Crater Lake Under Snow


Llao Rock and Wizard Island: it was the stillest day we’d ever seen at the lake

My dentist, the first Klamath Indian to become one, was talking about Crater Lake the other day, in the moments before the panicked shrieking began.

“We get free entrance to the park,” he said, speaking of the members of his tribe. “A trade-off, I suppose. We give them the lake and they let us visit.”

For millennia prior to its “discovery” in June of 1853, the Klamath Indians had used the lake as an open-air cathedral, of sorts. Climbing up to the rim to see the lake was allowed only on religious pilgrimage and only with a reverential cast of mind.


The lodge

Approach to the park

The Steel Center

In these latter days, in the Summer, when Crater Lake is the most crowded with tourists, reverence is not on ready display nor easily found by its seekers. Between the “raisin boxes,” as we used to irreverently call the tour buses when I worked at the Lake, the lock-step hordes of totally extreme outdoor sports enthusiasts and the Germans, the place feels more like something to get through than a place to seek communion.

In the Winter, however, it is a whole different kettle of frozen fish. Winter in the mountains is a great silent room. What little sound there is carries softly across great distances. The snow on the jackpines creates the Platonic model for what gets bodied imperfectly forth in altar, bima and mihrab. Even those not normally given to a religious cast of mind find a kind of osmosis in effect that calls out an apprehension of those things in our lives that exceed those mere lives.

Snowshoeing to the rim, by Garfield Peak


Wizard Island and Llao Rock

The grandeur of a Western mountain winter cannot, I think, even be imagined by someone who has not been there. If you have been there, I encourage you to go back. In comparison with even the grandest of its peers, Crater Lake excels. It is not the largest, not the most operatic, but it is the most complex, powerful and poetic Winter location I have ever seen. If you are unfamiliar with Winter in the mountains, go for the first time, but be warned. Visiting Crater Lake and then following it up with other Winter destinations is like reading Nikos Kazantzakis’s “Report to Greco” before any of his other novels. None quite reach the height and the depth of the model for, and apogee of, the rest.

Afterward you may need a bit of a lie-down.

As far as the practical issues go, getting there is paramount. When traveling to the Lake, I usually take 58 through Oakridge, then 97 south through Gilchrist and turn West on 62 toward the South entrance. In the Winter, indeed for most of the year, the North entrance is closed. It is not closed because it is a bit of a slog. It is closed because the road is covered in over 20 feet of snow. That is not hyperbole. The average snowfall over Winter on the Hill is 44 feet.

You will need chains.

Oh, and you will need a backpack, with food, water, extra clothing, waterproof matches, waterproof tarp and many other things. For a good list of necessary items, check with park headquarters.

Now, when I say you will need these things, it is important that you understand it is not really a suggestion. Do not walk out of sight of your car without them. Nearly every year someone dies in the Park in Winter. It is a dangerous place. There are ravines, buried tree stumps and the lake itself. One false step and you spend the rest of your life rolling. You would be a fool not to go, but a damned fool not to go prepared.

There are not a great many things to do up top in Winter, not in the sense of activities to pay for. The park headquarters, Steel Center, is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. daily. Unless you have an untoward fondness for packaged cookies, you will need to provision before you hit the Hill. The lodge, visitor centers and cafeteria on the Rim are closed from October to June. The South entrance itself is never closed, but the last mile of road, from Steel Center to the Rim, often is in the dead of Winter.

As a consolation, however, there are a limited number of free activities open to you that provide infinite variety. These include snowshoeing, either on your own or on a ranger-led tour and skiing. Back country permits are necessary to overnight. (Overnight only if you are familiar with snow camping.)

Each Winter a handful of hearty types make the 30-mile circuit around the Lake, on the snow-covered Rim Drive, usually cross-country skiing. This is a task, so do not overestimate your skill and endurance. But for those who are capable of doing it safely, it is one of these activities that you remember all your life.

The last time we went up there, my wife and I joined a couple from the Bay Area for a ranger-led nature tour. These take off from the Steel Center at 1:00 p.m. daily, weather allowing. It is advisable to call ahead. Not only was the tour informative (and free no less, including snowshoes if you do not have your own) but the day was a very rare one, in which the wind, usually an omnipresent companion on the Hill, was utterly still. The sun shone and the Lake’s surface was glass. If art holds a mirror up to nature, Crater Lake on this day held the mirror up to Heaven.

The most beautiful church I have ever entered was the Notre Dame in Paris, a sanctuary from the clamour and dirty heat of the Paris street. It was rivaled only by the Mosque in Cordoba, an infinite-seeming forest of purple and cream-colored marble. But these buildings are at best pale imitations, of Crater Lake in Winter.
Crater Lake Under Snow

The lake was a mirror


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