Standing in a clearing at the dead-end of what are clearly the wrong Nordic ski tracks that I'd been following, I quietly curse the guy in the Maxwell Sno-Park parking lot who said, "The trails are really well marked." I can't help but chuckle at the irony of getting lost (though I prefer off course) while on assignment for an article on snow shelter camping tips. Tip #1: bring a map or GPS and KNOW THE TRAILS. I knew I'd broken some of my rules for backcountry travel, rushed and ignored the clues that I was off course. But this wasn't really backcountry, it was marked Nordic and snowshoe trails near Hoodoo, just beyond the junction of the McKenzie Highway and Route 22.
I have a backup plan, but it doesn't take much to get lost, even on marked trails. Lane County Search and Rescue Coordinator John Miller says that typically it only takes a series of little errors for people to find themselves in need of rescue. And it can happen in situations much like mine. I'm headed to the Mountain View Snow Shelter to meet up with friends who have been camped there for a few nights.
Two winters ago, a group of four went snow shoeing on a similar trip near Willamette Pass. They intended to hike in and camp at Fuji Shelter, but the group got a late start and ended up lost after dark. Tip #2: don't rush or leave late. With a faint signal they called for help. They were found, but not before they had to spend the night outdoors in an improvised shelter they'd dug under a tree. Search and rescuers reported the group spent the night within a hundred yards of the shelter they were looking for. Though still accessible, it had been mostly covered by snow and harder to find. This year, near the same area, two similar rescues were organized over the New Year's Holiday.
My phone rings, my friend Matt is on the other end already at the shelter. "You passed marker five? Dude you're at the south end of the park." (The wrong end) Now I really wish I'd listened to the woman at one of the marker stations that said, "The number system is confusing." I thought I'd just made a wrong turn a few hundred yards back. It turned out that I'd also been heading to the wrong shelter (See tip1 and 2). The mistake more than doubled my hike in and cost me most of the remaining daylight.
But don't be scared off. With a few precautions snow shelter camping can be a safe and enjoyable way to experience the backcountry feel of the Cascades in winter without even having to sleep on snow. Just an hour to an hour and forty-five minute drive can take you to a few snow parks that see less traffic than ones closer to Bend.
With a short hike, from either Highway 58 near Willamette Pass or Santiam Pass near Hoodoo, the parks offer a number of overnight snow shelters that give you the feel of being in the middle of nowhere, yet still close to your car. With wood burning stoves and wood supplied by the Forest Service, even the three-walled rustic shelters (one wall open to the elements) can keep you surprisingly warm. They include sleeping lofts that catch some heat from the stove and sleep four. For those preferring less rustic, some shelters are completely enclosed and should more accurately be listed as cabins. Perhaps best of all, beyond the cost of a snow park pass, they are free to overnight in and work on a first-come, first-serve basis.
If overnight camping is not your thing, they also make great lunch spots for day snowshoe hikes or Nordic ski trips. The Forest Service does require sharing the space with other campers and day hikers. But they classify usage of some of the shelters, like Mountain View in the Maxwell Sno-Park, as "light," meaning there is a good chance you may be the only ones there overnight. Bend area resident Matt Hansen calls them, "hidden jewels in the middle of the woods." Some shelters near Willamette pass receive moderate day traffic, but are also frequently empty at night.
Santiam Pass Area
Maxwell Sno-Park & Mountain View Shelter: With clear roads, the park is an hour drive from Bend, located off Hwy. 22 just beyond Hoodoo Ski Resort and the junction at McKenzie Hwy. (126). From the parking lot, the shelter is about two miles into the park, roughly an hour by snowshoe. The trail has a slight elevation gain. Mountain View Shelter sits at the top of a gentle ridgeline that offers stunning views of The Three Sisters, Mt. Washington and Three Fingered Jack. It is a four-walled enclosed structure with a wood-burning stove, a stocked wood shed and an outhouse. It sleeps up to 15 and also has a large indoor picnic table and six wood cots. With a good fire going, you could probably reach 80 degrees indoors - hardly roughing it. The park also offers a substantial number of interconnected snowshoe/Nordic trails. Pay attention to the numbering system, it can be confusing at times. Be sure not to mistake the other shelter in the park, which is still listed as under construction on some maps and missing entirely on others, with the Mountain View shelter. The other shelter is a three-sided rustic shelter with the fourth wall open to the elements. A representative from the Detroit Ranger District said you can camp in it but, that shelter does not have a sleeping loft or a wood burning stove.
Willamette Pass Area
Gold Lake Snow Park, West View Shelter & Bechtel Shelter: About 1:45 hours from Bend, the park is minutes from Willamette Pass Ski Resort on the edge of the 55,000 acre Diamond Peak Wilderness. This snow park has a number of Nordic and snowshoe trails. The Pacific Crest Trail also cuts through the park and heads toward Diamond Peak. Nordic trails and shelters are well marked, but markers on the PCT can be difficult to follow in winter beyond tracked areas. The two area shelters are rustic, three-wall shelters with the fourth wall open, but with substantial snowfall, the open wall can be protected somewhat by snow. Both shelters have lofts that sleep four, though more could sleep on gravel at ground level. They are also stocked with wood and contain wood burning stoves. West View Shelter is a quick one-mile hike from the parking lot; Bechtel is slightly more than two miles.
Fuji Shelter: Another rustic shelter near Willamette pass. Fuji is accessible from the Salt Creek Falls Sno-park. Access entails an arduous roughly four-mile hike with substantial elevation gain. The payout is an impressive view of Diamond Peak.
Maiden Peak Shelter: An enclosed shelter that sleeps 15. It is located behind Willamette Pass Ski Resort and accessible by Nordic ski trails. It is in close proximity to backcountry ski opportunities on maiden peak.
For more information on shelters, follow the links from the U.S. Forest Service website, www.fs.usda.gov (select Oregon from the pull down menu, then select from the list of National Forests and click on recreation to reach winter sports link).
Snow Shelter Camping Tips
1. Know the trails; bring a map or GPS and extra batteries.
2. Follow a plan. Don't rush or leave late; that's how mistakes happen.
3. Check the weather forecast. Not knowing can be trouble.
4. Look behind you at trail intersections, so you remember what the return trail looks like. - Alex Gonzales, Deep Survival.
5. Pack light; pack warm, but pack efficient. Ask yourself if you really need it. Melt snow to carry less drinking water. Paper waste is burnable, you have to carry out the rest.
6. Consider dragging a sled if your pack is too heavy.
7. Wood-burning stoves are great to cook on.
8. Warm boots= warm feet. Paying extra is worth it. And wear synthetic or wool socks, NO COTTON! (It's the death cloth). Wearing sweats to bed will keep your sleeping bag warmer.
9. Dress light for the hike or you'll overheat.
10. It's okay to wear the same clothes more than one day. It's camping; you can stink.