We first visited Crater Lake National Park in the fall of 2013. It was the end of September, but judging by the weather you would have thought it was mid-February. Cold rain, persistent clouds, and LOTS of snow made our short visit less than stellar. You know that brilliant blue water you see in photos of Crater Lake? Well…turns out it’s not so blue when the sun is hiding behind a thick layer of clouds. It took us nearly 5 years, but we made it back, and this time we had optimal weather for viewing the lake.
What we failed to realize was that the road all way around the lake is still closed at this time of year. In fact, it turns out that unless you visit mid-summer, your chances of driving all the way around are slim to none. Not a big deal as there is plenty to see on the west side of the Rim Road, but my dreams of hiking Mt. Scott (the highest point in the park) were dashed. Instead, we decided to tackle the Garfield Peak Trail.
Despite the crowds of people clustered on the rim and the fact that Garfield Peak is touted as one of the most popular hikes in the park, we had the trail mostly to ourselves. Might have had something to do with the fact that technically this trail was still closed. Here’s the part where I admit we hiked past two “trail closed” signs to reach the summit. We’re normally all for obeying trail closed signs when they are for valid reasons like nesting birds or soil erosion, but these two northeasterners are not letting a little snow slow us down! Also, it seems kind of funny that you are allowed to stand on the edge of the rim that plunges 1,000 feet to the lake below, but hiking a trail with snow is too dangerous?
We encountered the first patch of snow about a mile up the trail. From afar, the steep, snow-covered slope looks a little tricky to navigate, but the well-trodden path from those that had come before us made the crossing easy. Guess we’re not the only rule breakers.
As the trail wound around the back of the mountain, we came upon a large snowy area. Another well-defined path of footprints easily led us through the snowfield and back to the rim of the crater.
There was one more large snow-covered area to tackle before we reached the summit. It was fairly steep, but we followed the footprints up while taking care to step lightly so we didn’t sink in too far. I think we hit the weather sweet spot for this snowy hike. Any warmer and each step would have meant climbing out of a two-foot hole of soft snow. Any colder and the surface would have turned icy and slippery.
We made it up to a dry spot just short of the summit. From this vantage point, we weren’t sure about going any farther because the ridge of snow on the top (the part that looks like a wave on the right) looked a bit unstable.
So we sat on a rock and ate lunch while enjoying the view.
A hiker who had been just behind us for most of the trail caught up and after a brief chat he continued up to the summit. We watched as he disappeared around the back and then popped out on top. I held my breath as he walked out on the snowy wave, but nothing caved in and soon he was hiking back past us with tales of amazing views. Okay fine, you convinced us. He was right about the views. As we followed the trail around the backside of the summit, this was the view looking down.
We made it to the top and took a photo to prove it. Turns out that a good portion of the summit was not snow-covered and we didn’t even have to walk out on the unstable snowy area.
We took a slightly different path on the way down to avoid that last steep snowy section. It was just as snow covered, but with a milder slope that allowed us to have a bit of fun sliding down on our feet. I don’t always admit it, but at times like these, I realize that maybe I do miss snow a little bit.
This was a fairly short hike and it was still early in the afternoon, so we stopped on the way down to chill for awhile and enjoy the view. I would imagine that this trail is very popular mid-summer. With a convenient location near the visitor center and lodge, an easy round-trip distance of under four miles, and some really awesome views of the lake and surrounding area, it has the potential to be overrun during peak times. So while it was disappointing that once again we couldn’t drive all the way around the lake, I think we timed it just right to hike this trail with only a handful of other people and some snow thrown in for extra fun.
While it was only a short visit, we left thrilled with our experience and so happy that we got to see the lake in all its glory this time around. Until next time Crater Lake…