Snowy Sunrise at Crater Lake National Park

In the previous post, we had just finishing photographing a gorgeous sunset at Crater Lake National Park. The next morning, we were up bright and early (which actually is a misnomer: it was early, but most definitely dark) for sunrise.

This time, the plan was to hike out for a better view, either to Watchman Peak or Discovery Point. Even in winter, the trailhead was relatively easy to find–it was simply the closed road. We arrived early enough at the park that we had enough time to quickly grab a shot of the gnarly tree above with the stars behind it. I did that quickly so we could make the 3.7 mile hike if necessary.

Discovery Point was around a mile into the hike, and when we got there and allowed our eyes to adjust in the dark for a few moments, we both agreed that this would be a good stopping point. It had a few advantages: a wider view of the lake with some interesting foreground, the sun would offset Wizard Island on the right side of the frame, and we’d be able to capture the sun illuminating the mountains on the left.



Of course, it also had the most important advantage: not being 2+ more miles away. We decided to stop here and potentially save Watchman Peak for sunset or the following sunrise.

Beyond all of that, I’m not so sure that we could have hiked another couple of miles before the peak sunrise light appeared. Stopping then was pretty much a necessity if we wanted to catch the pre-sunrise dawn light with stars still in the sky.

While this dawn scene with the stars above and the early morning sunlight starting to color the sky was stunning and serene, it’s definitely one that is “enhanced” by the magic of photography. With my eyes, the only things I could see here were the stars, a faint light on the horizon, and the snow immediately in front of me. It took a 133 second exposure for the camera to be able to “see” everything in this photo.

Even this photo doesn’t capture the true essence of Crater Lake. If you saw just this photo, you might wonder why the heck we drove 12 hours to Oregon when there are plenty of perfectly satisfactory lakes in California. That’s true, there are. The difference is that Crater Lake is one of the clearest lakes I’ve ever seen, with a beautiful vibrant blue color that pops against the sky. The lake itself looks like it has been Photoshopped by Mother Nature!

Beyond that, Crater Lake is draw for people from all around the globe because it’s unique. The lake is a 2,148-foot deep caldera formed around nearly 8,000 years ago by the collapse of the volcano Mount Mazama. Then there the lake’s two islands: Wizard Island and Phantom Ship (mad props to the Crater Lake Naming Committee on those gems), which further add to its iconic status.

Suffice to say, this is one really cool lake. There’s probably only one cooler lake in the world, and that’s Loch Ness, which holds the ultimate trump card over everything else because dinosaurs live in it.

Since we opted against hiking out to Watchman Peak, we had plenty of time to kill before the sunrise. Using the dual camera approach again, I had my Nikon D810 set up on the tripod, waiting for the sun to break the horizon. While it was dark, I had chosen a location with the curvature of a snow drift and readied all of my settings in that spot because I wanted to be prepared the instant the sun appeared.

With my Nikon D750 handheld, I wandered around trying to find some other interesting subjects. This was a challenge since we were basically standing at an overlook where you’d park your car (if the road were open), and it wasn’t safe to go out beyond the retaining wall that marked the edge of the overlook. Normally, I’m not a huge fan of shooting from spots like this because they are easy, so there’s no sense of accomplishment, but in the winter, you still have to hike to get to this spot, so it’s a bit different.

crater-lake-national-park-winter-black-white copy

On the other side of the road behind us, those same unknown mountains that had tremendous color above them during sunset the previous night were starting to catch some of the morning sun.

It was a much less impressive of a scene this morning, as haze killed some of the color. The depth given to the mountains by the rising sun made it worthy of a quick black and white conversion, though.

As for the tripod-mounted camera, my speculation was that the contour of the snow drift would have some interesting shadow and light play for a few moments as the sun broke the horizon, which would look cool. This is actually something I noticed while photographing the Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley National Park, and I assumed the same principle would hold true. If not…I would have wasted a good chunk of time setting up a shot that wouldn’t come to fruition.

It worked out as expected, and I’m pretty pleased with the results. I think it adds an interesting foreground element, and makes this photo distinct from the other shots of Crater Lake. The downside to this National Park is that it has a single distinct feature, and even photographed from different locations at different times, there are only so many photos I can share before they start to lose impact.

After getting our shots of the sun at Discovery Point, we hiked farther on the trail to a slightly higher elevation to do some more shooting. Even with that “downside” in mind, we both felt compelled to keep shooting. This is a National Park because of Crater Lake (hence the name), and it’s a really interesting subject that you just can’t help but photograph from a variety of different perspectives.

A photo like that, with the sun bursting through the trees, has a certain sense of warmth to it, even with the snow on the ground. Let me assure you that it was anything but warm that morning. (You can see how cold I look in this iPhone “selfie” video.) I normally layer appropriately when on these winter photography expeditions, so I don’t get cold, but on this particular morning, the wind coming off the lake was brutal. I neglected to pack my balaclava, which was another mistake.

After getting a few more shots from up at this elevated perch, we decided to hike back to Rim Village where the car was parked, so we could head back into Klamath Falls for a hearty breakfast of Sausage McMuffins and some internet to figure out our plan of attack for the remainder of the weekend.

crater-lake-national-park-winter-tree-sunburst copy

It was still only Saturday morning, and we were both reasonably satisfied with our sunset and sunrise photos of Crater Lake National Park. We both really wanted to hike out to Watchman Peak, but we were also nervous about the snow in the weather forecast, and the fact that Bill’s Toyota Prius isn’t exactly an all-terrain winter vehicle. We didn’t want to end up on the front page of the local newspaper with a headline reading, “Hollywood Hodads Drive Prius in Mountain Blizzard, with Predictable Results.”

