Behind the ubiquitous and misspelled sno-park signs throughout the state of Oregon lives a network of winter recreational havens.
(A gallery of sno-park photos from around Oregon is located at the end of the article)
Their parking lots are often full or, as equally inexplicably, empty. Some of them are slotted with Subarus, while others are stuffed with trucks and trailers. In the white backdrop of winter, it’s easier to divine contrasting colors and shapes but none the simpler to understand what is happening at these parks. You might think as you drive past en route to your relatives’ place for the holidays, “What’s going on there? Whose cars are those? What genius coined the term, sno-park? Why don’t they change it to sun-park in the summer, or even rain-park in the spring? Why does it seem so popular, yet so …” After all this inquiry, maybe we’ve found the missing W.
On the last count, a ‘W’ was missing from all ninety sno-parks that stretch from the southern Cascades to Mt. Hood over to the Wallowas and pretty much anywhere that a national forest can be found. In winter, they come to life with people on skis, wearing snowshoes, pulling sleds or riding on snowmobiles. Though they may appear to be uniform to the casual observer, their uses are more specialized. Some sno-parks are quiet isolation for the cross-country skier, others are playgrounds for backcountry snowmobiles and still others possess that perfectly angled treeless hillside for sledding. Here we put together our sno-park playlist by function to help you maximize your winter fun across the state.
Some of the best groomed cross-country skiing in the state comes from three sno-parks separated by many miles—all with spectacular mountain views. There’s Teacup Lake Sno-Park just south of Mt. Hood on Route 35, Virginia Meissner Sno-Park ten minutes south of Bend and Anthony Lakes Sno-Park, where you will have incredibly maintained trails virtually to yourself.
At Teacup Lake, a chapter of the Oregon Nordic Club operates a 20-kilometer network of trails with stunning views of Mt. Hood. The trails range from easy and flat to more advanced and are groomed by the Teacup Nordic Club on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. “Many of the trails at Teacup were actually cut as ski trails, so they have a lot of nice flow,” notes J.D. Downing, the coach of XC Oregon, an elite developmental program. For infrastructure, there is the Ray Cary Cabin where you can warm up by a wood-burning stove and picnic tables. At the end of January, this ski area hosts the 28th Annual Teacup Classic Race with 2.5, 5 or 15 kilometers of classic skiing. A $10 donation per person keeps the trails groomed and the cabin heated. Buy a full season membership for $60, or $100 for a family season membership.
Alongside the Cascade Lakes Highway on the way to Mt. Bachelor is Virginia Meissner Sno- Park. Meissner has a whopping mix of 40 kilometers of groomed trails ranging from very easy to quick-stepping winding downhills. Much like the nonprofit Teacup Lake Nordic Club, the Tumalo Langlauf Club manages the trails under a partnership with the Forest Service.
This nonprofit has been successful in raising enough money to increase its grooming to four times per week—Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Last year, the club also funded a new warming yurt at the trailhead. The terrain has enough variety to challenge any skier for an entire season. One night each February, the Tumalo Langlauf Club lights its trails with 400 “Luminaria,” or candles in paper bags, for a night ski a mile and a half out to bonfires and waffles at the Meissner Shelter. For families on skies or snowshoes, there is no more magical evening than this. So popular has this sno-park become that its parking lot is overflowing on weekends. Nonetheless, the farther you ski from the trailhead, the thinner the herd. Though the skiing is free, an annual membership ($75 for individuals and $125 for families) goes directly to keeping trails groomed.
Anthony Lakes Sno-Park is home to one of the most majestic and untrammeled Nordic ski areas in the state. Because it’s nowhere near a major population center, Anthony Lakes is that jolt of discovery in an unlikely place. Operated by Anthony Lakes Ski Area, the Nordic network stretches over 29 kilometers, around Lily Pad Lake, Anthony Lake and up to the base of Gunsight Mountain. A new pet-friendly loop means your dog isn’t jailed all day in the parking lot. You can harness your pup and ski off around the Mud Lake trail. Of all the sno-park ski areas, Anthony Lakes has the finest structure on its premises. The Nordic Center was built in a classic Western cabin style by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. Here you can buy a day pass ($13), rent skis or get snacks and relax. In January, the Nordic Center is ground zero for the Elkhorn Classic, a 6 kilometer classic race followed by a 6 kilometer freestyle race. This is a two-discipline leg burner in its thirteenth year that makes the drive worth it all.
Though technically not a sno-park, Mt. Bachelor operates much in the same way as Hoodoo, Timberline and other ski areas in Oregon. With 56 kilometers of track-set trails, Mt. Bachelor is by far Oregon’s most extensive Nordic ski area. Though true beginners’ trails are almost non-existent, there is good professional instruction that will soon have you kicking and gliding down some of its more challenging terrain. It’s on these trails that you’ll often see past and future Olympic cross-country skiers training. Across the parking lot from some of the state’s best downhill skiing and tubing, it’s easy to find the right recreational fit for everyone in the family. Adult day passes are $14 on weekdays and $17 on weekends. Kids are $9 and $10 on weekends. Children 5 and younger are free.
