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Crater Lake in Winter: Overnight Snowshoe Camping

June 04 2020

Oregon is filled with many iconic outdoor sites, but Crater Lake reigns supreme in terms of endless views and gorgeous wilderness. As Oregon’s one National Park, it is known throughout the U.S. as the deepest lake and known in Oregon for the trail that runs around the rim of the caldera.

While more popular in summer, snowshoers and cross-country skiers flock to the destination in winter to circle the lake on a 31-mile trail for views and bragging rights.

Though easier said than done, we’ve prepared a guide for you for your Crater Lake National Park camping endeavors in the snowy conditions.

crater lake in winter

Contents:

  1. Fun Facts & FAQ’s
  2. Backcountry Winter Permits
  3. Pack It Out
  4. Water Sources
  5. What to Pack
  6. Where to Rent Snowshoes (or Cross-Country Skis)
  7. Go for Poles
  8. Difficulty: Moderate to Moderate-Hard
  9. Avalanches, Cornices, and Weather, Oh My
  10. Our Itinerary 

Fun Facts About Crater Lake & FAQ’s

How deep is Crater Lake?

Crater Lake is 1,949 feet (or 594 meters). It is the deepest lake in the United States and the 9th deepest in the world.

How was Crater Lake formed? What volcanic events formed Crater Lake? 

Mount Mazama was a volcano that erupted roughly 7,700 years ago. It formed as a various group of volcanic edifices—shield volcanoes and composite cones—and when it erupted, it lost about a mile in height. The mountain imploded into the caldera that now holds Crater Lake.

crater lake with snowy mountains

Can you canoe on Crater Lake? Can you swim in Crater Lake? 

Unfortunately, you cannot bring private boats to Crater Lake. However, there are boats tours around the lake and to Wizard Island off of the north shore at Cleetwood Cove Trail, which is the only point of access to the water

You can swim in Crater Lake off Cleetwood Cove, but temperatures tend to be cold. While on occasion people swim from Wizard Island, you’re not supposed to be more than 100 yards away from the shore at Cleetwood Cove or Wizard Island when you’re out there. 

Crater Lake has some of the cleanest water in the country, if not the world, and having less boats and access points maintain its crystal-clear waters.

What is there to do at Crater Lake? Where can you stay?

Knowing what to do at Crater Lake depends on the season. While in summer, people camp, hike, swim, take boat tours, and drive around the lake, things are different in winter. Winter is normally limited to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing around the lake, where you can camp literally anywhere. 

Additionally, people have been known to ski, snowboard, and sled, but there are no designated sites nor chairlifts. It is not allowed in the caldera and they recommend taking an avalanche course. Snowmobiling is an option, but needs to be reserved and is done on the west side of the lake.

In the summer, there are two campgrounds near Crater Lake, Mazama Campground and Lost Creek Campground, both on the south side and a little further away from the lake. There are also the Cabins at Mazama Village and the Crater Lake Lodge for some year-round luxury instead of Crater Lake campgrounds.

Where is Crater Lake? How far is Crater Lake from Portland?

Crater Lake is in Southern Oregon. It takes about 4.5-5 hours to drive there from Portland, so if you’re flying into the city and driving down, it’s smart to budget an extra stop for food and gas. 

Note: You can only access the park from the south side in the winter.

How far is it around Crater Lake?

To trek around the rim is 31 miles, but you can add more miles with avalanche bypasses for a safer route. It is not entirely flat: there are some inclines that can make snowshoeing and cross-country skiing difficult.

In summer, it’s a quick drive around with several viewpoints to stop at.

What sights are at Crater Lake?

Besides the lake itself, Wizard Island is the big sight in the middle of the lake as a cinder cone that juts above the waterline. On the other side of the lake is the Phantom Ship, a much smaller island formed from hydrothermal activity.