Still, gamblers that we are, we waffled and decided to head back to Crater Lake National Park right after breakfast. For all practical purposes, we drove 3 hours solely for breakfast at McDonald’s. That has to be some sort of world record. Almost as soon as we were inside the park again, we saw the cloud cover thickening, and realized that the storm was moving in quicker than expected. This meant two things: 1) snow possibly starting sooner than we anticipated, and 2) diminishing prospects of a good sunset.

At this point, better judgment prevailed, and we started heading south on a race against the clock to get to Mount Shasta and Lake Siskiyou in time for sunset. We arrived in time, but the sunset was a dud. The next morning, we tried sunrise in Lassen Volcanic National Park, but the cloud cover was too thick to even see Mt. Lassen, we we bailed on that plan. Shortly thereafter as we climbed through the mountains, heavy rain turned to heavy snow, and we had to attach tire chains on the side of the road. It was like a comedy of errors, as our good luck at Crater Lake National Park for the sunset and sunrise were catching up to this.

When we finally got back to Orange County, we had put over 2,000 miles on Bill’s Prius over the course of the Thursday night to Sunday night trip. I don’t know the precise number as we didn’t write it down, but that’s a lot of time in the car, no matter how you slice it. For me, it was totally worth it. The sunrise and sunset we shot at Crater Lake were both above-average, and simply being there in the winter was awesome. Crater Lake National Park is definitely no Yosemite, but it’s also not a one-and-done for me. I’d definitely do the long trip again, but next time, I want to visit right after a breaking storm and I’d bring snowshoes (I’m in the process of researching them right now and have only determined that I need a pair with a heel lift, but nothing else is set in stone, so if you have any suggestions, let me know!) to make it an all-day trek around the rim.

Getting the photos edited and writing about the experience here makes me hungry to get back out and do more shooting (and to that end, I know I have like 5 other reports from this year to write about on the blog!), so hopefully El Nino delivers some snows to Northern California so we can have plenty more adventures this winter!

For these photos, I used my Nikon D810 and Nikon D750Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 LensNikon 24-70mm f/2.8 Lens, and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR Lens. I also used my MeFoto travel tripod.

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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Your Thoughts…

What do you think of these photos? Any snowshoes recommendations? Have you visited Crater Lake National Park? During the winter? I love hearing from readers, so please share your thoughts on this or anything else, or questions you have in the comments!

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10 replies
  1. Moon
    Moon says:

    Wow..this is somewhat crazy (?). Winter Crater Lake is on my bucket list as well, but I never even thought about driving there. It’s 12 hours for me as well. How was the road with Prius? I thought the roads around crater lake in winter requires 4×4. Did you have any trouble?

    Reply
  2. william McIntosh
    william McIntosh says:

    Definitely worth the effort to get up there! My Prius officially hates me now, but that’s what it gets for having a manic landscape photographer for an owner. We haven’t even gotten to the train bearing down on us yet! Tune in next week for another episode of “Bill and Tom Have Officially Lost Their Minds!” Blizzards, train tracks, no sleep….what could go wrong?

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Hahaha, yeah, I’ll have to include all of the details there with the waterfall posts. Of course, it sounds a little more “hardcore” when you just list the things out without any explanation. Once the blizzard and walking along train tracks to get the shot are explained, I think (hope???) they all seem a bit more reasonable.

      Reply
  3. Sariah
    Sariah says:

    I LOVE the first pre-dawn picture! I like sunrise photos too but I really like the calm atmosphere and the uniqueness of the pre-dawn photo.

    Thanks for another highly adventurous post!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Thanks! The sunburst illuminating the snow is my personal favorite, but the dawn photo reminds me of trudging there in the snow and letting my eyes slowly adjust to the scene, so it captures the memory of being there a bit better.

      Reply
  4. Kayla
    Kayla says:

    I chuckled at your newspaper headline. That’s often how I judge decisions I’m about to make. If I’d be embarrassed or plainly contradict common sense by the headline, I don’t do it. You don’t need me to say you write a few interesting ones!

    Reply
  5. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    I can’t judge on the craziness of the trip, but it looks like it was fun. (Although I think the judge is – if wife comes along, probably not crazy. If you ask her and she gives you a look and stays home, probably on the crazy side.) I think most those photos are probably in your top-50 if not higher (I’m a sucker for mountains and snow), so I’m glad you made the trip!

    You have mentioned a couple times setting up the 810 on a tripod and then hand-holding the 750. Do you have the 810 on a timer taking shots? Do you just keep running back to it to take photos? Long range wireless remote? Telepathy?

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Dang…I think if that were the standard I used for craziness, a good chunk of the things I do would be deemed crazy.

      Normally, with the D810, I’m running back to press the release. This works fine in situations like this particular morning where the camera is relatively close to me, but it worked poorly the prior night when I moved a good distance from it. I assume there are more robust solutions, but I can’t use anything that works via app (no service in most of these places).

      Reply

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