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home : columns : columns April 29, 2016

4/2/2013 1:31:00 PM
Skiing the North Loop from Ray Benson Sno-Park
Cross-country skiers climb one of the short hills on the North Loop Trail out of Ray Benson Sno-Park. photo courtesy Craig Eisenbeis
+ click to enlarge
Cross-country skiers climb one of the short hills on the North Loop Trail out of Ray Benson Sno-Park. photo courtesy Craig Eisenbeis

Desperate for an escape from Oregon's West Side, my wife's cousin recently contacted us with a plan for a weekend getaway to Sisters. Would I like to do some cross-country skiing with her and her husband, she wondered? Well, does the sun rise in the east?

About 36 hours later we found ourselves planning an outing over dinner. They had already skied once on their way over the pass and were looking for another adventure on their way back. We settled on the North Loop out of Ray Benson Sno-Park. I had skied along the northern edge of the loop in February but had never exactly skied the entire loop all at one time before. They had skied the loop some years back but thought it was time to do it again.

A cold night was forecast, so we decided to start around noon in the hopes that the surface would soften up by the time we hit the trail. We hit it just about right: still firm, but with no ice on top! It was softer by the time we finished; but, except after new snow, the snowpack surface is pretty dense at this time of the year.

We parked right by the trailhead at the northern end of the Sno-Park, and I was very impressed at how well-marked the system was. Throughout the woods, we found a plethora of ski trail blue diamond markers, signs, and trail maps. Each major trail intersection had an easy-to-read trail map, complete with a "You Are Here" star.

Just a couple of hundred yards into the woods, we came to our first intersection and decision - the beginning of the "loop." Based on the degree-of-difficulty signs, we chose to follow the loop counterclockwise. That way, we figured, we could tackle the more difficult stretch first while going uphill, saving the more gentle slopes for the downhill return. We figured right.

The hills we encountered were certainly not extreme. Still, I occasionally left the trail to find slower, less steep alternate routes. Snow conditions off-trail were fine, too. The forest at the southern end of the loop was dominated by healthy stands of hemlock, with fir and pine also common.

The northern part of the loop enters the 90,000-acre B&B Burn of 2003, so there is lots of wide-open skiing surface, with few branches, tree wells, or other obstructions - save for the burned tree trunks poking through the snow.

According to the signs, the counterclockwise distance to North Blowout Shelter, from the first trail junction, is 1.75 miles; and the clockwise distance is 2.25 miles. By the time we reached the shelter, however, we were all in agreement that it was a long 1.75 miles. Part of the reason for that is because the forest and the topography limit the traveler's view of surrounding landmarks by which to judge your progress and location.

About the time we sensed that we had already far exceeded the advertised distance, the only landmark visible was the ridge south of Square Lake on the north side of Highway 20 - which began to look far too much like the south side of Cache Mountain, which would have put us many miles off course.

That didn't seem at all likely, so we continued on our course; and, before too long, we spotted the roof of the shelter up ahead. When we reached it, Cache Mountain was clearly visible, off to the south - where it was supposed to be.

The shelter was originally built in the 1980s by the Willamette Chapter of the Oregon Nordic Club, but destroyed in the B&B Fire. The rebuilt shelter sits on a high point and looks out across a scenic, if mostly burned, panorama to the east. Black Butte is also part of the vista. Snowmobiles had not infringed on any part of the trail system, but every inch of the open plain to the east, below the shelter, was crisscrossed with their characteristic track marks.

The shelter's inner walls are lined with benches facing a wood-burning stove. The little log cabin has a heavy canvas door and two large plexiglass windows. There was an ample supply of firewood. Since it was a relatively warm day, we saw no need to deplete the firewood supply, but enjoyed the dry bench seating while munching on snacks that we had packed in.

Up until that point, we had not seen any other people on our trip. Just as we were leaving the shelter, however, a party of four women and a dog showed up. After exchanging a few pleasantries, we left them to enjoy the shelter by themselves. On the 2.25-mile return along the western portion of the loop, we encountered a total of five other people, which seemed like pretty light usage for a Sunday afternoon.

The northern part of the loop seemed to have fewer blue diamonds, and ski tracks tended to fan out across the burned-over forest. Still, the trail was relatively easy to follow; and it's pretty hard to get lost out here, with Highway 20 about a mile to the north and the Hoodoo access road just a mile - or less - to the west.

Our return route skittered around behind the ODOT sand and gravel piles at the summit of Santiam Pass, then turned south to parallel the access road. When the trail re-entered the unburned, green forest, there were a few very short ups and downs but nothing of any particular difficulty - reaffirming our judgement that a counterclockwise route would prove less difficult.

We covered the entire loop in less than three hours; and my companions were soon on their way back to the Portland area, their weekend getaway already fading into memory. When I last saw them, they were discussing the feasibility of moving to Sisters.

The Ray Benson Sno-Park is located at Santiam Pass 20 miles west of Sisters on Highway 20. The south-leading access road to Ray Benson and Hoodoo is clearly marked. Sno-Park permits are required.

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