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Going cross-country at the Crater

CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK — Even when the weather’s fickle, it’s almost impossible to have a bad day cross-country skiing at Crater Lake National Park.

But when the sun is shining, the lake’s intensely blue waters are sparkling and the trees lining the rim are hung over with loads of frozen snow, there are few places that can better evoke a genuine sense of nature and wonder.

While there are several starting points for cross-country trails, skiing along the rim to lake overlooks is the most inviting. From Rim Village the most popular trail follows West Rim Drive 1.2 miles to Discovery Point, 2.3 miles to the Wizard Island Overlook, 3.1 miles to the Union Peak Overlook, 3.9 miles to the Watchman Overlook, and for the more aggressive, 4.6 miles to the Diamond Peak Overlook and 6 miles to the North Junction.

The mostly gentle terrain includes some relatively mild downhills and uphills, especially past the Wizard Island Overlook.

Discovery Point is a popular stopping and turn-around spot, especially for beginning skiers and snowshoers. Whether staying or going farther, it’s worth a stop because it offers exceptional views of Wizard Island. It’s also the place where John Wesley Hillman, a member of a group from Jacksonville seeking the legendary Lost Cabin gold mine, nearly stumbled into the lake.

An even more dramatic lake view is possible from the Wizard Island Overlook, where the cinder cone that rises above the lake’s surface is photo-friendly and tightly framed by trees. The island was given its name by William Steel, regarded as the Father of Crater Lake, who decided the cone looks like a wizard’s hat.

It’s a steady climb of 240 feet in the next three-quarters of a mile to another unmarked viewpoint that offers views of Union Peak, the triangle shaped peak of another volcano, and farther south, sunny day sightings of Mount McLoughlin and more distant — about 100 air miles — of Mount Shasta. Beyond the overlook, Rim Drive curves around sometimes ice-glazed sections as it continues to The Watchman and, farther, to the Diamond Peak Overlook and the North Junction. Of course, Rim Drive continues its lake looping circuit, a trip that requires a very long day or one or two overnight camps.

In recent winters the numbers of cross-country skiers along West Rim Drive have seemingly declined, in part because of the growing popularity of snowshoeing. The park offers ranger-led snowshoe tours on weekends and holidays, while the Rim Village gift shop provides rental gear. Unlike cross-country skiing, snowshoeing requires virtually no learning curve, so it’s become an increasingly easy way to travel beyond Rim Village’s roped-off viewing posts.

That popularity comes at a cost. The park has a clearly visible sign “Do Not Hike, Snowboard or Snowshoe in Ski Tracks” at the beginning of East Rim Drive, but none were posted recently on the much more heavily travel West Rim Drive.

During high wind days, East Rim Drive is an option for skiers and snowshoers looking to avoid the more exposed West Rim Drive. The disadvantage is there are no lake views for 4½ miles, the distance to Sun Notch.

Crater Lake Reflections, the park’s visitor newspaper, does note “as a courtesy to skiers, please refrain from walking on ski tracks.” Without the signs, however, it’s understandable that snowshoers aren’t aware of conflicts, even in areas where side-by-side tracks — one for snowshoers, one for skiers — have been set.

What’s the problem? Snowshoeing on cross-country tracks genuinely impairs kicking and gliding for skiers. And, with snowshoers seemingly multiplying and outnumbering cross-country skiers on typical weekend days by a 4-to-1 ratio, it is a problem.

Still, there’s no better way to gain a variety of lake perspectives than by cross-country skiing, because it’s a faster, less plodding way to travel. Whether it’s just a short jaunt to Discovery Point, a more challenging workout to The Watchman or a truly vigorous out-and-back to the North Junction, there are advantages to the vantages possible on cross-county skis.

For information about Crater Lake National Park ski trails, ranger-led snowshoe trips and the status of winter facilities, read the free Reflections visitor newspaper or see the park’s website at www.nps.gov./crla.

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



Wizard Island sparkles in Crater Lake. - PHOTO BY LEE JUILLERAT
Snowshoers stay in their trail while touring Rim Drive. - PHOTO BY LEE JUILLERAT