Around the rim (going clockwise), you can hike to Watchman Overlook, an old observation point on the west side of the lake. A little further north, the land rises to Llao Rock, a massive promontory named after a Native American God, second in height to Cloudcap Overlook on the east side of the lake. Both require a bit of extra time and willpower to reach the top. Additionally, you come across Pumice Castle, an orange outcrop of rocks formed by ancient volcanic activity. 

If you’re looking to hit a peak off the lake, Mount Scott on the east side of the lake stands as the highest point in the entire park. 

snowshoe at crater lake

 

Do You Need Backcountry Winter Permits for Crater Lake?

When you go snowshoe/cross-country ski camping, permits are free! You need to register at the ranger station and get a parking permit for your days there and park below the lake, hiking up a mile to the rim to start.

Note: You cannot camp between the short stretch between Rim Village and Discovery Point; it is primarily used for day use. 

crla park map

 

Remember: Pack Out Your Mess

In order to preserve the sanctity of Crater Lake, the ranger station also gives you bags to pack out your feces. While it’s not ideal, it’s for the animals around and to take care of the wildlife when spring rolls around. 

Pro Tip: There is a pit latrine bathroom on the other side of the lake at Pumice Point Near Steel Bay. This is a great spot to go and not have to pack out nor feel guilty. Being used rarely allows it to be clean all winter and a great secret for those off us that do not want to freeze our butts off. (There is also a public one at Rim Village to use before you start.) 

 

Best Water Sources in the Area

It may seem obvious to use the lake as your water source, but the caldera is so steep that the park only allows one access point, which is also only available in summer. Your best bet for water is to boil down snow for water, which can leave a little silty and leafy detritus in your drink. Bring an extra gas canister, just in case. 

What to Pack for Your Trip to Crater Lake

For the site:

Your gear:

  • Backpack Cover
  • Extra Gas Canister (for boiling snow to water)
  • Snowshoes/Cross-Country Skis
  • Ski Poles (or trekking poles with snow baskets)
  • Sunscreen
  • Glasses/Snow Goggles
  • Snow Gloves
  • Scarves/Buffs/Balaclavas
  • Winter Hats/Beanies

What to wear:

  • Winter jacket
  • Base layers
  • Snow pants or Rain pants or Gaiters
  • Backcountry/Mountaineering/Winter Boots
  • Wool socks
  • Thermal layers for sleeping (keep separate and dry)

 

Where to Rent Snowshoes (or Cross-Country Skis) Near Crater Lake

If you’re looking to rent snowshoes, you’re in luck: the only Mazama store is the shop at Rim Village allows the rental of snowshoes only, but not skis. However, The National Parks Services has put together a list of places to get snowshoes and cross-country skiers.

It would be smart to look at the price renting snowshoes over a few days and comparing them to the actual price of buying snowshoes. I bought my snowshoes at Blackbird in Medford, Oregon for around $90 instead of spending near $70 for a rental. 

two people snow shoeing at crater lake

Bring Poles with You

We recommend adding poles to your snowshoe trek. While very necessary for skis, poles don’t seem as vital for snowshoes. But after slightly wobbling due to the weight on your pack and sinking into the snow, poles will help you (but mostly your knees throughout) the 31 miles around the rim. 

 

Crater Lake Trail Difficulty: Moderate to Moderate-Hard

Overall, the trip can be a little grueling. While one might think the trail is somewhat flat around the rim, there are long stretches uphill, trudging in snow. Its 31-mile trek is a long way with all your gear and walking on snow. The kind of fitness needed for this journey slightly differs from regular backpacking in that you’re always sinking in the snow and sliding slightly backwards at times. 

Cross-country skiing usually takes 2-3 days while snowshoeing goes for 3-4 days, depending on your fitness and appetite for trail coverage. It’s a good idea to plan for extra days, as storms can hit and make for less than ideal conditions.

Avalanche zones can add a unique obstacle as they are not as maintained and falling snow can change the face of that small section of trail overnight. The sections, while short, can be precarious and if you’re not feeling it at all, it’s better to opt for the long way around. You can find a small map and further advice here.

