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Winter Play on Mount Bachelor, Oregon

Top Snow Sports Around Bend, Oregon

“Packed powder” might be my favorite oxymoron in the English language, the suggestion that a lack of fresh snow still conjures up fluffy conditions. I understand why ski resorts use this description. Who wants to ski on “compact snow,” a department of transportation term that sounds as fun as curbside slush?

“Skiing off the peak” is another term with somewhat vague connotations, given that reaching the pinnacle of many ski hills requires an arduous boot pack to sketchy, cliff-strewn terrain. This is what makes Mount Bachelor so spectacular, the ability to ski 360 degrees directly off its summit chair.

To be clear, a quick boot climb is required to access the double-black diamond Pinnacles and Hourglass bowls, but what also separates Mount Bachelor from other mountains is how many blue runs flow downward from the apex. These east-facing slope cruisers call to mind another Bachelor truth: Runs here take a long time to ski or ride, producing a wonderful groove that feels like you’re skiing off the top of an entire volcano which, in fact, you are.

Mt.Bachelor action ski jump Courtesy Mt.Bachelor
On the slopes. Photo courtesy of Mount Bachelor

Central Oregon’s Winter Playground

The skiing and snowboarding reality here is only one of several reasons you should pack up your winter gear and go play in central Oregon for a few days. Bend’s role as an outdoor recreation hub is as well-known as the city’s reputation for building a brewery behind seemingly every sagebrush. Winter in Bend is less known, yet a drive along the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway from Bend to Mount Bachelor unfurls a bouquet of sno-parks that are chocked full of cross-country ski trails, snowmobile terrain and sledding hills.

The machine-groomed fat tire biking trails at the Wanoga Snow Play Area are one of the few parks that offers groomers in North America. This being Bend, there are also extensive off-leash trails for the hounds. There were two dozen dogs running wild when I arrived to ride on a sunny January Saturday.

I’d picked up my bike from Crow’s Feet: A Mountain Collective, one of those full-service outfitter shops that double as a cool hangout for like-minded adventure-heads. These establishments remain critical in supporting trends like fat tire biking, often investing in inventory long before the rest of us catch up. (Think of snowboards in the 1980s.)

Fat Tire Biking best by Crai Bower
Fat tire biking. Photo by Crai Bower

Fat Tire Biking

Seasoned mountain bikers are all in these days on fat tire biking, but the ease of the ride is also drawing new enthusiasts who wouldn’t be as comfortable rock hopping and root jumping over gravel and dirt tracks in the summer. Count me among them. Although I’ve fallen plenty of times while fat tire biking from Québec to Hokkaido, these tumbles produce little more discomfort than some snow in my pants.

Wanoga features a 6-mile and 3-mile loop. I pedal out on the longer “Outer Loop.” Comprised of gentle ascents and plenty of flat terrain, the hard-packed trail courses through a young mountain hemlock forest. The sun splashes across the snow creating an Escher canvas, the crystalline tessellations mesmerizing as I pedal around the gentle curves in the trees, through a subalpine meadow, and back within the wood.

On my 90-minute ride, there are only four other riders, a pair who’d finished riding 9 miles along both trails and a father, daughter, beagle trio. Their canine companion runs merrily along until his squat legs give out and he demands to be carried for the remaining 2 miles, a comical sight. I can imagine a future when many more converts come out to ride on a gorgeous Saturday like today, but for now, fat biking remains free of the congestion that can plague well-known single-track routes in summer.

Wanoga snow park Dmitry AdobeStock
Wanoga Snow-Park. Photo by Dmitry/AdobeStock

Sno-Park Central

Not that the Wanoga Snow Play Area isn’t wildly popular. The sledding hill is packed with families. Nordic skiers, many towing child carrier sleds, appear everywhere too. Friends and families also snowmobile together, the kids often driving modified junior sleds in a designated area. Post frolic tailgating here ranges from a camp chair congregation to full grilling operations reminiscent of a Seahawks game.

Similar winter frivolity spreads across the region. The Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway between Bend and Mount Bachelor is the gateway to the Virginia Meissner Sno-Park, Swampy Lakes Sno-Park and Trail Head, Vista Butte Sno-Park and Kapka Butte Sno-Park. Edison Butte and Skyliner Sno-Parks are located just minutes off the highway.

I can’t think of anywhere else in North America with so many sno-parks within a 10-mile radius. With this access and weather, why would anyone ever want to stay indoors? Clearly few Bendites do, given that every trailhead parking lot contains no fewer than six cars and at least one requisite sprinter van.

Mt.Bachelor couple Courtesy Mt.Bachelor
On the trail. Photo courtesy of Mount Bachelor

Gliding Through the Woods

There’s no one in Mount Bachelor’s Sunrise parking lot, however, when I arrive with Wanderlust Tours for a moonlight snowshoeing tour, a four-hour door-to-trail experience.

For all its simplicity, walking by moonlight in the woods remains among the most exciting outdoor activities I know, one that requires little more than clear skies and a compass, though I’m happy to be guided through unfamiliar terrain. Stepping within a snowbound forest embellishes an already glorious experience, elevating it to levels as mythical as Orion, Taurus and Sirius, three of the many constellations that bejewel the night sky above us.

Our quintet treads gently uphill, pauses to jump off a knoll, breaks new trail among the firs, and settles in for a few minutes to sip hot chocolate, eat a cranberry-oat bar from the Pantry in town and collectively gaze at a sparkling meadow below. We also note coyote tracks dashing this way and that. Could this be the same terrestrial canid we spied from the road as we arrived?

Unlike the coyote that, like Sirius, will remain alert until daybreak, we return to the van after our three-hour trek and return to Tetherow Resort. The renowned golf destination serves as a perfect lodging locale in winter, given its equidistance between Mount Bachelor and Bend. Daily breakfast at The Row, the resort’s casual dining spot, works out well, too.

Bledsoe Winery Courtesy Bledsoe Winery
Bledsoe Winery in winter. Photo courtesy of Bledsoe Winery

Exploring Bend

Like the Deschutes National Forest that envelopes it, Mount Bachelor is perfect for exploration.  The volcano’s face yawns from the Cloudchaser Quad, an excellent entre into intermediate terrain. Meanwhile, the Northwest chair releases advanced skiers to a dozen steep diamond runs before dipping beneath the tree line and shallowing out.

Like gauging a mountain town by its breweries, a ski resort’s appeal is measured by its après scene as much as its skiable terrain (4,323 acres), runs (101), and vertical drop (3,365 feet). Bachelor does not disappoint—boasting sun-filled terraces and local IPAs at three different on-mountain lodges.

While in Bend, I visited the Box Factory, one of those “only in Bend” converted industrial areas that now teem with cool shops and establishments. One is the Bledsoe Family Winery, which is the only tasting room that I know of that broadcasts NFL playoff games, a nod to the founder, former NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe. And yes, I made my way into a brewery. Cascade Lakes and Crux were my preferred haunts on this trip, though I was most impressed with Canteen, a sweet little rustically appointed room at the trendy Campfire Hotel.

I didn’t remain long at any saloon, however. With all this snow, why would I ever want to stay indoors?

–Written by Crai Bower, last updated in December 2022.
–Top photo is Courtesy of Mount Bachelor

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