In 1990 I skied around Crater Lake from April 13th to the 15th. The trip was on my To-do list since working at the park as a seasonal Park Ranger in 1973.
While Crater Lake features a variety of designated crosscountry trails for skiers, skiing around the lake is the ultimate way to explore the park. According to the Park Service in recent winters approximately 80 skiers and 30 snowshoers travel all the way around Crater Lake during the period the rim road is snowbound which typically encompasses, late Fall, all Winter and early Spring. Under the best conditions, clear skies and a settled snow pack, the 31-mile loop takes an average of 3 days to ski.
Based on my experience, I knew the park gets an unbelievable amount of snow each year. In the 1990s average snow fall was 493 inches a year. More recently snow falls have decreased but nevertheless since 2010 snow fall has averaged 377 inches per year which is over 34 feet of snow. Given these totals, I do not think the dead of winter is the best time to ski the rim for a number of reasons. First, the route crosses several avalanche runs and if the snow is not stable you would have to detour away from the rim to ensure safe passage. If you are on the rim in a storm you might be put into a survival situation quickly where travel is impossible due to wind and whiteout conditions. Second, the park can get massive dumps and trying to ski when it is snowing could require difficult trail breaking for 31 miles. Third, there is a lot more daylight later in the season. Finally, and most importantly, you want clear weather to enjoy the incredible views. If you have never visited the park you have missed one of the top 10 scenic wonders in America.
I recommend making the trip late March or early April and only when you have a good long term forecast of dry clear weather. In 1990, I had to contend with a busy work schedule so I planned my trip to last three days. I would recommend planning a four day trip, so you can spend one day skiing the terrific open terrain between the rim and Mount Scott. The Park Service attempts to keep the south road to the rim open year round which means good access to the rim road. The Park maintenance crew also starts plowing the rim road when possible in late March or early April. So, your task is to plan your trip once the weather has settled down and before the plowing has started. In 1990, the park had plowed the first mile of our route forcing us to walk that distance which would not have been a problem if we had not had to carry our sled. (The sides of the road dropped off steeply on one side and were too cliffy to ski on the other.)
We took a dome tent, winter sleeping bags, medium size packs and one sled to haul most of our equipment. We skied with three pin bindings with no wax telemark skis and skins where necessary. After the first mile we were able to ski the remaining distance on deep, bomb proof snow. I should note that our route did not take us completely around the lake. We parked at Rim Village and ended our ski at the park headquarters which left us about two miles or so short of a complete loop. There is now a designated trail from the headquarters to the rim if you want to be hardcore and absolutely complete the loop. I was happy to hitchhike up the hill to get my car.
The route follows the rim road but the snow cover is deep and the road will be buried. Keep in mind the route is not marked though following road cut is not difficult for the majority of the distance. I did not ski the detours around the avalanche prone areas so I cannot tell you if the detours are easy or hard to follow. The bottom line is that if decided to attempt the trip you should be experienced in winter camping, backcountry travel, and understand how to travel safely in avalanche prone area.
Our first day out we traveled to the vicinity of Steel Cove which was roughly a seven mile day. We crossed mostly corn snow that was settled enough in the open areas that you could walk on it. We found a nice campsite in the trees above Steel Cove. The snow was less well consolidated in the trees and we had to dig down a bit to get a solid base for the tent. We beat a path from our tent to a view point about a fifty yards away where we sat and watched the lake and made dinner.
Our second day took us to the Pumice Castle Overlook. We set up camp in the snowed in parking area and had an unequaled view of the lake that evening. Our route ran eleven miles over firm snow. As I recall, I had to use skins on one climb because the weight of the sled was holding me back. Our campsite was due west of Mount Scott. We had access nearby to open slopes which gave me the opportunity to make a few turns without the sled. If you are a better skier than me and have an extra day an ascent of Mount Scott would be a challenging adventure.
Day three involved another eleven-mile ski which took us past the Dutton Cliff, Applegate Peak and Vidae Ridge avalanche zones. Given our mid-April visit and the fact that 1990 was a low snow year we were able to cross through these areas with no worries. The last day was a bit of a slog after we got our last view of the lake at Sun Notch. The road is mostly downhill after the notch but the day turned up the heat and we had some slushy conditions for the last five or six miles and no views of the lake.
As far as regulations, you will also need a backcountry permit. They are free. Camping is allowed but your campsite must be one mile from the nearest plowed road and out of sight of any ski trail or route. It is best to ski the route clockwise from the perspective of elevation gain and loss.
For trip-planning advice call the park 541-594-3100.