Crater Lake National Park is a beautiful place, and it’s even more beautiful in the winter with a fresh blanket of snow. I added it to my photography bucket list a while ago, when I started seeing a number of brilliant shots of it. Like most photographers, I prefer my mountains covered in snow, and I envisioned my “perfect” shot of Crater Lake not only having snow on the mountains in the distance (something attainable in the spring months even as the snow is melting), but having a foreground of fresh powder. Unfortunately, logistics of booking a flight and hoping for snow to fall at the right time made this a crazy dream.
Fortunately, I am crazy, as is Bill McIntosh. We had already been scheming about when we would head up to Yosemite for our first bonzai photography trip of the winter when he sent me this text message: “Speaking of crazy Bonzai trips, Crater Lake is only 11 hours away! lol…” He shouldn’t have said this–these trips almost always feel oddly like a game of “photographer chicken” in which neither of us want to be the voice of reason. Except, rather than smashing cars into one another, we just drive long distances and have fun adventures with cool photos as a result. I’ll take it.
Anyway, to Bill’s question, I responded almost immediately, “I’m down for whatever.” Like that, we were looking at the weather, planning for a drive to Crater Lake National Park. As we watched the weather forecast during the week, we saw it snow at Crater Lake a couple of times, and a forecast for a winter storm over the weekend. The prospect of fresh snow and a breaking storm was too much for us to pass up, even if it meant 24 hours or more of driving in a weekend.
As the weekend drew nearer, the forecast for the storm worsened, with it starting as rain late Saturday and snowing all day Sunday. Based on our initial planning, we had a very narrow window for photographing Crater Lake, and there was a good chance this window would fall squarely during times of rain and snow. The possibility of a colorful sky for sunrise or sunset seemed below 50%.
These are odds we likely would’ve rolled the dice on for Yosemite, which is “only” an 8 hour drive, but it seemed like a big risk for Crater Lake National Park. In a rare case of cooler heads prevailing, we changed our plans…and left earlier, adding an overnight drive on Thursday to the equation in an effort to catch one additional sunset. Okay, so that’s not exactly reasonable by normal people standards, but it is by ours.
Fast forward to like 2 a.m., Friday morning. We had pulled over at a rest area amongst a sea of semi trucks to get some rest and resume the long drive to Oregon in the morning. Bill, fueled by a healthy dose of 5-Hour Energy, had other ideas, and I awoke to find him on the road again. It was about this time that he asked me to map the distance to Lake Tahoe. I did, and sure enough, we could get there by sunrise if we were willing to add a few hours to the drive.
I think you all probably know how that dilemma was answered.
We stayed at Emerald Bay State Park in Lake Tahoe for all of 10 minutes before declaring the sunrise a bust. After grabbing a bit more sleep in a McDonald’s parking lot and a lot more caffeine, we were off to Oregon. No detours this time. I had no photos taken between my only photo at Lake Tahoe (6:43 a.m.) and the photo at the top of this post (2:43 p.m.), and we managed to make pretty good time.
This allowed for plenty of scouting once we arrived at Crater Lake National Park. For those looking to visit Crater Lake National Park in the winter, it’s worth noting that the National Park Service doesn’t charge an entry fee to the park in the winter, presumably due to there only being a skeleton staff and since large portions of the park close down.
The NPS does plow Rim Drive from the south entrance to Rim Village, which is right on the edge of the lake itself. Crater Lake Lodge, Rim Village Visitor Center, etc., all close for the winter. The stretch of Rim Drive (West Rim Drive or Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway) after Rim Village closes after the first big snow.
Rim Drive being closed after this point is both good and bad. On the plus side, it makes for great snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, and also means you’re unlikely to encounter many other people if you visit. The bad, for us at least, is that the view we wanted of Crater Lake, with Wizard Island in the foreground, requires hiking over a mile from Rim Village.
The really bad news for me is that I forgot to grab my hiking shoes when I transferred all of my gear from my car to Bill’s in SoCal. This meant making the hike in my Nike Roshes. Suffice to say, these shoes are not suitable for hiking, let alone winter hiking. My saving grace was that I had packed great hiking socks and my crampons, and as a result, I had no issues with hiking in the snow (I really need to put together a hiking packing list post). I’m not going to endorse anyone adopting this hiking strategy, but it was not nearly as bad as I expected.
