Monique Porter slides her foot cautiously into the virgin snow of a meadow along the Crater Lake rim, unconvinced the borrowed snowshoes will buoy her in the sea of white.
Looking down, the former Virginian and recent Portlander initially isn’t sure following park Ranger Dave Grimes into the winter woods with these glorified plastic boards on her feet is the smartest decision of the day.
But then Porter looks up at the expansive views of Oregon’s most pristine of places. The snow clean enough to eat. The mountain hemlocks bowing under the weight of last night’s snow. And America’s deepest and cleanest lake at her feet, the bluest hue framed in white.
“The snowshoeing is a little difficult, but having the ranger and, oh, the views, make it,” Porter says. It’s definitely the way to see this beautiful place in winter.”
Crater Lake National Park’s ranger-led snowshoe hikes are one of the best ways to experience in winter chunks of the 93 percent of the park that isn’t deep blue.
The free, ranger-led hikes leave Rim Village at 1 p.m. each Saturday and Sunday through April. During the holidays, the treks are offered daily through Jan. 6, except for Christmas. No previous snowshoe experience is required, and even the snowshoes are free to use, although it still costs $15 per carload to enter the park in winter.
Reservations are suggested by calling the park at 541-594-3100.
The rangers lead snowshoers out of the Rim Village parking lot and into areas of the park best seen with plastic shoes strapped to your feet.
“You can drive up in your car and see the lake from Rim Village,” Grimes says. “But to get a sense of winter conditions, you got to get out on snowshoes. Even a few steps out of the parking lot is a totally different experience. You see a lot more when you get out beyond the plowed road.”
Grimes is in his 13th year of guiding snowshoers at Crater Lake, mixing in moderately strenuous hiking with a collage of deep-dives into the world of the high-elevation Cascades in winter.
Last Saturday, Grimes led his charges off-trail through groves of mountain hemlocks that deal with the 43-feet of annual winter snow by bending like warm spaghetti under the white weight and past Shasta fir trees with rich chartreuse lichen clinging to their bark just above the snow line.
He points out fresh tracks of ground squirrels and vole-seeking pine martens scratched into the inch of snow that had fallen the night before.
“It’s amazing how many species not only survive but thrive in winter here,” Grimes says.
Grimes broke up the hike by adding in some penguin-esque belly slides down a sharp, snowy slope.
The two-hour hike is half trekking, half discussion about the park in winter, allowing hikers to catch their breath and rehydrate.
Kids younger than 8 are asked to stay away. Other than that, the rangers cast a wide net.
“We say that if you can walk, you should be able to snowshoe,” Grimes says. “It is fairly strenuous, though. But for most Americans who are in decent physical shape, they can do just fine.”
One of those such Americans is Joshua Healy, who lives just down the road in Klamath Falls but took in the park from snowshoes for the first time Saturday during this year’s inaugural hike.
“I live so close to Crater Lake that I come up here a lot but never tried this,” Healy says.
“It was just about what I thought it was. And I didn’t fall.”
Grimes says he chooses his routes quite randomly, depending upon the weather, the snow conditions and the people in the group. Each hike is different, especially when led by other rangers or volunteer guides.
“It’s always a different experience,” Grimes says. “But you can only go as fast and as far as the slowest person in the group.”
Saturday’s hike criss-crossed through meadows and hemlock stands before a string of impromptu switchbacks brought Grimes’ team to the hike’s piece de resistance — a view of Crater Lake under a warm winter sun.
Spoiler alert: The Crater Lake snowshoe hike doesn’t come with any guarantee that you’ll even see the lake.
“I hope you guys realize how lucky you are to be here on a warm, calm, sunny day,” Grimes says. “Half the time in the winter and spring, you can’t see the lake through the clouds and the fog. So in half of my snowshoe hikes, the only view you get of Crater Lake is of this photograph I carry in my backpack.”
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.