CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK – For several hours Rim Drive was mine.
It was a sunny weekday morning when I stepped into my cross country skis at Crater Lake National Park’s Rim Village and headed out West Rim Drive. Incredibly, the parking lot was empty and, even more amazing, once on the road I didn’t see another person.
Evidence of weekend crowds were obvious. Near the lake overlooks in front of the Rim Village cafeteria-gift shop and at the West Rim Road junction, trails had been pounded flat by walkers and snowshoers.
Unfortunately, park staff have not yet placed signs asking walkers and snowshoers to not walk in ski tracks. Most people don’t realize that walking in ski tracks creates holes that makes skiing far more difficult. In recent years, many cross country skiers have increasingly avoided West Rim Drive because of frequently poor trail conditions. This day, however, most of the punctured tracks were from walkers, not snowshoers.
Although the earlier tracks were evident, once away past the junction and for the next few hours no one was in sight — no walkers, snowshoers or other skiers.
From roadside viewpoints, looking down on the lake and Wizard Island were, as always, magical. Clear skies made Mount Scott, Garfield Peak and other high points that surround the lake sparkle.
Some sections of the road showed pavement, especially near Discovery Point. That’s a common occurrence in early winter. Sunshine heats the asphalt and melts the road, while brisk winds sweep away freshly fallen snow. That creates good footing for walkers, but results in detours for snow-seeking skiers.
The foot tracks lessened beyond Discovery Point, except those from a truly intrepid walker. The holes continued to the Lightning Springs trailhead, but from there it was bliss — undisturbed ski tracks led uphill to The Watchman overlook.
The sights along Rim Drive change after Discovery Point. Lake views are less frequent, but that’s OK. Sometimes it’s not just about the lake.
That’s because instead of focusing on views of Crater Lake’s celestial waters, it’s possible to focus on and fully appreciate often overlooked offerings. Some sections along Rim Drive are showered with frozen icicles, with some steeply walled areas lined with rows of thin, dagger-like blades. In other areas, tree branches and needles are delicately highlighted with fluffy, frozen snow. Even the ribs of the tree bark are lined with crenulated snow. In winter, Whitebark pines bend into contortions under of tremendous snow loads. Westward views show thick stands of glistening, snowy white forests.
It’s still fall, but, as always, Crater Lake’s snow season is underway. Although the ongoing drought has prevented the park from reaching its average seasonal snowpack in recent few years, some long-range forecasts indicate upwards of 500 inches could fall between now and May or June.
Whatever the weather, it’s worthwhile to stop and appreciate Crater Lake’s diverse sights, especially on rare, sun-filled days.
The ski back offered more sights and more solitude. Rim Drive was still all mine.
And then it wasn’t.
Past Discovery Point a walker appeared. Shortly afterwards groups of two to four were making their way to the overlook. None had snowshoes so their feet and legs often disappeared, sinking deep into soft snow. Some avoided the ski tracks and, instead, followed a firmer trail created by earlier walkers and snowshoers.
While approaching Rim Village even more people appeared, scattered around overlooks. All of them were obviously enchanted and thrilled by the tantalizing lake sightings.
Another surprise came when leaving Rim Village. The parking lot near the cafeteria-gift shop, which had been nearly several empty hours earlier, was nearly packed. A quick glance at license plates indicated visitors from Louisiana, Tennessee, Ohio, Arizona, New Hampshire, Minnesota, New York and more. And, of course, Washington and California.
The crush of winter visitors can be a problem. Accidents are frequent, although a park ranger said, so far, none had resulted in serious injuries. He said one visitor’s pickup truck went off the road and crashed into a snow bank. Minutes later, after digging himself out, he slid off the road and smacked into yet another snow bank. Many visitors, especially those from warmer climates, are unprepared for winter driving so accidents are common.
That was reinforced a few miles from the park’s South Entrance when flashing lights glowed. While rangers directed traffic, a stretcher was being wheeled from an ambulance. Seen through the rows of emergency vehicles was a car that had slid down an embankment and off the road, where it rested obviously smashed and smooshed. Minutes later a second ambulance with screaming lights was on its way to the accident site.
Driving to Crater Lake in winter can be challenging. Be cautious and be prepared.