It doesn’t really matter which way you go (though we went clockwise) but going in March is more ideal, as the days are longer and the weather is slightly warmer. We were lucky to have several days of sun, which made the trek more bearable.

But it is worth it. Only 80 skiers and 40 snowshoers do the winter trail annually, which guarantees you a bit of solace and something to brag about over your next round of drinks with your friends. 

Dangers: Avalanches, Cornices, and Weather

As mentioned above, avalanches are a risk. The zones are short, but moving one at a time across the zone quietly are basic safety tips. Crossing avalanche zones in the morning is better, as the snow is still frozen from the night and the sun hasn’t had a chance to thaw it.

Snow cornices also present a challenge, as you cannot see them from above, and you can fall into the caldera. A good rule of thumb is not to venture to close to the edge and stay on the trail.

Finally, the Mazama weather can get very harsh and snowfall can impede your trekking. There is often a lot of wind around the caldera as well.

Here is further reading from the National Parks Services for winter safety. 

Our Itinerary

Day One: Rim Village to Steel Bay 

One of my favorite cups of coffee is the one you have when it is still early enough to be dark, heading out on an adventure while the rest of the world sleeps. The three of us head down the I-5 towards Crater Lake in mid-March, the morning nippy enough to remind us it will only get colder.

After buying snowshoes in Medford, Oregon and stocking up on junk food at the gas station, we arrive to collect our permits and head up to Rim Village to start. We stomp a few miles in our snowshoes. I’m burning up and pouring sweat but every time the sun goes behind the clouds, I’m shivering again. Going clockwise has sent us up hills immediately and leaving us disheartened.

crater lake over look

Over the course of the day, we slowly round Wizard Peak, which looks like something out of a fantasy novel anchored in the center of the lake. After a wind-swept climb to Watchman Peak, the trail opens up and pours out downwards towards Llao Rock. To the east, the hills roll out to plains and forest, where a snowmobile trail cuts through the trees with a white ribbon.

We round Llao Rock and devour our snacks at an outcrop. We are tired, a different kind of tired than summer backpacking, and we descend off the trail to make camp, boil water, and go to sleep.

 

Day Two: Steel Bay to Phantom Ship Overlook

I’m not great at getting up and I’m worse in the snow. Looking at our boots, where the moisture has frozen on them overnight, like putting cold stones onto our feet to start the day.

The day starts warm and we hike in our t-shirts in the sun. Nearby snow birds, used to the trickle of people, eat granola out of our hands. They fly up and perch on our wrists to eat breakfast. We also stumble upon an outhouse near where we camp, a relief to us who’ve had to put our butts out in the cold to go before.

snowy mountain side

Day two is a gruelfest, and we slog for miles uphill before coming to the pass between Cloudcap Overlook and Mount Scott, before slouching downhill past Pumice Rock to Phantom Ship Overlook, where we set up camp for the night. We have hiked somewhere between 12-14 miles and our legs are rubber. Phantom Ship sits like a derelict chapel down below as Wizard Island looms far away.

Right before bed, we peek out at the stars in a moonless sky, everything clear and Venus burning. 

Day Three: Phantom Ship Overlook to the Ranger Station

The first thing we hit is an avalanche zone. No more than half a mile long, we take turns letting one person get far enough before following each other. Sections of the trail have flooded with snow, forcing us to the edge of a precipice. I delicately set my snowshoes down, walking heel to toe, careful not to lean too far left over the drop down the cliff. I’m sweating with anxiety early, but the section is over before I know it.

back side of crater lake

We were lucky to have had good weather for two days, but it starts to turn, the wind sending snow sideways into our faces. We catch the last 8 or so miles quickly before arriving at the car, quickly changing in the cold and tucking into the sanctuary of a dry warm vehicle. 

Snowshoeing Crater Lake is certainly Type-II Fun, but the views are worth the hustle. The cold and conditions can be a little rough at times, but the story is what most of us do it for anyway.

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