Crater Lake National Park is one of our nation's most spectacular works of nature. Thousands of years ago, the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Mazama gouged its way through the landscape, leaving the bowl-shaped crater which is now one of the deepest lakes in the world. Winter and summer, the water's vibrant blue elicits a moment of awestruck silence from most first-time visitors.
While summer weather draws the most visitors, those who brave considerable accumulations of snow — an average of 44 feet — find a glorious winter environment that provides a unique way to enjoy the "off" season at the park.
Weekend snowshoe hikes, guided by park rangers, have become a very popular outdoor activity. Best of all, anyone 8 years and older can participate. You don't need special gear or any particular skills, and they even provide the snowshoes — free!
"A lot of people come here in the summer, but not a lot of folks have been to Crater Lake in the winter, and winter is the defining season," says David Grimes, one of several park rangers who conducts the walks. "It determines what plants and animals can live up here, and it really is the most important time as far as the park ecology is concerned."
Bundled-up visitors meet at the Rim Village information desk, where they are fitted with snowshoes. As for footwear, snowshoes can accommodate anything from sneakers to big snow boots, but it's a good idea to wear something much warmer and more water-resistant than sneakers, Grimes says.
"Most people who join us have never snowshoed before, so there's really no experience necessary," Grimes says. "That's one reason we lead the walks is to introduce people to this form of recreation that might be very unfamiliar to them. You don't need to be in great shape, but it is a moderately strenuous walk of about a mile, and we do go up and down hills. Folks need to be able to do that."
During the walk, rangers describe native vegetation and explain how winter affects the park's ecology, shapes the landscape and impacts Crater Lake itself. Animal tracks are always a special treat to be discovered.
"We're usually out for an hour and a half, and we cover about a mile over moderately strenuous terrain. We make stops along the way, so we're walking half the time and talking half the time," explains Grimes.
Although little skill is required to enjoy this novel mode of snow trekking, it is wise to come prepared. The elevation — 7,100 feet — can have an effect on some hikers, but before leaving the guides assess the group's general fitness level and plan accordingly.
"The weather can be unpredictable, either snowing or overcast, or it can be warm and sunny. It can be very cold if the wind is blowing, so it's a good idea to layer, then see how the weather is when you arrive for your walk. It can be very different from the weather in the valley," says Grimes.
If you decide to add snowshoeing to your recreational activities and want to invest in a pair of your own, they are available locally.
"They're pretty popular with people who like hiking and group activities, and it works for all ages, kids and older adults who are not really that athletic. Last year, we totally sold out of our snowshoes," says Antonio Diaz, sales associate at Blackbird Shopping Center in Medford.
Joe's Sports also reports brisk sales of snowshoes. "People do it all over the place. Some go up to Crater Lake, Mount Ashland, Shasta, out of Shady Cove or over toward Klamath Falls. They just get up to the snow, pull over and start hiking," says Shawn Carrigan, sales associate at Joe's in Medford's Poplar Square.
Crater Lake snowshoe hikes run every Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m., from November through April. There is no cost for the tour, no park entrance fee and no fee for snowshoe usage.
The park's south and west entrances are maintained and do not require chains or four-wheel drive. Reservations are advised, since group size is limited and tours tend to fill up. Call the visitor center at 541-594-3100 or visit www.crater.lake.national-park.com for more information.