At Crater Lake National Park, where snow covers the landscape in pastel shades of white and mountain peaks tower above a deep, cobalt-blue lake, the place is so silent the only sound is your own breath.
It's a wild place where cougars, lynx and pine martens hunt rabbits, voles and squirrels. Walking through this world in winter is almost surreal.
What: Ranger-led snowshoe hikes in Crater Lake National Park. The walks last two hours and cover approximately one mile of moderately strenuous terrain. Snowshoes are provided free.
When: 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through April 29
Need to know: Participants should be at least 8 years old, be in reasonably good physical condition, and come prepared with warm clothing and water-resistant footwear. Space on each tour is limited, and advance reservations are recommended.
To register: For information and to sign up, call the park's visitor center at 541-594-3100.
In summer, visitors drive around Crater Lake's scenic rim admiring the spectacular views of its peaks and the intense blue of the water. Some hearty souls climb Mount Scott or The Watchman, the two highest peaks in the park. After Halloween, however, the park is almost forgotten and mostly left alone until summer returns.
From November to June, when the park receives an average of 44 feet of snow, there are no crowds or traffic, but outdoor recreation opportunities abound: cross-country skiing, sledding, snow boarding, snow camping, bird watching and snowshoeing.
The best-kept secret of the park is the free, ranger-guided snowshoe hikes that are offered every Saturday and Sunday from late November to the end of April. The hikes are limited to 30 people, so you must call the park in advance at 541-594-3100 to reserve a spot. The hikes start at 1 p.m., leaving from the lodge and going east, away from the road, into virgin terrain. The park provides snowshoes free of charge to all those who sign up, so even if you do not have snowshoes, you can still go on the hike.
Interpretive rangers provide instruction on the use of snowshoes, which are easy to use. The hike lasts about two hours and covers approximately one mile over varied terrain. There are frequent rests along the way because the ranger stops at various places to explain the flora, fauna and geology of the Park. Hikers of all ages take part, from children to grandparents.
The park website, www.nps.gov/crla/index.htm, contains weather information, and it is important to check because it is often overcast and the lake is not visible, or it is snowing and the weather is too foul for an enjoyable outing. When it is clear, however, a snowshoe hike is a fantastic experience that combines learning about this national treasure with majestic views that stagger the senses.
In early February, my wife, Barbara, and I went on one of these ranger-guided snowshoe hikes on a cold, clear, sunny day that was so glorious it made us glad to be alive. We have our own snowshoes, but other members of the group did not, and our ranger-guide, Michael, helped everyone strap them on and demonstrated how to walk with them. It is a skill easily mastered, and so we set off. The route varies with each ranger depending on the snow, the wildlife activity and the number in the group. On this day there were only 10 of us, so we could cover more ground.
About every quarter mile we'd stop and the ranger would explain something about the park. He told us that most of the trees in the park are old-growth, but they're not huge because of the harsh climate. From lower to higher elevation there are four major species: ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock and whitebark pine. The rangers use a binder of plastic-coated photographs to illustrate the flora or fauna they are discussing, so it is easy to understand and recognize the species.
We walked across the white expanse of a large, snow-covered meadow, our snowshoes crunching as they bit into the snow's crust. At our next stop, the ranger talked about the different animals that live in the park. The large herbivores, deer and elk, leave in winter because there is little food and they cannot walk well in the deep snow. The smaller animals, rabbits, voles, squirrels and chipmunks, stay in the park and survive by eating seeds and nuts they have stored whiles their predators — foxes, lynx, bobcats, pine martens, weasels and coyotes — survive by eating them.
Then we climbed through a stand of mountain hemlocks up to the rim and were graced with a view of the lake, Wizard Island, The Watchman and Llao Rock. It was so impressive we all involuntarily sucked in our breath; it was literally breathtaking. I have never seen such a magnificent view of the lake in winter. The surface of the lake was an azure mirror and Wizard Island rose from the gleaming surface: a perfect, white cone. The steep walls of the caldera were painted white and soared up to the rim, their knife-edged ridges highlighted by the sun. Towering above the rim, The Watchman at 8,013 feet overlooked the entire lake, and to the north, Llao Rock jutted its 2,000-foot vertical face outward into the lake.
The ranger explained how Crater Lake was formed 7,700 years ago when Mount Mazama collapsed after a gigantic eruption, forming a caldera which gradually filled with water over thousands of years. We lingered at this viewpoint as long as we could, absorbing the magnificent vistas, then turned reluctantly and followed the ranger through the forest back to the parking lot.
A snowshoe hike at Crater Lake during the winter can be an experience of a lifetime, and it is right in our backyard. It is easily accessible; it is free and it is a memory you will treasure the rest of your life.
Carlyle Stout lives in Ashland.