Living in the Portland area, the Mount Hood resorts are conveniently close. Not surprisingly, that’s where I ski the most. Each area has its own character, and there is so much variety amongst all the open terrain. But at least once a season, I try to get away from the Portland area so that I can experience what some of the other Oregon ski areas have to offer. Recently, I traveled to Central Oregon… and I was able to sample Hoodoo, Mount Bachelor and, for the first time, Willamette Pass.

Willamette Pass
Sunday, December 27, 2009

My “base camp” for this central Oregon ski trip was my parents’ home in Bend. From there, Willamette Pass is an easy 1-hour and 15-minute drive. The base of the ski area is right at the summit of Highway 58, and at 5,100 feet, Willamette Pass is one of the higher Cascade passes.

Being the Sunday after Christmas, I was prepared to battle the holiday crowd. My concern was unfounded – I skied nearly 20 runs, and on all but two of them, I skied right up to the chair and boarded as a single. Lift-line mazes weren’t even set up. If this is what it was like during the Christmas holiday “peak” period, I can’t imagine how quiet the place must be on a regular midweek day!

Willamette Pass is much larger ski area than it appears to be when initially looking up the mountain from the base. Only the wide Success and By George top-to-bottom run is easily-seen from the parking lot. The other 500 acres of terrain you can’t easily see – and that terrain can be divided into three zones: The lower front side, the upper front side, and the backside.

Served by the Twilight triple chair, the lower front side is where the most of the beginner and intermediate runs are clustered. Aside from the wide-open cruiser By George, most of the runs are narrow and tree-lined. This is helpful, because this area is south-facing and can suffer from excessive sun exposure. The snow doesn’t get particularly deep here, but it doesn’t need to get deep. Even with the meager 15-20″ base when I was there, these runs were well-covered with groomed corduroy snow (thanks in part to the snowmaking machines scattered around this pod). The intermediate runs have a perfect blue-square pitch – steep enough to allow for some speed, yet not steep enough to be intimidating to the average immediate rider. For beginners and novices, there are several green-circle trails here that round the western edge of the ski area. These runs are a natural next-step from the Sleep Hollow first-timer area, a well-placed & isolated learn-to-ski/board zone near the lodge.

The upper front side is accessed by the Eagle Peak Accelerator, Oregon’s only high-speed six-passenger chairlift. It climbs 1,500 vertical-feet from the base to the 6,666-foot summit of Eagle Peak in just a little more than 5-minutes. The final push to the top is one of the steepest climbs of any chair in the state. In fact, a run (named “RTS”) that drops off the west side of the Eagle Peak summit is the steepest in-bounds run in Oregon. Other drops from the summit aren’t quite as steep, but their black-diamond label is well-deserved. Unfortunately, most of these steep runs are south-facing – which means that they can be excellent when the snow is new, but rotten with just a minimum amount of sun exposure. Intermediates can drop from the top to the bottom along the Rosary and Perseverance trails. But unlike the nicely-pitched blue-square cruisers on the lower front side, these long summit-to-base trails are narrow cat-tracks for most of the route. They serve their purpose of providing an intermediate route to the base, but they’re not ideal for lapping or cruising.

From the top of Eagle Peak, straight off the back side is the trail network of Peak 2. This north-facing pod is like a different ski area. The day I visited, the difference was especially noticeable. While the front side featured partial sun and hard-packed snow, fog & low clouds socked in the north side and light snow intermittently fell. The snowpack was much deeper, and the powder & packed-powder was light & fluffy in the absence of any sun exposure. The Peak 2 lift, a triple chair rising 800 vertical-feet, accesses the seven blue-square and black-diamond runs in this area. I spent nearly two hours back there, having fun on the cut trails and in the trees. Whereas the snow base at the front-side was less than two feet deep, the snow depth on the Peak 2 back-side was easily double that.

My ski day lasted nearly five hours at Willamette Pass. Having never skied there before, I didn’t know exactly what to expect upon arrival. (One can only learn so much about an area from looking at the trail map!) With no lift lines even on peak days, a speedy base-to-summit express lift, a wide variety of terrain for all ability levels (including some of the steepest runs in Oregon), a spacious yet cozy base lodge, and very reasonable lift ticket & food/beverage prices, Willamette Pass rocks! I highly recommend that you give it a try sometime. I doubt you’ll be disappointed. Those of you who are regulars there – you know what the others are missing. And now I know too!

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