Most everyone who has spent much time hiking or backpacking in Oregon has had that “Oh Wow” moment when the combination of the view, the natural splendor and the quality of the light takes your breath away.
The two amazing spots boasting “Oh, Wow” vistas that first come to mind for me are the Chetco Pass in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and Alvord Desert just east of Steens Mountain.
Those two wildland views could not be much more different from one another; the Chetco Pass looks down upon a beautiful post-fire forest surrounding one of the last free-flowing watersheds in the West, whereas the Alvord Desert is a dry playa edging up to a steep mountain escarpment cut with deep canyons. Watching a sunrise or sunset from either location is unforgettable.
I’ve never thought of the views of Crater Lake as reaching quite that same level of gobsmacking otherworldly gorgeousness, and frankly that’s my own fault. Throughout my life as an outdoorsy Oregonian, my experiences of Crater Lake have generally been through the windshield of a car, or from a crowded parking lot. Sure the lake always looks magnificent, and yes, hiking the peaks and viewpoints around the lake provides dramatic and scenic photo opportunities. But to my backcountry heart, it often seemed that the best Crater Lake viewpoints were designed by the National Park Service to primarily be an automobile experience.
By happy accident Sunday, Feb. 17, I had plans to drive to the Crater Lake rim to enjoy the deep mountain snow after years of drought and to see the liquid blue that has made the lake world famous. The park website indicated that due to intense snowstorms of the last several days, the road from the Steel Visitor Center to the lake rim was closed, but people were welcome to ski, snowshoe or hike the one-mile Raven Snow Trail to the rim.
Arriving at the visitor center, I couldn’t help but notice that instead of being disappointed that the road to the lake rim was closed, people seemed giddy at the idea of adventuring through the fresh snow in an old-growth forest under a bluebird sky.
Cross-country skiers were zipping about, other folks strapped snowshoes to their feet, and families pulled youngsters along in sleds, while others just bit the bullet and plunged into the snow in their lowtop tennis shoes. There were grizzled locals from Klamath Falls and the Rogue Valley mingling with people on the trail from around the globe who had traveled many a mile to be there. What struck me was that every person I encountered was smiling, and many were all-out belly laughing as they slid, trudged or glided through the snowy ancient forests up to the lake.
Oh, the lake. My goodness. After a steep final push up through the snow to a hillock, Crater Lake expands for what looks like infinity — large enough that there were little storm clouds spitting sleet over portions of the lake basin, while above the sun made the fresh snow on the surrounding mountain peaks sparkle. It was stunning.
While I had a hard time tearing my eyes away from the expansive lake vista, I just couldn’t resist watching park visitors trudge up the last slope to get their first view of Crater Lake in its wildest midwinter beauty. Pure joy on every face, and this in a national park that was recently closed due to the inability of our political system to protect our public lands during the government shutdown. It was an incredibly sweet moment.
My Sunday snowshoe hike up to the Crater Lake rim showed me the lake in a whole new light. Cars were left behind. Politics were left behind. Strangers were glad to greet each other on the trail and boy, oh boy, everyone was thrilled to see the lake surrounded by fresh snow and glistening like a jewel. For once the light at Crater Lake was perfect, and I will never forget it.
George Sexton serves as the conservation director for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland.