As winter reaches its peak in Eastern Oregon, many residents are looking for opportunities to bust through the inversion into playgrounds of deep snow beneath blue skies.
Luckily, the region has numerous options for affordable recreation on public lands — no matter what kind of recreating you like to do. In many cases, an Oregon sno-park is nothing more than a plowed parking lot that abuts prime public recreation land. Snowmobilers, snowshoers, skiers and sledders may look to different parks in the area for one that best fits their favorite form of recreation.
But according to Mark Penninger, acting public affairs officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, there is little information available about how many people use sno-parks in the region, as well as their preferred mode of travel once they get there.
“We don’t have quantitative information about use,” he said. “It’s not something we’ve collected before.”
Partly that’s because no two winters look the same. According to Penninger, crews could not plow all of last year’s snow in some parks, whereas this year a four-wheel drive car with proper tires can get many places in Eastern Oregon forests.
Still, despite the low snow year, there are options for recreation. Here are a few of them, and advice on where to go depending on your favorite winter hobby.
Located six miles east of Meacham off Interstate 84, the Meacham Divide/Mt. Emily sno-park offers some of the best public, groomed cross country ski trails in the state.
The Blue Mountain Nordic Club, which is made up of dozens of club members from both sides of the mountain, man the ski trails and also plow about 1.7 miles of the Summit Road from the interstate to the sno-park. The north side of the park is a lot that connects to nordic skiing trails, while the south side consists of a lot for snowmobilers. Many of them ride farther down the rest of the unplowed summit road to the trail of their choice.
Bruce Johnson, trails coordinator for the nordic club, said they groom the ski trails after major snowstorms, which unfortunately have not arrived since Christmas.
“It’s pretty slippery up there right now,” he said. “Pretty hardpack. The tracks are still pretty fast, downhills in particular.”
Still, the trails are the closest and easiest for nordic skiers in Pendleton and much of Umatilla County. Snowshoers are welcome on the non-motorized rails as well, but they are asked to not walk on the groomed portion.
A donation box is located at the entrance to the trails, which helps defray the costs of grooming and plowing.
“We groom as long as we have money to do it,” said Johnson. “Every bit helps.”
Tollgate area snowmobile parks
Along Highway 204, which connects Weston and Elgin, there are multiple snowmobile-centric sno-parks. Each offers a place to park off-highway and access to numerous trails and consistent snow.
Morning Creek, Langdon Lake, Milepost 20, Milepost 22 (across from Spout Springs) and Milepost 27 are sno-parks that cater almost exclusively to snowmobiling. Places like Woodland, a campground located between Milepost 22 and Andies Prairie, offers access to snowmobiles as well as cross country ski trails.
The Langdon Lake park, little more than a parking lot located on the private-lake side of Highway 204, is one of the most-used. Its location allows riders direct access to closed Skyline Road that runs all the way to Jubilee Lake, as well as the ability to explore numerous routes down Forest Service Roads and into the forest itself.
The Tollgate Trail Finders Snowmobile Club grooms many trails in the area, participates in search and rescue operations, hosts events and disseminates trail reports. Check out their latest information at: http://tollgatetrailfinders.org/
Since it opened in 1956, winter recreation in the Tollgate area has been centered around Spout Springs downhill ski area. But since the ski area has closed once again for the season, the area is now home to recreationalists other than downhill skiers.
According to the Forest Service, snowmobilers are not allowed within the ski area boundary, which is open to the public only for non-motorized use. Backcountry skiers and snowshoers have taken to the hill’s wide, cleared runs despite the lack of a ski lift.
One of the most well-used sno-parks in the region, Andies Prairie offers a little bit of everything.
A bowl-shaped hill within walking distance of the parking lot is a favorite of parents and their children, who sled and slide down its snowy banks. Still, the area is deceptively steep in spots — parents should always keep a watchful eye on their young ones.
Snowmobiles have access to their own routes, and snowshoers and cross county skiers can trundle through the snow to find some peace and quiet. The area is a favorite for folks looking for an easy place to harvest their own Christmas tree, with a permit of course.
Across the road is the excellent Horseshoe Prairie Road sno-park, which is open only to non-motorized travel, especially nordic skiing. A wide variety of tracks are offered of differing skill levels.
One of the benefits of Andies Prairie is its easy access. A paved parking lot connects directly to Highway 204, meaning there is no risk of getting stuck on snow-covered gravel roads. While four-wheel drive, good tires and a high-clearance vehicle are critical to accessing some of the parks, Andies is open to just about everyone who can get themselves up Weston Mountain.
Located 20 miles east of Ukiah off Oregon Highway 244, Four Corners offers excellent off-trail snowmobile riding.
The open area features no marked or groomed trails, but is a favorite for riders who want to cut their own path through the snow.
Farther afield, well-used sno-parks in the region include downhill ski and snowboard areas like Anthony Lakes and Ferguson Ridge (which are also bases for snowmobilers). Catherine Creek on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is a favorite for snowmobilers, and it also includes a de facto sledding center within walking distance. The Salt Creek Summit southeast of Joseph in Wallowa County is often filled with a variety of winter enthusiasts, from snowmobilers to backcountry skiers and snowboarders.
A sno-park permit is required for parking in an Oregon sno-park between Nov. 1 and April 30. The money raised by permit sales pay for snow removal services at the parks, and the entire program is self-sufficient.
An annual permit costs $25, a 3-day version costs $9 and a daily pass is $4. Last year, the Oregon Department of Transportation sold 65,287 annual permits, and the five-year average for 1-day permits is about 83,000 per year.
According to Karen Morrison, maintenance services coordinator, the number of snow park permits sold in a given year often depends on the amount of snow the state receives, how widespread, and how early in the season snows arrive.
Display them on the lower left corner of your vehicle’s windshield. The permits are sold at all DMV offices, sporting goods stores and other retail outlets.