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Crater Lake ski trails perfect this time of year

The magnetic draw of Crater Lake makes the three-mile section of West Rim Drive from the Rim Village (7,100 feet) to the west side of the Watchman (7,400 feet) the most popular cross-country ski route in Crater Lake National Park. Backcountry skiers start their tours of the rim here, and day trippers put up with a choppy beginning to indulge in views that often extend to Mount McLoughlin and Mount Shasta.

On your way to the lake and three miles before the plows stop at the Rim Village parking lot, make a stop at park headquarters, where rangers can radio the park's volunteer ski patrollers for up-to-date trail recommendations and avalanche warnings. The park does not charge a winter entry fee. Dogs are not allowed on the trails.

The first half-mile of West Rim Drive is well worn by walkers, snowshoers and skiers. Winds that streak down the valleys and race across the lake sculpt your route with drifts and crust. Once you get beyond the hubbub, you face a rewarding excursion that alternates between views of the lake and wooded areas that cut the wind. In the right conditions, skiers find tempting detours in nearby bowls.

Many beginners turn around at Discovery Point Overlook for a gentle 2.2-mile round-trip tour. Some dip out of sight of the trail to set up overnight camps here. If you are continuing toward the Watchman, you face a narrower trail and possible snowdrifts. At 2.5 miles, following a moderate ascent on the edge of a steep telemarking meadow and a narrow downhill stretch, you arrive at a perfectly framed view of Wizard Island. Just past the view, you pass the Lightning Springs Trail, a challenging one-way route that has not been completely remarked since the 2006 Bybee fire.

One-half mile of moderate climbing takes you to a lookout on Watchman's western flank. You may want to turn around here, since beyond this point avalanche danger increases.

When the wind drives you off the rim, warm up with a hot chocolate at the cafeteria before heading to the two-mile Hemlock loop trail, which starts on the east side of the parking lot and is usually skied in a counterclockwise direction. You'll leave the crowds and the wind behind as you enter the rolling terrain and open hemlock forests at the top of Munson Ridge.

Wind protection improves the snow condition on much of this tour, although icy patches inevitably develop under the trees when temperatures rise between snowfalls. The gentle terrain makes the trail slow after a fresh snowfall. Expect long views of the Upper Klamath Basin and close-ups of Garfield Peak.

The wind protection ends as you return to the Rim and intersect the Raven Trail, a steep trail that heads to park headquarters via sharp turns, an avalanche chute and a poorly marked bottom section. Your tour finishes with an eastern approach to the lodge over wind-firmed snow.

In or out of the wind, skiers face challenge, beauty and variety at Crater Lake, where snowfall averages 45 feet a year, and the Rim remains a skier's delight throughout March and April.

For road conditions inside the park, call 541-594-3000. For road conditions outside the park, visit www.tripcheck.com. For more information, visit www.craterlakeskipatrol.org.

Mary Beth Lee is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail her at gentlejourneys@ashlandhome.net.

Crater Lake ski trails perfect this time of year