Away From The Tracks Of My Peers
It is now becoming a rite of passage of winter to take a 4x4 up into the snow to explore some mountain trail or usually inaccessible destination. In the past I have towed a trailer and camped, as I did last year in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado and five years ago towing a 24-foot Airstream in these very same Cascade Mountains of central Oregon.
This year I took a Toyota FJ Cruiser, sans-trailer, to one of the mountains I have visited before, Mount Bachelor, some 22 miles from Bend on the eastern side of the Cascades in the high desert. Since it is a long run from Los Angeles I intended to make the "getting there" as much fun as the destination.
In the past five years the FJ has not changed significantly. More of a gradual refinement to better suit market tastes. It was a first class, capable 4x4 then, capable of towing the 4,600-pound Airstream through lots of snow and ice without so much as a hiccup, and remains so today. Toyota offers three FJ Cruiser models; the 4x2 and two 4x4s, one with a six-speed manual transmission and one with a five-speed automatic. I have the latter in the relatively new Army Green livery. It blends in well with the forest but not so much with the snow!
The power plant is a DOHC 4.0L V-6 engine that produces 260hp and 271 lb-ft of peak torque — up a little from the 239hp of five years ago. Though I see FJ Cruisers in Beverly Hills (what the British would call "Chelsea Tractors" — Chelsea is to London what Beverly Hills is to California), be assured that the FJ is a purpose-designed and built vehicle capable of exploring all but the most outrageous of off-road terrain.
I hustled from Los Angeles to Medford, Oregon, where I called on a long-time friend who restores old cars (right now he is building a '47 Ford 4x4 truck on a '74 chassis. Although currently unfinished it will be quite the vehicle for his next show). Time was relatively short for this excursion, so from Medford I headed straight for Crater Lake, one of America's great natural wonders that I had only seen from 30,000-plus feet (usually Los Angeles to Vancouver, B.C., Canada), but never from the ground.
At 1,943 feet deep, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States. The lake surface is 6,173 feet above sea level and covers 183,000 acres. It was formed over 7,000 years ago when a 12,000-foot volcano collapsed following a major eruption. Larger and deeper than its geographic neighbor, Lake Tahoe, Crater Lake, in large part due to its lack of close proximity to a large metropolitan area, has managed to avoid Tahoe's commercial development.
John Wesley Hillman, a pioneer mine explorer, first saw the deep blueness of the lake on June 12, 1853. Through the advocacy of William Gladstone Steel, who first visited the lake in 1870, Crater Lake was officially designated a national park on May 22, 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill into law. It is kind of out-of-the-way, but still attracts about a half a million visitors a year.
I was looking for snow and ice with clear blue skies and stark winter sunshine, not for the rain and fog I found. The rain was continual with the clouds hanging low obscuring the mountain summits. From the Highway 62/Highway 230 junction to the entrance of Crater Lake National Park, the below normal level of snowfall was packed along the roadside, but little on the roads. That changed on the climb to the lake rim and for the first time, four-wheel drive was a safety factor as I drove over some packed ice with a light snow covering. Unfortunately for me, and this trip, the entire lake was hidden by cloud giving zero visibility.
Furthermore, a brief hike to as close to the edge as the Park Rangers would allow, only exposed me to the biting, almost gale force winds, which made the interior of the FJ a welcome igloo. After a cup of hot soup and a chat with a Park Ranger at the Rim Village Café, it became obvious that conditions were not going to change that day, or even the one to follow.
To avoid my disappointment, check with the park's webcam (http://www.nps.gov/crla/photosmultimedia/webcams.htm), or simply call the Park [(541) 594-3000] for current conditions. I have seen winter photos of Crater Lake and have been taken aback with the beauty. I know it must be worth the winter trip but this time I left with my expectations thwarted by the weather and my choice of timing.