Sitting amid southern Oregon’s Cascade Mountains at 1,833 feet, Crater Lake National Park is a recreational wonderland that attracts skiers, sledders, snowboarders, snowmobilers, and snowshoers each winter, thanks to a 43-foot average yearly snowfall.
But this playground was once a dangerous place to live for the original Native Americans who lived here when Mount Mazama erupted just over 7,700 years ago. The cataclysm decapitated the mountain, removed roughly a half mile of elevation and spread ash hundreds of miles away. Between 200 and 300 feet of ash and pumice settled near the eruption, which, due to hot gasses, eventually formed solidified columns of material while looser material eroded away to leave The Pinnacles and Pumice Castle (shown below).
The eruption left a watertight caldera that eventually filled with water over a 740-year period thanks to consistent, heavy snowfall. This is how Crater Lake earned its name.
Thousands of years later, it was discovered by westerners in 1853 when three gold prospectors searching for food arrived at the caldera’s southwest rim and were stunned by the indigo-colored water that spread before them.
The journalist William Gladstone Steel adopted the lake as a personal passion in 1870 and organized a geologic survey that revealed the lake to be nearly 2,000 feet deep – the deepest in the United States and the 9th deepest in the world. His lobbying eventually gained the attention of President Teddy Roosevelt, who finally established Crater Lake as a national park in 1902.
Today, it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly, but in winter, it’s all about the snow!
You can rent a snowmobile from nearby Diamond Lake Resort (five miles north of the park) and enjoy the park's North Entrance Road, which is specifically groomed for snowmobiles. You can also try sledding and snowboarding, but you’ll have to provide your own chair lift – your legs – to get to a suitable spot to start a descent, but self-rescue skills are definitely recommended!
Several ungroomed cross-country ski trails—powdery, slushy, and icy depending upon the conditions—create a convenient network in the park for skiing. Some are marked and, for the adventurous and experienced, unmarked. If it's your first time on skis, the 1.7-mile Mazama Loop through the Mazama Campground is a good way to start. But the most popular ski route is the West Rim Drive, which circles the western rim of the caldera. Around 100 skiers and 75 snowshoers use this trail to begin the 31-mile journey all around the lake, which takes about three days to finish, so decent winter gear and a backcountry permit are necessary. But a day’s trip is a much easier option for most.
Discovery Point is only 1.2 miles away from Rim Village, which is where John Wesley Hillman and his other two prospector buddies first discovered the “Deep Blue Lake”. Just a mile farther up the trail (and around the caldera), an unmarked viewpoint provides a great perspective of Wizard Island, a cinder cone that erupted out of the lake 400 years after the initial colossal eruption that created the caldera.
Less than a mile down the trail, an incline of 240 feet yields a view of Union Peak, the core of an old volcano that sits eight miles away. At this point, you’ve come three miles from Rim Village, so the six-mile round-trip makes a good day’s outing. Beyond Union Peak, other points of interest include Watchman Peak, Diamond Lake Overlook, and North Junction.
Watchman Peak is 1/8 of a mile away, but if it’s icy, (this is a summer image, so you’ll have to use your imagination!) take off the skis and proceed with caution – its eastern slope is avalanche-prone! Snowshoeing this far allows you to ascend the western slope for a magnificent view.
On a windier day, you ski or snowshoe within the protection of the forested East Rim Drive. This route is considered intermediate due to steeper climbs and more avalanche-prone areas. If the crystal-clear blue of the lake isn’t enough, Vidae Falls three miles up the trail provides a nice touch during a journey, though in winter, there might only be a trickle to see between massive shoulders of snow.
If you pass through two avalanche areas unharmed (and undetected!) at Sun Notch and Dutton Cliffs, a strange, but fantastic, sight appears: Phantom Ship, a 400,000 year-old andesite rock formation that appears to rest like a ghost ship at anchor 200 meters from the rim.
A few miles farther brings Pumice Castle Overlook (pictured above) into sight, which provides another view of the park’s geologic past. But at this point, you’re about 5 miles from Rim Village, so an early start will usually result in getting back to the village by nightfall – a good idea if you’re not camping!
Probably the most popular wintertime activity is snowshoeing. From now to mid-April, you can take a guided snowshoe walk with a park ranger starting at Rim Village. These are fun outings because, although they can parallel the ski trails – etiquette stipulates keeping one’s snowshoes out of ski tracks, which guarantees some good exercise — these trips enable you to go off-trail into the forests and meadows near the caldera’s rim, where you have a good chance of seeking a Clark’s nutcracker or Hairy woodpecker among the Whitebark pine that dominates the landscape.
Whether you stick close to home near Rim Village or venture all the way around the caldera, Crater Lake will definitely leave you with a lasting memory of white… with a nice glint of blue!
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Pinnacles By Llywrch - Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=329786
Pumice Castle National Parks Blog https://www.nationalparksblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/pumice-castle.jpg
Crater Lake Panorama By WolfmanSF - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22835822
Wizard Island US National Park Website https://www.nps.gov/crla/planyourvisit/images/Crater-Lake-in-Winter-1-960-x-720_1.jpg?maxwidth=1200&maxheight=1200&autorotate=false
Watchman Peak By Markgorzynski - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9956296
Phantom Ship By Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith - Phantom Ship - Crater Lake National Park, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40573737
Snowshoeing US National Park Website https://www.nps.gov/crla/planyourvisit/images/Ranger-Guided-Snowshoe-Walk-3-960-x-720.jpg?maxwidth=1200&maxheight=1200&autorotate=false