"I don't like the looks of this" he warned. "One false move, and we'll end up sliding into the trees below."
|Crater Lake, sparkling blue in the sunshine|
Three years ago, my hubby and I made a February trip to Crater Lake, Oregon's lone National Park. We had a fabulous time snowshoeing around it's rim (read about our adventures here and also here). This scenic blue lake covered in snowy white so captivated me, I'd been plotting a winter return ever since.
In early March of this year I finally got my wish.
|The snow is crazy deep this year!|
Crater Lake is a unique place. This natural wonder was created over seven thousand years ago when a violet eruption caused the collapse of Mt. Mazama, a huge volcano. Over time falling rain and melting snow collected in the hollowed-out caldera, forming a deep, clear lake. A near perfect circular shape, Crater Lake's waters boast an alarmingly bright blue hue. Measuring 1,949 feet it's the deepest lake in the US, and quite possibly the most pristine body of water on earth.
|Starting out on the Rim Trail|
Despite receiving an enormous amount of snow annually (a whopping 43 feet on average!), Crater Lake National Park manages to stay open during the winter months. Access, however, is not easy. Rim Road, the only auto route circling the lake, isn't plowed so viewpoints beyond Rim Village can only be reached using skis or snowshoes. The North Entrance is closed, forcing many visitors to travel out of direction to reach the West or South Entrances. And heavy snowfall often closes the drive between Park Headquarters and the lake's rim.
|See the sign?|
The other issue with visiting in winter - frequent stormy weather. Getting a clear day during this season is a crapshoot. Snowstorms and fog frequently hide the lake from view (rangers estimate it's only visible 50% of the time). On our last visit, we'd lucked out with a spectacular clear-sky weekend. I hoped for the same kind of weather this time around.
As I've mentioned before, this winter was an especially snowy one for the Cascade Mountains. One storm after another pounded Crater Lake with monster dumps, pushing the snowpack well above average. The week before our planned trip an especially large storm dropped several feet of snow in the southern Cascades, followed by two days of soaking rain. This large amount of snow closed the road to Rim Village and all week the park's website ominously warned it might not be cleared by the weekend.
|Heading across a snowy plain|
But we'd made our plans, and hubby and I were still going - closed roads or not! As we made our way south from Portland I took advantage of sporadic cell service to check road conditions on the park's website. Around noon I got the news I was hoping to hear - the road to Rim Village had been reopened! Yahoo!
|Gigantic snow drifts!|
After a long 5-hour drive over weather-beaten mountain roads, our trusty Subaru navigated the final switchbacks to Crater Lake's Rim Village. We were met with howling winds and cloudy skies. Occasional bursts of ice pellets pelted our faces as we climbed up a tall snowy berm ringing the parking area, to the lake overlook. My hubby and I were able to get a few quick glimpses of Crater Lake's surface before thick fog moved in and obscured everything.
|Recent rain left deep grooves in the snow|
Disappointed, we took shelter in the visitor center, moping about the unfortunate weather. However, a friendly worker in the gift shop assured us that tomorrow's forecast promised sunshine. Perfect! That was the day we'd planned a snowshoeing trip along the Rim Road.
|Looking ahead to the Watchman - our destination|
As promised, the next morning dawned clear and sunny. Again, we piloted our car back up the winding road towards Crater Lake's rim, marveling at the tall snowbanks lining the highway. So much snow had fallen, the banks were over 20 feet tall in some places. The road resembled a slot canyon snaking through this thick snowpack.
In winter months, the unplowed road around the crater's rim reverts to a trail for skiers and snowshoers. Although a few folks brave the entire 31-mile route, most visitors only venture 2-3 miles down the West Rim Drive before turning back. On our last visit, my hubby and I made it nearly four miles in, almost to the Watchman Overlook. Today's goal was to finish what we'd started three years ago and finally reach the Watchman.
After gathering all our gear, we again climbed up the steep snowbank to the lake's viewpoint. Under clear skies, Crater Lake sparkled an unreal shade of blue. Our snowshoe departure was delayed a good ten minutes due to copious photo-taking (I won't say by who!).
|Wizard Island is front and center|
My hubby finally managed to tear me and my camera away from the spectacular sights, and begin our day's journey. We'd started fairly early, and saw only a couple of skiers as we left the Rim Village buildings. Despite the sunshine, temps hovered around freezing, creating an icy crust on the snow's surface. But cleats on our snowshoe bottoms provided excellent traction, and we made good time traveling across the firm snow.
|Another huge snow drift|
After a little over a mile, we came upon Discovery Point, the first overlook. This clearing provided an excellent view of Wizard Island. Formed by later eruptions, this conical little island near the lake's west shore resembled a wizard's pointed hat. My hubby and I inched as close as we dared to the edge to take in the marvelous panorama. Overhanging snow cornices along the rim's walls forced us to stay a respectful distance back.
