Arrive at Crater Lake on a sunny summer’s day and its intensely blue waters will form a mirror of beautiful clouds above. Come in the winter months when the park receives an average 524 inches of snow, however, and you’ll find a frosty playground where the lake’s edge becomes the perfect ring of a forested backcountry stadium. It’s in those harsh winter months that veteran park ranger and snowsports enthusiast Greg Funderburk believes Crater Lake truly shines.
“There’s nothing quite like the sound of silence in an old-growth forest in the middle of a major winter snowstorm,”Funderburk explains.
Home to remarkable remnants of the destroyed stratovolcano Mount Mazama, this lesser-known national park in the Cascades of southern Oregon offers so much more than initially meets the eye. Take Wizard Island, for example. This iconic feature at the west end of Crater Lake juts 763 feet into the sky, but what you see on the surface is just the tip of a volcanic cinder cone that rises 2,500 feet above the lake floor. And then there’s the mystery of the lake itself, which, at an average depth of 1,148 feet, is the deepest in the Western Hemisphere.
Whether you set out to circumnavigate this ancient caldera or forge a path beneath the forested canopy of old-growth pines, firs, and hemlocks, Funderburk said Crater Lake National Park is an adventure at every turn.
Circumnavigate Crater Lake
The Rim Drive around Crater Lake provides myriad opportunities for quick frontcountry hiking, including paths that lead right down to the lakeshore like the 1-mile Cleetwood Cove Trail. This classic drive is only open for car traffic in the summer season (early July to late October), but that shouldn’t be seen as a negative. Here’s why: It reopens from about December to April as an ungroomed trail for cross-country skiing.
Snag some ski gear in the nearby towns of Klamath Falls, Medford, or Bend and set off on the 34-mile roundtrip journey from Rim Village. Funderburk recommends three days and two nights of natural camping to circumnavigate the caldera, though he says advanced skiers could theoretically complete the loop in a day. “You’re 17 miles from any assistance at the far end of the lake,” the avid skier cautions, “so you should always bring extra necessities in case of a gear malfunction or severe weather.”
The NPS also closes Rim Drive to vehicles and invites cyclists to colonize the roads in their absence for two days each September. The dates for Ride The Rim in 2016 are September 17 and 24.
Scramble Up Union Peak
For those with more time and energy Funderburk recommends the Union Peak Hike, which spurs off the legendary Pacific Crest Trail in the southwestern corner of the park. “It’s a great way to expose yourself to mountaineering if you have a long-term goal of summiting some of the larger volcanoes throughout the Cascades,” he says. That’s because this 11-mile roundtrip slog up the core of an extinct volcano has a few hundred vertical feet of Class 3 climbing (scrambling really) to reach the summit at 7,709 feet. The daylong hike makes a fitting alternative to the heavily trafficked trail up Mount Scott (the park’s highest point) and offers equally panoramic vistas across Mount Mazama’s forested flanks.
Don’t-Miss Detour: Nearby Volcanoes
If you’re craving more action on a volcano, Funderburk says he’s constantly drawn to the nearby volcanoes of Mount McLoughlin and Mount Thielsen. “Both are around 9,000 feet so they’re not super tall, but they’re awesome day hikes,” he says. “They don’t get nearly the attention of the large volcanoes to the north, but they’re certainly as spectacular.”
Where to Stay
If you’re skipping camping (the park itself offers two campgrounds), Crater Lake Lodges won’t disappoint. You’ll get killer views of the park and a restaurant with clutch northwest cuisine (think pacific northwest clam chowder and a rack of lamb from Oregon). If you want something a little more rustic/rugged, they also run the cabins at Mazama Village (no AC, TVs, or phones in the room).