By Tim Trainor

East Oregonian

As winter reaches its peak in Eastern Oregon, many residents are looking for opportunities to bust through the inversion into playgrounds of deep snow under blue skies.

Luckily, Eastern Oregon 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.

Mt. Emily

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 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. One side of the park is a lot that connects to nordic skiing trails, while the other 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 members 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 hard pack. 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 nonmotorized side of the trails as well, but they are asked to not walk on the groomed trails.

A box for donations, which help defray the costs of grooming and plowing, has been placed at the entrance to the trails.

“We groom as long as we have money to do it,” said Johnson. “Every bit helps.”

Tollgate area snowmobile parks

Along state Highway 204, which connects Weston and Elgin, there are multiple snowmobile-centric sno-parks. Each offers a place to park off the 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, offer 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, hosts events, disseminates trail reports and participates in search and rescue operations. Check out their latest information at: http://tollgatetrailfinders.org/

Spout Springs

Since it opened in 1956, winter recreation in the Tollgate area has been centered around Spout Springs Ski Area. But since the ski area has closed for the season, the area is now home to other outdoor enthusiasts.

According to the Forest Service, snowmobilers are not allowed within the ski area boundary, which is open to the public only for nonmotorized use. Backcountry skiers and snowshoers have taken to the hill’s wide, cleared runs despite the lack of a ski lift.

Andies Prairie

One of the most well-used sno-parks in the region, Andes 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 cut their own Christmas trees — with a permit of course.

Across the road is the excellent Horseshoe Prairie Road Sno-park, which is open only to nonmotorized travel, especially nordic skiing. A wide variety of tracks are offered for differing skill levels.

One of the benefits of Andies Prairie is its easy access. A paved parking lot connects directly to Highway 204, so there is little risk of getting stuck on snow-covered side roads. While four-wheel drive, good tires and a high-clearance vehicle are critical to accessing some of the parks, this one is open to just about everyone who can get themselves up Weston Mountain.

Four Corners

Located 20 miles east of Ukiah off state 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 Lake Area 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 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.

Permits

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 pays for snow-removal services at the parks, and the entire program is self-sufficient.

An annual permit 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 sno-park permits sold in a given year often depends on the amount of snow the state receives and on how widespread and how early in the season snow arrives.

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.

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