Sno-Parks offer getaways into the winter wonderland

Unless heading to Mount Bachelor, most winter recreationists usually end up at one of Central Oregon’s Sno-Parks. There are more than a dozen Sno-Parks on the Deschutes National Forest and three on the Ochoco National SCOTT STAATS SPECIAL TO THE CENTRAL OREGONIAN - This warming shelter is located about a mile from the trailhead at the Meissner Sno-Park trails.

Oregon’s Sno-Park Program began in 1975 to help provide parking at many of the most popular winter recreation areas and is funded entirely by the sale of Sno-Park permits. Permit sales fund snow removal, sanitation, grooming and enforcement of the permit requirement.

You must have a valid Sno-Park permit displayed in the windshield of your vehicle if you park in a designated winter recreation parking area between November 1 and April 30. There are three types of permits: an annual permit costs $25, a 3-day permit costs $9, and a daily permit costs $4. Parking in a designated area without a permit may result in a $30 fine. Permits are available in Prineville at R&R Grocery & Sporting Goods, Bi-Mart and the DMV office

Best snow conditions are often found at one of the six Sno-Parks west of Bend in the Mount Bachelor area. Meissner Sno-Park is the first one on the way up Century Drive at 5,350 feet in elevation. There is access to 28 miles of easy to more difficult ski trails, over five miles of snowshoeing trails, four warming shelters and connecting trails to the Swampy Lakes ski trail system.

Next is Wanoga Sno-Park at 5,400 feet, which is mainly for snowmobile use. However, a new Snow Play area has been added for families and groups interested in non-motorized snow play such as tubing and sledding. The site has a 97-car parking area, sledding hill, fully enclosed warming shelter, restrooms and fire rings.

Swampy Sno-Park, at 5,800 feet, has access to about 25 miles of easy to most difficult Nordic ski trails, five warming shelters (day use only), with connecting ski trails to Meissner, Vista Butte and Dutchman trail systems. There are also over nine miles of easiest to most difficult snowshoeing trails, with a connecting snowshoe trail to the Meissner Snowshoe trail system and Meissner Sno-Park.

Vista Butte Sno-Park (5,900 feet) has access to six miles of more to most difficult ski trails and connecting trails to Swampy and Dutchman trail systems.

Dutchman Flat Sno-Park (6,250 feet) is across from the Mount Bachelor Ski Area and is probably the most popular and fills quickly on weekends. There’s access to 19 miles of easy to most difficult Nordic ski trails with a connecting trail (Flagline Trail) to the Swampy Lakes ski trail system and now over three miles of designated snowshoe trails.

Edison Butte Sno-Park (5,000 feet) is located four miles south of Century Drive on Road 45 a few miles before reaching Mount Bachelor. There is access to 24 miles of easy to most difficult Nordic ski trails, two ski warming shelter, over four miles of snowshoeing trails, 150 miles of groomed snowmobile trails and three snowmobile warming shelters.

According to the Deschutes National Forest’s latest weekly recreation report, the Sno-Parks along Century Drive have from 16 to 18 inches of snow at Meissner Sno-Park to about 68 inches at Dutchman Flat Sno-Park. It would be nice if the Ochoco National Forest did likewise since snow conditions change quickly in the Ochocos. The three Sno-Parks on the Ochoco are Bandit Springs, Ochoco Divide and Walton.

Three of my favorite Sno-Parks are Vista Butte, Lower Three by: SCOTT STAATS SPECIAL TO THE CENTRAL OREGONIAN - A lone cross-country skier glides atop Vista Butte with Mount Bachelor in background.Creek and Santiam. Even though each has marked trails for cross-country skiers and snowmobilers, I prefer heading away from the crowds by making my own snowshoe tracks.

Vista Butte Sno-Park is often overlooked by those heading to Mount Bachelor and the ever-crowded Dutchman Flat Sno-Park a few miles farther up the Cascade Lakes Highway. From the parking area along the highway, head north up a small ridge, cross over the groomed snowmobile trail and continue uphill. You’ll eventually reach a marked cross-country ski trail that leads to the summit of Vista Butte.

The view from the summit is nothing less than impressive. Mount Bachelor, Tumalo Mountain, South Sister and Broken Top dominate the western horizon. Rime ice and snow plaster the sparse trees, providing evidence to the direction and intensity of the recent storms. Newberry Volcano dominates the view to the southeast. Keep your distance from the cornice on the eastern edge of the summit -- it’s overhanging more than it appears.

Another great snowshoe or ski trip begins at either Upper or Lower Three Creek Sno-Park south of Sisters. I prefer the less-crowded lower Sno-Park. From the parking lot, head due west about a mile to a relatively treeless ridge where you can look out across the Three Sisters Wilderness, only a mile or two away. The clear, cold mountain air seems to magnify things at a distance. North, Middle and South Sister appear close enough to hit with a snowball.

For those wanting to stay on marked trails, a good trek begins from Upper Three Creek Sno-Park. A 2 ½- mile snowshoe or ski will bring you to Jeff View Shelter, which has great views of Mount Jefferson and the Three Sisters.

Lower Three Creek Sno-Park is located at about Milepost 9 on Forest Road 16 and sits at about 5,000 feet while Upper Three Creek Sno-Park, at Milepost 11, sits at about 5,200 feet. There is access to about 12 miles of ungroomed Nordic trails in the area and endless snowshoeing opportunities.

I’ve also been to Santiam Sno-Park several times, located across the highway from the turnoff to Hoodoo Ski Area. I usually trek north into the Mount Jefferson Wilderness Area and have occasional views of Three Fingered Jack and the ski slopes of Hoodoo. Everything in this eerie skeletal forest appears in black and white -- black from the fire-burned B & B Complex Fire and white from the several feet of snow.

If you head out from one of these Sno-Parks don’t forget a map, compass and GPS -- sudden storms can cover your tracks. Dress in layers and carry water, snacks, matches or a lightweight survival kit. On sunny days, sunglasses and sunscreen are a must. It’s also a good idea to let someone know where you’re going and about when you’ll be back.

Just because you wake up to some clouds or fog doesn’t mean the sun’s not shining higher up in the mountains. Those deciding not to go out when there’s winter fog in town will end up with a bad case of cabin fever. Even an overcast day in the mountains is better than staying at home.

Scott Staats is a freelance outdoor writer. His column can be read every Friday in the Central Oregonian. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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