expectations because it is not every day you can have a National Park all to yourself. The scenery was amazing because of the snow covered trees and the smooth undisturbed trails blanketed with snow. Needless to say, Crater Lake is a top hiking and photography destination in Oregon. Due to the snow and fog, I was only able to take some snapshots to remember the trip and look forward to clear weather and the photographs ahead. I plan to come back to Crater Lake in the summer months to photograph the blue lake and capture some of those classic shots I have in my mind when I think of Crater Lake. I encourage you to explore Oregon and make your own adventure.
To Get There:
During the winter months, the only road open to Crater Lake National Park is the southern entrance up to Rim Village. From Medford take Route 62 north and east to the park’s west entrance. From Klamath Falls take Route 97 north to route 62 north and west to the park’s south entrance. From Portland, the drive is 275 miles to Medford and then an additional 77 miles to Crater Lake. Be sure to visit the National Park Service website for the rules and regulations regarding winter backcountry use in Crater Lake National Park. The rules are very simple and they help to keep you safe.