Crater Lake a winter wonderland
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

Here's the view of Crater Lake from in the morning sun rise.

There’s nothing better in the winter than going cross-country skiing at Crater Lake National Park and snow-camping on the rim. It might be cold, but the morning sunrise is impossible to beat. Here’s a photo gallery and here’s a video.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

The sunrise on Crater Lake began slowly.

A dark orange glow grew steadily around the lake’s circular rim, sending the first light into a sky still rich with stars. Then the sun peeked over the lake’s icy cliffs, wrapping itself around the 8,929-foot spike of Mount Scott and washing the eastern shore in cold yellow light.

I watched the entire show from my campsite, which rested snugly between two 10-foot drifts of snow near the edge of the rim. As I boiled water on my camp stove for coffee and oatmeal, each breath hung in the air like a frozen cloud of smoke.

My boots crunched against the thin layer of ice that had formed during the night and my legs felt frozen stiff, but as morning’s light revealed the snow-draped cone of Wizard Island and the cauldron of deep blue water, coffee never tasted so good.

Crater Lake is one of the most uniquely beautiful places on earth anytime of the year, but the winter brings out its best.

The 44 feet of yearly snowfall transforms this prehistoric volcano into an arctic playground of crystal ice and frosted white pine trees.

Better still is the freedom. With a free backcountry permit, you can camp pretty much any where, provided it’s out of sight of a ski trail and 100 feet from the nearest plowed road.

Snow-camping does require plenty of preparation and a lunatic enjoyment of the cold. The average low temperature during January is 18 degrees, and only about 325 people obtain permits to camp each winter.

“The main advantage during winter is that you can camp with a view of the lake and there’s a lot more freedom,” Crater Lake Park Ranger Dave Grimes said. “But the reason so few people do it is that conditions can be brutal. There is freezing wind, heavy ice, and dangerous avalanche conditions throughout the winter. Half the time you can’t even see the lake because it’s either snowing or overcast.”

But if you’re lucky enough to find the right kind of blue sky day, even the dangerous conditions of Crater Lake are a small price to pay for the chance to explore this snow-packed wonderland.

Traveling the rim

I set out from Crater Lake’s rim village skiing west with a large pack on my back in the direction of Discovery Point.

The tracks in the trail were well defined and icy, and the skis rode easy and fast along a trail that loosely followed the rim drive.

I skied beneath mountain-sized drifts of snow and passed aqua blue ice chunks that shimmered like sapphire gemstones in the high-altitude sun.

The land was so intoxicating, in fact, I almost didn’t notice the increased speed at which I traveled as the trail dipped steadily and steeply downward.

I had reached a thrilling, wind-whipping speed before I noticed the long patch of ice that had formed at the Discovery Point lookout.

Even more terrifying was the fact the patch of ice I was speeding toward was perilously close to the edge of the rim.

Since flying off the trail, down the 1,000-foot cliffs and into the freezing water of Crater Lake seemed slightly unpleasant, I prepared to break off the trail and make a sharp turn away from the rim.

With watered eyes, I popped out of the tracks, bent my knees and turned sharply left in a rush of ice and snow.

The move seemed to work at first, but then the forward momentum of my pack lurched me awkwardly to the side, and I went tumbling down like a sack of bowling balls.

Getting face-planted by a 50-pound pack feels a little bit like fighting Evander Holyfield. But as I got up, nothing seemed broken.

I looked around dazed at the frozen white land and continued forward.

After 3.1 miles of slow skiing, I arrived at Union Peak overlook, ditched my skis and pack and hiked up to the 8,013-foot top of Watchman Peak.

As the afternoon became twilight, I hiked back down to my gear and set up camp near the edge of the rim.

In the remaining sunlight, I proofed my tent for any cold-air openings, set up my sleeping bag, dried my feet, and put on a few extra layers of clothes.

I melted snow on my camp stove for water and prepared a dinner of freeze-dried rice and teriyaki beef, along with canned peaches for desert.

The food wasn’t great, but my dinnertime view overlooked pine trees at Wizard Island and a purple sunset on Crater Lake.

The Night

The worst part of snow camping is the night, especially if you choose to explore during the daytime rather than gathering firewood. Night comes quickly in the winter, and as soon as the sun sets — at around 5 p.m. — the temperature drops rapidly.

The best part of night is the stars, which shine vividly in the cold sky. It’s easy to forget what a dark sky looks like until you’re miles away from artificial light.

I was smart enough to bring a small flask of whiskey, a flashlight, a good book and a plastic tarp. (I created a chair in the snow with the tarp.)

The trick at night is to delay going into your tent and sleeping bag for as long as possible. If you dive right in at 6 p.m., you’ll likely go nuts waiting to fall asleep. And once you’re in the sleeping bag, it’s a loathsome chore to leave its brownie-soft warmth.

Finally, I became tired enough to jump into my winter shelter. My bag was frozen cold, my body ached, and I later learned it was about 8 degrees on the rim that night.

But none of that was important. In the morning I’d wake up to coffee and a winter sunrise on Crater Lake.

And there are few things in life better than that.

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NOTES: For more information about camping at Crater Lake during the winter, call 541-594-3100 or visit www.nps.gov/crla.


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