Winter Destinations: Steve Amen’s Favorites

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Elkhorn Mountains

Spending most of my days in the shadow of Mt. Hood, I love the opportunity to head east to savor the incredible beauty of other geologic wonders like the Elkhorn Mountains, the highest range in the Blue Mountains of Northeast Oregon.

If you’re lucky, and you time it just right, you may get a glimpse of “The Guardian,” a deity Native Americans say is the visage/spirit of a dead chief who watches over the valley and keeps it safe. It’s actually a massive shadow that appears to be a human face. The best time to see it is late December and into January on clear days. It can be seen from as far away as Baker City.  

There is a winding 106-mile Elkhorn Drive Scenic Byway that, if open, takes you through ghost towns and historic gold mines scattered among dramatic vistas and beautiful lakes. But be sure and check ahead to see what roads are still accessible during the winter.

Anthony Lakes Ski Resort

And while you’re in the area, you won’t want to miss the Anthony Lakes Ski Resort. But don’t let the word “resort” fool you. This is one of the more beautiful, uncrowded and out-of-the-way ski areas we’ve ever found. The front side runs are great for fun family skiing, but the backcountry is full of stunning but difficult expert terrain only accessible by a guided snowcat!

This place is known for its powder and that means you’re as likely to meet a dedicated nomadic skier from as far north as Canada as a devoted local hitting the slopes.  

And it’s just a fun place to be. It’s usually open Thursday through Sunday and some holidays. There are twenty-one runs with one triple chair, one hand tow and one wonder carpet for the little ones. But there’s almost never a line and the lift tickets cost a lot less than the larger resorts. An adult, for instance, pays $39 for the day. Seniors and kids 6 and under are free.

There’s another nineteen miles of groomed cross-country trails for all skill levels. And did I mention the cat trips? They have the highest base elevation in Oregon where you’ll find yourself deep in fresh, untracked champagne powder.

This ski area, located off I-84 between LaGrande and Baker City, is the perfect family destination. Just make sure you get there before everyone else discovers it.

Warner Canyon Ski Area

As an all too infrequent skier who hates long lines and crowded slopes as I struggle to just make it down the hill, I love the Warner Canyon Ski Area , and not just because it’s relatively unknown. I love what it stands for. It represents a true sense of community spirit. This is a small community ski area owned by Lake County and run by the Fremont Highlander Ski Club. Almost everyone you see at work is a volunteer. They’re here because they want to be, so there’s no shortage of smiling faces.

There are over 200 acres of uncrowded terrain for a wide variety of abilities, including groomed and powder trails. The resort has eleven advanced trails, five intermediate trails, six beginner trails and one half-pipe—that’s right—A HALF-PIPE! The teenagers we talked to love the place. There’s also a number of trails for cross-country skiing and plenty of other activities for the younger kids 

The lift tickets are $30 all day for adults. But remember, this is an all-volunteer operation, so you need to double-check the days, and even hours, of operation. They can change from one day to the next, but usually it’s open Saturdays and Sundays, Christmas, spring break and a few other major holidays.

To get there, just head to the town of Lakeview and ask any local for directions. You won’t be disappointed.

Oregon Coast

My next favorite spot to go in the winter is a lot easier to find. Head west and stop when you see the ocean.

When I just want to take it easy and savor Oregon’s splendor, all that’s needed is a picture window filled with Oregon coastline. Winter storms provide non-stop entertainment as wind-whipped waves pound the beach. This is also a great time to put on the parka, grab the binoculars and head to the seawall for a little whale watching—well, maybe “little” is not the right word. The gray whales migrating this time of year can get up to forty-five feet long and they seem to like it closer to shore during the winter months. That is why the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is whale-watching week all along the Oregon Coast.

There’re also plenty of indoor activities, including visiting any one of our manmade wonders such as the Oregon Coast Aquarium, Fort Clatsop, the Tillamook Air Museum and a lot more.

Crater Lake

There is NEVER a bad time to see Crater Lake. But I really like it when just about everything, except the park itself, is closed.  

The National Park gets an average of forty-four feet of snow every year. No, that’s not a typo—528 inches of snowfall every year! And while it’s beautiful to look at, the heavy snow takes its toll. Blizzards, avalanches and steep, icy slopes are only a few of the hazards in the park. 

That’s why there are no overnight visitors at the Crater Lake Lodge from mid-October through mid-May. The Rim Visitor Center is also closed and the road around the lake is buried under snow.

So why go there in the winter? You can still explore the area: there are snowshoes and cross-country ski trails, from fairly short beginner loops to advanced five-mile runs. And on the weekend, the rangers lead interpretive snowshoe walks around the park. But be forewarned—reservations are strongly encouraged.

Crater Lake in the winter is a time of solitude when you’re surrounded by incredible beauty. It just doesn’t get any better than this.

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