Anyway, after doing some scouting, Bill and I both landed in the same general location along the Rim to shoot the sunset. Initially, we had been pretty tepid on the sunset that night; the sun was setting behind us, so it would take a small miracle for there to be worthwhile color in front of us. As sunset drew nearer, our attitudes were turning optimistic, as the clouds on the western horizon were breaking and starting to look good.
Still, sunset was roughly 30 minutes away, so anything could change. That, plus our impatience led to both Bill and I wandering away. I left my tripod behind with my Nikon D810 and Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 mounted to it, not really concerned about theft, as I don’t think Crater Lake National Park in the winter is a hotbed for criminal activity.
I meant to go back to the D810 before the light peaked, as it’s my preferred landscape camera, but I got caught up in the moment, and shot the entire sunset handheld with my Nikon D750. Not the best of ideas if I ever want to make massive prints, but I found other good spots and didn’t want to miss the best of the light.
Our optimism proved correct, as the sky exploded in color, particularly in the west, but spreading across the entire sky. I really wanted to be in two places at once: the better scene was the Crater Lake’s Rim with Wizard Island in the frame, but the better color was the (name unknown?) mountains in the distance. I bounced back and forth, trying to capture some of each.
From where my tripod was mounted, I had noticed a really nice clearing in the distance along the Rim that jutted out towards the water. It looked awesome from afar and I wasn’t quite sure how to access it through the tree line, but I found a little path right as the sunset light peaked. The path was relatively mild albeit narrower than I would’ve liked, but with the crampons I had perfect traction.
Still, I was cognizant of the possibility of an avalanche just about anywhere along the Rim, so I quickly fired off enough shots for a panorama (please click through to view it full-size) before retreating back to the upper tree-line and sitting for a few minutes to marvel at the view. This is exactly what I had envisioned when picturing the photo I wanted in my head (maybe a bit more snow in the trees), and I was ecstatic to be there.
Even without the photo, it was great. While I love photography, I love nature and experiencing the National Parks even more. Photography is like my personal MacGuffin: it’s the excuse to get up early, stay out late, and write about my experiences. Sitting there, with the crisp mountain air hitting my face and breathing in that alpine aroma, while gazing out at the whites of the snow, blues of the water, and pinks of the sky was the true highlight, and something I’ll never forget.
Photographing the mountains proved to be a considerable challenge. The problem with shooting in the west was that the view was mostly obscured by trees, and I had no tripod to mount my telephoto lens. No matter how much I ran up and down the treeline, I couldn’t find a cool view of the toothy-looking mountain above. I was able to overcome the “no tripod” problem by cranking the ISO and using the spray & pray method, but in an ideal scenario, I would’ve bracketed these shots and merged multiple exposures.
For the HDR haters out there who dislike it because it’s unrealistic, this is actually one situation where you should like it. This scene has way more dynamic range to the eye than what the camera can capture, but the real problem is that the colors of the mountain are very different than those of the sky. To the eye, this mountain was largely white (rather than blue), and brighter than what’s depicted in my photo.
With a single frame, I had to choose between accurate white balance on the sky, or on the mountain. When I tried to make the mountain accurate, the sky went nuclear, with colors that looked really cool, but were in no way representative of what I saw. Had I been able to merge an overexposed shot with this, I could’ve conveyed the whites and shadow detail of the mountain, while retaining this true-to-life sky color.
But I digress. As only the afterglow of the blue hour remained, I realized I hadn’t seen Bill in about an hour. Just as visions of disaster were starting to flash in my head totally harshing my mountain mellow, Bill shuffled out from the trees like some photographic mountain man. The vibe was instantly upbeat again, as we both agreed that the sunset we had just witnessed alone had made that insane drive worth it. We walked back to the car, fully energized for the hour and a half drive to Klamath Falls, to grab some sleep so we’d be ready to do this all again the next morning.
You can read about our adventure the next morning in my Snowy Sunrise in Crater Lake National Park post…
If you’re planning a Oregon road trip or vacation, check out my Oregon category of posts for other things to see and do. To get some more photo ideas, check out my Crater Lake National Park Photo Gallery. For photo licensing inquires, please contact me.
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Have you visited Crater Lake National Park? During the winter? Would you drive 12 hours (or more) to see/photograph it? I love hearing from readers, so please share your thoughts on this or anything else, or questions you have in the comments!