Most of Crater Lake’s 650,000 annual visitors show up in the busy summer months and why not, the lake views are stunning, the hiking options endless and the temperatures are warm enough that you’ll consider diving right into the icy lake. But there’s another side to Crater Lake, Winter, which takes hold much of the year as the park sleeps under a thick blanket of deep snow. It’s when you can visit the park without the crowds, without the noise, without the cars. A time with views and adventures that I would argue surpass those of summer and makes for a spectacular getaway whether as a quick stop on a long trip or a long weekend all on its own.
Winter in Crater Lake truly is a world all its own. With snowfall averaging over 500 inches or 44 feet annually and accumulating to be 10, 15 or more feet high at the rim, to call the place a winter wonderland is simply an understatement. While much of the park and area facilities shut down leaving just the visitor’s center, summit gift shop / café and a few restrooms, the land is entirely open — for those willing to explore.
Come in fall for the best of both worlds: The snow usually starts coming down sometime in September though most of the park remains open into early October depending on conditions offering an opportunity for a less crowded stay and a little winter sneak peek. For this short window, the rim roads remain accessible along with both of the park’s campgrounds (which actually have space for a change), the stores, restaurants and lodge. Cool nights make hiking all that much more enjoyable while the occasional early storm can coat the park with just enough powder to give it some of the signature look. From hiking to water side tours to just driving around, fall has a bit of at all though don’t underestimate the potential to be socked in or stuck, a storm is never mild here!
Return for the true winter effect: With constant storms rolling in through fall it does not take long for winter to take hold of the park and by November, the place is in full snow mode with the rim roads shutdown completely. As snow builds up further in the heavy months (December – March), the opportunity for exploring only increases, provided that you can find a break in the weather that is.
On those clear days, drive by visitors will find a stunning view just a few feet from the parking lot with the chance for a signature “look how much snow there is photo” as it piles up at the top of the road. If you’re feeling mildly adventurous, you can join in on one of the park’s volunteer led snowshoeing tours for free (that’s both a free tour and free snowshoes to use on it) or self-explore around the south rim for a few hours on your own. And for the truly aggressive visitor, you snowshoe or cross country ski around some or all of the 33 mile crater rim loop, winter camping in nearly complete solitude.
Outside the park, there are plenty of options to play: From snowmobile rentals to sledding, tubing, ice staking, there’s even some local ice fishing areas. You’ll also find events like sled dog races and seasonal markets / fairs as you leave the remote lands of the park, heading towards the town of Klammath Falls or up towards Bend (you’ll have to loop around from the south for that). Pretty much everything within an hour or two of the par gets enough dose of winter to make for a mighty fine “cozy up” winter weekend escape.
Over the years I had several amazing mini-vacations staying at Running Y Ranch, about 45 minutes from the park’s south gates. It’s an incredible property that feels more like a lodge than the big hotel it actually is and many other similar hotels and cabins can be found all around the park (hint: look for last minute deals come winter).
Even as spring rolls around elsewhere in the country, winter keeps its hold on the park with deep snowfalls lasting into May (and a couple inches even in June!) It’s not until late June or July that snow melt and the considerable plowing efforts are enough to open the north entrance and west rim roads with east rim and its related forks following even further behind that. All this means that the chance to place, see and explore is not limited to just a few weeks of winter, at Crater, it’s most of the year.