Five for No Snow, Five for Snow.
Winter in Oregon’s high desert can look and be quite different from one year to the next. In winter 2017, copious snowfall covered much of the sagebrush sea with feet of fun for skiers and snowshoers. The 2018 winter season lent itself more to hiking than snow play. 2019 brought a mixture of snow, rain and sunshine. We shall see what winter 2020 holds.
Here are ten ideas for adventures across the high desert in the winter months — helpfully divided up between no to low snow and tons of snow.
We hope this list gives you a great set of winter adventures to pursue. As always, check current conditions before you head out!
And if you share any photos of your adventures on Instagram, we’d love to see them! Mention @theoregondesert in your caption and use the hashtag #OregonHighDesertWinter2019.
No to Low Snow
1.) Oregon Badlands Wilderness
Eager to spend some time outside during the mild winter months? The Oregon Badlands Wilderness offers miles of trail just east of Bend on the edge of the high desert. To hike the first nine miles of the Oregon Desert Trail, head to the Tumulus Trailhead. From Bend drive east on Highway 20 for 13 miles and take a left onto Dodds Road. Drive for six miles to an unmarked dirt road and turn right (directly after the mile 6 marker) and take a right at the only fork in the road until you reach a parking area at the irrigation canal. The Tumulus Trailhead is over the canal walkway. Find maps and detailed descriptions of this section of trail on the Oregon Desert Trail Resources page, and consider hiking with a friend and dropping a car at the Flat Iron Rock Trailhead for a one-way adventure.
2.) Crack in the Ground
Crack in the Ground is exactly what it sounds like: a 2-mile long crack, or fissure, in the surrounding volcanic landscape. This is the high desert’s version of a slot canyon, and the crack can be explored via a trail through most of the feature, although in some areas the basalt walls have blocked the way for all but the most adventurous and nimble who want to climb around on the chunks of rock. Head about 8 miles north from Christmas Valley to the trailhead on the north side of the crack.
3: Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge
Our next few suggestions have to do with hot springs, so be sure to read on for some soaking ideas for those cold winter days. Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge sets the stage for beautiful winter days, with or without snow. If the roads are open, you may be able to drive into the Hart Mountain Hot Springs Campground and stake out a spot for a winter weekend. Be sure to check their website for road conditions. If the road to the campground is closed, you can still hike in the 5 miles and are likely to have the place to yourself.
4: Alvord Desert
If the playa of Alvord Desert is dry, it can set the scene for a grand adventure at the base of Steens Mountain. Explore patterns in the cracked earth of the 80-square-mile dry lakebed, or head across the road from the Alvord Hot Springs to hike up Pike Creek or one of the numerous canyons or shoulders of the 50-mile-long Steens Mountain. Short winter days leave more time for stargazing in one of the darkest night skies left in the country.
5.) Summer Lake
Summer Lake sets a dramatic backdrop to any adventure in the area. Relax in the outdoor tub at Summer Lake Hot Springs and watch the light play across the water, or the wind whip up clouds of dust across the vast basin. In the event of little to no snow, consider a hike up to Diablo Rim. Access the rim from the little community of Summer Lake by turning east onto Thousand Springs Lane. Take this road 6 miles to a fork and turn right or south. Drive approximately 2 miles and park on the west side of the road, there is a small pull out before a slight rise in the road. The 5-mile cross-country route to the Diablo Peak ascends up Cat Canyon Draw to the top. Be on the lookout for Big Horn Sheep in the area.
Tons of Snow
1.) Steens Mountain
In winter the Steens Loop Road, which takes folks to the 9,500’ top of the mountain from the little town of Frenchglen, is closed, but the Burns Bureau of Land Managment has a winter permit system if you are interested in exploring the backcountry once the Steens Loop Road is closed. On really snowy days you can start your ski or snowshoe from Page Springs Campground. As you head up, enjoy the undulating terrain found on the gentle slopes of the west side of the mountain. For more extreme adventures consider climbing up from the east side of Steens Mountain with your skis to access the steep terrain for a real adrenaline rush.
2.) Warner Canyon Ski Area
Powder hounds in southeast Oregon love this small and intimate ski hill near Lakeview and the California border. One lift at Warner Canyon provides access to 21 different trails ranging from expert to beginner from the summit at 6,500’. The rustic lodge is a great place to warm up next to the fire after a few runs, and the grill serves up burgers and other snacks. Miles of cross-country ski trails can also be found right around the ski area.
3.) Abert Lake/Summer Lake
Cold snaps in the desert can turn the shallow alkaline lakes of Abert and Summer Lake into the perfect adventure for those with a pair of ice skates. Speed across the frozen lakes and race your friends across miles of frozen lake.
4.) Winter Rim
Winter Rim and Summer Lake are perfect compliments any time of year, but when the snow falls, the rim can look even more dramatic towering 3,000’ above the vast lakebed. Adventurous skiers can rent the Fremont Point Cabin during the winter months, but should be prepared for a 10-mile trip each way. Rent the cabin up to six months in advance; access for this remote and strenuous trip is through the town of Silver Lake, directions and access info can be found online or by calling the Silver Lake Ranger Station.
5.) Anything with snow on it
When the snow starts to fall and you are measuring the accumulation in feet and not inches, most of the terrain in the high desert can turn into a winter wonderland. Public lands are open to exploration, so throw some winter toys in your truck and ski something entirely new to you.