Remember that Sno-park users must have a valid permit displayed in the windshield between November 1 and April 30. Sno-park passes are sold at the DMV and sporting good stores. Annual passes are $20 and recognized in Oregon, Washington and California. Three-day passes run $7 and day passes are $3. The fine for parking in sno-parks without a pass is $30, more than the cost of a full annual permit.
Snowshoeing is the one winter pursuit that should be— without question—undertaken off trail and in the wild. They say, “If you can walk, you can snowshoe.” Well, if you can snowshoe, you can get back into some areas of motorless wilderness that few people have ever been. Be sure to pack a compass and GPS unit, a map, extra water and high-energy snacks such as chocolate or bacon, or, for backcountry experts—bacon chocolate.
The number one snowshoeing experience in Oregon has to be circumnavigating Crater Lake. It’s certainly not something you just hop off the couch and do one day. This three- to four-day 33-mile excursion takes endurance outdoor skills and planning. It helps if you’ve had some experience winter camping, as it’s often not a warm and cozy setting. That said, snowshoeing the rim of Crater Lake is a photogenic journey you will always take with you. Highway 62, around Crater Lake’s south side, is plowed through winter. Book a fireplace cabin at Lake of the Woods for a good transition and thaw before reality bites.
Seven miles north of Halfway on Forest Service Road 66, you can walk into the Wallowa–Whitman National Forest and see why they call this range America’s “Little Switzerland.” You can follow the nearly 90 miles of groomed snowmobile trails or, better yet, branch off along the 12 miles of ungroomed cross-country skiing trails. Bathrooms are located at the trailhead.
From Dutchman Flat Sno-Park across from Mt. Bachelor, tramp into one of the most beautiful scenes in the state. All beauty in nature comes with danger. This is a 10-mile return trip for which you should allot a long day. As a variation, bring backcountry skis on your pack and alternate modes of travel.
For as many mountains and buttes as there are in the state, sledding hills—true sledding hills cleared of trees and the motivation to turn a buck—are harder to come by. Marks Creek Sno- Park—28 miles east of Prineville on US 26, is what the Forest Service calls its “tallest and steepest sled hill available” in the Ochoco National Forest.
Wanoga Sno-Park just southwest of Bend on Century Drive is a rebuilt sno-park with snowmobiling, skijoring and one big sledding hill. A favorite weekend jaunt for families with younger kids in Bend, Wanoga has a warming hut, bathrooms and, during weekends, a food cart with chili, hot chocolate and breakfast burritos. This is old-fashioned sledding with an infrastructure update. Parents either hike the slope with their tots or hang out at the bottom of it in a communal tailgaiter.
With more than 40 feet of annual snowfall, the Crater Lake region is one of the top destinations for Oregon snowmobilers. It doesn’t get much more scenic than Southern Oregon’s Umpqua National Forest and the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Surrounding the Diamond Lake Resort, are five sno-parks and 300 miles of groomed trails with countless acres for ungroomed backcountry adventures. The best of these trails offer views of Mount Thielsen, Mount Bailey, Diamond Lake and Crater Lake.
Snowmobile central is Diamond Lake Resort, whose groomers operate seven days a week. “If you don’t groom the trails,” says Rick Rockholt, who has been with Diamond Lake Resort for thirty years, “they don’t come.”
These trails range from short beginner groomed trails to advanced backcountry wilderness. Some of the best riding in the area includes a forty-five minute trip to Crater Lake by way of its groomed north entrance to a stunning overlook of the national park. When fresh powder falls, more experienced snowmobilers head for Dog Prairie and Skookum Prairie about an hour’s ride from the resort and days’ worth of fun.
Back at the resort, there are nearly one hundred lodging options that range from a newly constructed seven-bedroom cabin to small fireside cabins and simple motel rooms. The lodge also has two restaurants and a sports bar.
Lake of the Woods Resort, a half hour south of Crater Lake, is another great option. Its thirtytwo cabins are charming and rustic with Pendleton blankets and modern upgrades that include electric bed warmers. From here, you can access the same trail network as from Diamond Lake Resort. Summer Lake, Fish Lake and Ichibod Springs are a few of the sno-parks in the area. Mt. McLoughlin and Pelican Butte are part of the scenery on many outings that begin here.
Dutchman Flat Sno-Park is the doorway to the Deschutes National Forest and Elk Lake Lodge. This outing promises views of Mt. Bachelor, Broken Top and the Three Sisters. The 11-mile road is groomed between Dutchman Flat and Elk Lake Lodge. Note that Elk Lake frequently also grooms the 7-mile perimeter of the lake for cross-country skiers. Like most good things, this trail ends at a lodge, where snowmobilers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers come together in a winter ball of Carhartt and lycra.
– A trail map of the area
– Sunblock and sunglasses
– GPS and/or compass
– A charged cell phone