In some ways, Oregon is home to two different national parks that just so happen to be in the same place: Crater Lake in summer, and Crater Lake in winter.
“The experience is so different that we often say that it’s really two different parks,” said Marsha McCabe, chief of interpretation at Crater Lake.
That difference, of course, is driven by snow. An exploded volcano with a rim at 7,000 feet, Crater Lake gets 42 feet of annual snowfall, transforming the park into a winter wonderland and wilderness during the year’s coldest months.
In winter, roads become snowshoe and ski routes. The sound of cars is replaced by the quiet crunch of snow. You can camp with a view of Crater Lake’s rim — though only if you’re willing to pitch a tent in the snow. And in general, a trip here requires a lot more planning than during the summer months.
On the latest edition of the Explore Oregon Podcast, we broke down everything you need know about a winter road trip to Crater Lake, including lodging, adventure types and the fun stops you can make on the drive to and from the park, which include hot springs, waterfalls and snowy cabins.
Explore Oregon PodcastCrater Lake winter road trip features snowshoeing, skiing, views
Three types of adventure at Crater Lake
In the winter there are typically three ways people experience Crater Lake — skewing from easy to medium to difficult levels of adventure.
1: The most popular trip in winter, said McCabe, is simply driving to Rim Village, at the top of Crater Lake. Here, kids can play in the snow while adults can get views of the lake from outdoors or indoors, including from a second-level viewing area, all while drinking a hot beverage or having lunch.
This area is sometimes closed when winter storms close the road from park headquarters to Crater Lake’s rim — check the park’s website ahead of time.
2: The medium adventure can include taking a popular ranger-guided snowshoe trip or taking your own snowshoe or cross-county ski adventure.
The ranger-guided trips take place on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from Dec. 10 through April 30. The walks start at 1 p.m., last two hours and cover 1 to 2 miles of moderate-to-strenuous terrain either through the forest or along the lake’s rim. The guided trip includes information about the park’s winter ecology and other topics.
But, you don’t need to go on a guided trip to snowshoe or ski. West Rim Drive becomes an easy-to-navigate winter trail. Simply follow it to places such as Discovery Point (2.2 miles round-trip), Wizard Island overlook (5 miles round-trip) or up to the Watchman Lookout (about 6.5 to 7 miles round-trip).
3: A bucket-list experience at Crater Lake in winter is snow camping with a view of the rim. A permit from the backcountry office is required to stay overnight and you have to camp away from the road or other campers (which isn’t hard).
Each winter, around 80 skiers and 40 snowshoers travel all 31 miles around Crater Lake and typically camp two nights and travel three days for the entire journey. March and April are the most popular months to complete the loop since spring provides more hours of daylight than the winter months and longer periods of fair weather.
Avalanche safety and backcountry ability are key for this trip.
Honorable mention: You are allowed to snowmobile at Crater Lake following the North Entrance Road, and to one point at the rim. You can’t snowmobile around Crater Lake. Many start snowmobile trips or rent the sleds at Diamond Lake Resort.
Call in advance: The phones are staffed each weekday at Crater Lake and I highly recommend calling to work out the details to your trip in advance at 541-594-3000.
Entry fee: The winter entry fee is $20 per car, and can only be paid with a credit or debit card at the entrance station, or by buying a pass in advance at Recreation.gov.
Seasons: Typically, the winter season is considered November to May, when the Rim Road and North Entrance roads are always closed. The exact time the roads close or reopen depend on the season.
Where to stay?
Unless you’re snow camping, there’s no place to stay overnight at Crater Lake in winter. That means you’ll have to stay outside the park and then drive in for day-adventures.
The place I typically recommend is Union Creek Resort, which offers rooms and cabins at a reasonable rate about a 35 to 40 minute drive from the park. Becky’s Café offers food right there on site. Other options include Prospect Hotel or Diamond Lake Resort. There are likely other options, but those are three I know best.
The drive to Crater Lake in winter is significant, traveling three to five hours from Salem and Eugene, depending on your route. I’ve always encouraged people to have some fun with the drive, since the route can include some of the most scenic spots in Oregon.
My favorite route is to create a sort of big loop using Interstate 5 and then following North Umpqua Highway 138 on the way there and Willamette Pass Highway 58 on the way back, with Crater Lake being the midway point.
Yes, it takes a bit longer, but the waterfalls, hot springs and wonders you can see along the way make up for it, in my opinion. (If you want the fastest options, just follow Google Maps).
North Umpqua Highway 138
So, why have your trip take extra time? To explore southern Oregon’s answer to the Columbia River Gorge.
North Umpqua Highway 138 follows a canyon with tons of short hikes to stunningly beautiful waterfalls. There are too many to name here, but I’d start with Wolf Creek Falls, a 2.6 mile hike to a 70-foot waterfall in lush forest. Two other options include Susan Creek and Fall Creek waterfalls — which are right next to each other and right off the highway. Unfortunately, both were pretty badly burned in the Archie Creek Fire. But they have reopened.
The two most scenic waterfalls include Watson and Toketee falls. Both are easy 1 mile hikes with truly stunning cascades to view.
And if you’re up for a bit of soaking, Umpqua Hot Springs is another option. In winter sometimes the gate to it closes but you can still snowshoe or ski to reach the springs. Umpqua has always had a reputation for being a place you might run into naked hippies or people smoking marijuana or drinking. Such is the case for many public hot springs.
Willamette Pass Highway 58
This is the quickest route between the Willamette Valley and Crater Lake (Highway 58 to 97 to 62). I’d recommend it for your route back, because it’s also a great place to have some outdoor fun right off the highway.
You can, naturally, stop at Willamette Pass Resort for some downhill skiing. Another fun option is stopping at Salt Creek Summit Sno-Park and snowshoeing to a 286-foot monster waterfall covered in snow (or just sledding there with the kids).
Gold Lake Sno-Park allows for multiple snowshoe or ski trips to backcountry shelters.
And if you want to spend a night, Odell Lake Lodge & Resort or Shelter Cove both offer cozy cabins rentals and rooms for the night.
There are numerous options to consider on any trip to Crater Lake, but listen to the podcast for more details, make your own phone calls and have some fun at one of the snowiest places in Oregon this winter.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 15 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.