Step into a winter wonderland

Sno-Parks offer getaways into a winter wonderland

by: SCOTT STAATS/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Cross-country skier Richard Hildreth of Eugene makes his way across Vista Butte.

The pecking sound came from somewhere nearby, breaking the winter silence and stopping us in our tracks. Less than 50 feet away a pileated woodpecker chiseled away intently at an old stump. Large flakes of bark flew amongst the falling flakes of snow as he bore into the decaying wood. The bird's flaming red crest contrasted with its dark body and surrounding white snow.
   We leaned on our ski poles a full five minutes watching this magnificent bird and not once did he even look our way. Continuing up the ridge, we encountered downy, hairy and black-backed woodpeckers within 100 yards of the pileated.
   One of the most intimate ways to experience Central Oregon's backcountry in winter is by snowshoes. When I'm on cross-country skis, I sometimes tend to go a bit too fast, especially on any downhill sloping ground, missing out on many of winter's details. Snowshoes, however, allow you to travel slowly enough to notice more things in the snow-covered forest.
   A variety of tracks in the snow often catch my attention - birds, mice, deer, elk, coyote, fox and other mammals. One small set of tracks appeared to be those of a mouse. Its trail zigzagged around some tall grass protruding from the snow. Upon further investigation, the small critter seemed to be on a hunting and gathering spree. It made a little bowl in the snow near the grass, perhaps to escape the wind, where it ate seed heads. The tops of the grass stems were chewed off. It must have pulled down the stem until it got to the seeds at the end, then sat and had a feast and probably carried more off for storage under the snow. Being on skis, I probably would have zoomed right by and not noticed this.
   Three of my favorite Sno-Parks are Vista Butte, Lower Three 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.
   Vista Butte Sno-Park is located at Milepost 18 at an elevation of 5,900 feet. Latest data from the Deschutes National Forest show a snow depth of about 90 inches and good conditions for skiing or snowshoeing. There is access to 6 miles of more- to most-difficult ski trails, with connecting trails to Swampy and Dutchman trail systems. The area is closed to snowmobiling except on the nearby snowmobile trail.
   I like to take along a GPS on my winter outings. Besides the obvious safety reason, I also like to take a different route back to my rig. Before leaving your vehicle at the sno-park, mark your location so you can return to it by whatever route you choose.
   Another great snowshoe or ski trip begins at either Upper or Lower Three Creek Lake 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. From the ridge, 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 «- 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 with two feet of snow. The lot may not be plowed. Upper Three Creek Sno-Park, at Milepost 11, sits at about 5,200 feet and has a snow depth of about four feet. There is access to about 12 miles of ungroomed Nordic trails in the area and endless snowshoeing opportunities.
   Every winter my wife and I head for Santiam Sno-Park, across the highway from the turnoff to Hoodoo Ski Area. We 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 (over 90 inches).
   A trail from Santiam Sno-Park eventually reaches Berley Lakes after about three miles. A small pond is located at the wilderness boundary, only about a half-mile in. Stay off any ice as the snow acts as insulation, sometimes keeping the ice thin.
   Even with snowshoes on, it's still possible to sink into deep fresh powder and breaking trail can be quite a workout. Take turns leading and be sure to bring along ski poles. Even though an average hiker can cover two miles in an hour in the summer, plan on about a mile an hour when snowshoeing. 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.
   Proper etiquette when out on trails includes keeping a two-foot buffer zone between snowshoe tracks and cross-country ski tracks. The Deschutes National Forest has over 20 miles of designated snowshoe trails at a few of the sno-parks including Meissner and Swampy Lakes. However, I prefer making my own tracks.
   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.