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Tromping the PCT on snowshoes

Photo by Lee JuilleratBill VanMoorhem tromps along the Pacific Crest Trail in Crater Lake National Park.
Photo by Lee JuilleratSnowshoers make trail through a forested section of the PCT at Crater Lake.

CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK — Most years a winter outing at Crater Lake National Park involves cross-country skiing on freshly fallen snow.

Not this winter.

With more than a month without any precipitation and spring-like temperatures, cross-country skiing on the sun-dried, rock-hard snow is like roller skating on Plexiglas. So instead, friends and I swapped our skis for snowshoes for a 5-mile out-and-back outing along a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail that curls through the park.

Snowshoeing can be a fun alternative, especially in deep snow. In recent years, there have been more snowshoers than cross-country skiers on the popular West Rim Drive Trail that begins at Crater Lake’s Rim Village and heads to Discovery Point and beyond.

On this sunny day we were tromping along the PCT from where it crosses Highway 62 about a mile past the park’s Annie Spring/South Entrance station. Snowplow crews have carved a parking area large enough for about six vehicles. The southbound PCT heads towards Union Peak and the Sky Lakes Wilderness. We headed north.

Avoiding stomping on a section of well-hardened cross-country ski tracks, we followed the trail as it climbed, passing through pine and hemlock forests before angling more steeply up then down. In summer the area is fresh and lively, often colored with showy purple monkshood and penstemon, white violets and pink bleeding hearts. There weren’t any heart-to-heart encounters with flowers and other vegetation buried under the still solid snowpack, but we were happy to be snowshoe stomping.

A minor challenge came near our intended turnaround point, Dutton Creek. Because of the deep snow, it required a steep drop to the creek, where its water was flowing. Happily, a short upstream reconnaissance located an ice-caked area where we stepped to the other side.

And on the side was the junction where an arm of the PCT forks up to the lake and Rim Village. It’s the route most used by day and thru-hikers, because it would be lunacy to stay on the original, some call it the official, PCT, and miss experiencing Crater Lake.

We halted steps beyond the junction, where another fork leads to the Dutton Creek Campground. Because it’s near the PCT junction, the campground is heavily used by summertime PCT hikers as a rest or overnight stop.

After a lazy lunch we retraced our now easy-to-follow tracks 2-1/2 miles back to our cars. The hike in had been challenging because, when the few ski tracks ended, we watched eagle-eyed for small blue diamond signs sometimes infrequently hammered high up trees to ensure we were on the trail.

Snowshoeing offers its own challenges. Because they are wider than skis or hiking boots, they can be awkward. And if not securely attached or are, as I’ve relearned too many times, not on the correct foot, they flop, sometimes enough that the boot slips out. One person didn’t notice that one of his was gone until the person behind him shouted, “You lost a snowshoe!”

“I thought it felt different,” the snowshoe-less one laughed.

Although snowshoeing is a slower method of travel, it offers time to savor the scenery — or rest after tromping up steep sections. On our outing there was plenty to enjoy, things like trees loaded with frozen snow on the upper branches, almost looking like huge morel mushrooms.

The morel, or moral of the story, is that winter, even this somewhat faux winter, is a time to be enjoyed. If cross-country skiing isn’t possible, try a different method and see if the snowshoe fits.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.