|Lots of snowy features to navigate|
Beyond Discovery Point, my hubby and I traversed over and around a series of gigantic snowdrifts. Navigation was easy as other visitors had left a well-trampled path. We passed by an area where recent heavy rains had worn deep grooves into the snow. At one forest clearing I spotted a couple of tall peaks in the distance (I later learned one of them was Union Peak). And around one bend in the path was a view ahead to Watchman Peak, our day's destination.
|One of the crater's rim walls|
Aside from a couple of skiers, my hubby and I were the only people on the outbound trail. We began to meet groups of campers heading back towards Rim Village after spending the night outside. Crater Lake National Park allows backcountry camping during the winter months, and it appeared to be popular. Although I like to camp, sleeping in a cold tent on top of snow doesn't appeal to me.
|The sun started to shine|
On the previous day a ranger had warned of a treacherous section along the Rim Road. Just beyond the Watchman, the road was cut into a steep cliff. On plentiful snow years (such as this one) the roadcut filled up with snow creating a steep, avalanche-prone cross-slope to traverse. Our previous trip three years ago had occurred during a lower than average snowfall year, and we'd had no trouble following the road. But the ranger's advice became real when we met a young man snowshoeing back towards Rim Village. Planning to travel around the entire lake, the man said he was stopped by an unstable, slippery slope just beyond the Watchman. Not wanting to risk dying in a fall or avalanche, he'd turned around.
|Fantastic reflections on the lake's surface|
Despite the young man's warnings, my hubby and I decided to continue as far as we could. We passed another fabulous overlook of Wizard Island (photo break time!)
|People climbing the snowbanks onto a rooftop|
Although we'd initially made good time, the intense sun's rays were quickly taking their toll on our icy trail. The snow began to melt, and the softer the snow became, the harder it was to snowshoe upon, and the slower our progress. I began to notice small slides and snow rollers traveling down some of the steeper side slopes.
|Crater Lake's clear surface reflecting the sky|
Finally a little over 3 miles in, we came upon a steep, hazardous-looking slope. Soft snow was beginning to slide in a few places, and only one set of tracks (from the young male snowshoer we presumed) wandered across the incline. My hubby wasn't at all comfortable crossing this area, pointing out if we slipped, it would be a long downhill slide to the forest below.
|Another fabulous view|
So the decision was made to end our day's journey here. Before turning around, hubby and I took a seat in the snow, and enjoyed a leisurely lunch break. The sun was warm, we inhaled some tasty treats, and the surrounding scenery was top notch. Although we'd fallen short of our original day's goal, the consolation prize wasn't too bad!
|Grab a seat on this cabin's roof!|
Then it was time for the long trek back to Rim Village. Soft, sticky snow slowed our pace, but I enjoyed passing by all the wonderful viewpoints a second time around. The sun's powerful rays lit Crater Lake's surface, turning it a brilliant shade of blue. High clouds reflected on the water's surface. Truly magical!
|Mt Thielsen in the distance|
The closer we got to Rim Village, the more people we encountered on the trail. With one mile to go, hubby and I felt as if we'd happened upon a crowded downtown sidewalk. Even in the dead of winter, Crater Lake is a busy place on weekends.
|A huge snowdrift at Crater Lake Lodge|
Finally the visitor center and Rim Village buildings came into view. My hubby, tired and sore from our adventure, opted to rest in the car. But it was still early afternoon and such a lovely day, I didn't want to leave just yet.
|The Lodge was shuttered for the winter|
So I grabbed my camera and headed towards the shuttered Crater Lake Lodge. Open during summer months, this historic structure was boarded up for the season. I marveled at the huge snowdrifts that had formed behind the building. They were nearly as high as the third floor windows!
|Road plowed through the deep snow|
Other buildings were also buried in snow. One near Rim Village had drifts extending over the roof, and people were climbing up the rooftop and sliding down. Another smaller cabin, also buried up to its eaves, had three people perched on the very peak of the roof, enjoying this amazing scenery from an unusual perspective.
|Crater Lake Pano (click to see larger image)|
A few fun facts about this unique national park:
The lake is 4.5 to 6 miles wide.
Although the average snowfall is 43 feet per year, the greatest cumulative snowfall ever recorded was 73 feet during the winter of 1932-33. The greatest depth of snow on the ground at one time was 21 1/2 feet in 1983. Normally the snow melts by August, but some years (probably this one) many drifts stick around until the snow returns again.
Due to its extreme depth, Crater Lake rarely freezes in winter. Temperatures normally aren't cold enough to freeze this large amount of water. The last complete surface freeze was in 1949, although 95% of the surface froze in 1985.
|Wonderful day to be outside!|