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There’s no time like snow time

Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing let you enjoy the peaceful parts of winter

by: SCOTT STAATS SPECIAL TO THE CENTRAL OREGONIAN -

Let the winter games begin - at least my winter games of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
   With the snow piling up in the Cascades and Ochocos, there are literally endless opportunities either on trails or making your own tracks. I prefer the latter.
   There’s nothing like heading out into a thick blanket of sparkling snow, spread out like a white down comforter and giving warmth to a brisk winter morning. On one memorable outing in the Ochocos, my wife and I started from Walton Sno-park. The landscape resembled a candied forest — as if a giant truck dumped loads of powdered sugar over everything. The snow-and-ice-covered trees made a stark contrast against the Crater Lake-blue sky.
   As we donned our snowshoes in the parking lot, a cold wind cut through the air. Upon entering the protection of the trees, the air became still and only the rhythmic swooshing of our snowshoes could be heard.
   The snow was about the driest I’ve ever seen, with a thin layer of feathery frost on top. I hoped the weather would remain cold as these were perfect conditions for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. I often choose snowshoes over cross-country skis since they can be used in just about any snow conditions. Oftentimes, morning snow is icy, warming to sticky snow by noon – making cross-country skiing difficult and frustrating at best.
   The best part about snowshoeing is making your own tracks and not following where others went earlier. Snowmobiling is popular at the Sno-Park on weekends, but we had the morning to ourselves. Groomed snowmobile trails take off from the parking lot, heading north and south. We decided to weave our own trail in and out of the ponderosa pines and firs.
   A fog bank rose up to the east from Big Summit Prairie, giving a false impression of billowing clouds of smoke from a forest fire. Even at its highest point, the sun seemed only a few feet above the southern horizon, casting long shadows across the snow. Now with the passing of the Winter Solstice, the days are finally getting longer.
   Squirrel and snowshoe hare tracks interrupted, yet added to, the pattern of the forest floor. Mountain chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches chirped from nearby trees as we made our way upward from the trailhead. The orange and black bark of the ponderosa pines stood out against a backdrop of white. The experience epitomized a perfect winter day.
   The Cascades
   There are five sno-parks west of Bend in the Mount Bachelor area. Meissner is the first one on the way up Century Drive at 5,350 feet in elevation. According to the last recreation report from the Deschutes National Forest, there is now 28-34 inches of snow on the ground at Meissner. 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 has 32-36 inches of snow and is mainly for snowmobile use. However, a new Snow Play area has been added for families and groups interested in nonmotorized 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. It provides a designated and relatively safe sledding hill option.
    Swampy Sno-Park, at 5,800 feet, has 36-48 inches of snow. There’s 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 50-60 inches of snow and 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) has 60-70 inches of snow and is across from the Mount Bachelor Ski Area. This is probably the most popular sno-park and fills quickly on weekends, as we found out on our last outing. 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) has 28-32 inches of snow and 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.
   Oregon State Sno-Park Permits are required at all of these ODOT-plowed sno-parks from November 1-April 30. Permits can be purchased from DMV or a known permit vendor. I got mine from R and R Grocery and Sporting Goods.
   With changing weather conditions, the Forest Service suggests carrying the Ten Essentials on your outings. They include: Navigation (map and compass); Sun protection (sunglasses/sunscreen); Insulation (extra clothing); Illumination (headlamp/flashlight); First-aid supplies; Fire starter (waterproof matches, lighter, candles); Repair kit and tools; Nutrition (extra food); Hydration (extra water) and Emergency shelter.