The Willamette Valley has a wintry secret: When the cool ocean air hits the backbone of the Cascade Range, the west-facing slopes transform into a powdery playground. Mountain peaks tower above the Willamette National Forest, with its hidden caches of snow. The rushing McKenzie River and companion creeks burble along, laced with ice. While most people head to Oregon’s better-known winter destinations, the Willamette Valley lures adventurous travelers to a quiet wonderland with fewer crowds and plenty of stoke. Whether you seek vertical velocity, groomed groove or natural beauty, you’ll find it on the west side of the Cascades.
Snowshoeing and Nordic Skiing
The Cascade Range is packed with trekking options for Nordic skiers and snowshoers — each with varying levels of difficulty and epic views. Nordic skiers and snowshoers glide and hike out of sno-parks located east of Oakridge on OR-58. Gold Lake Sno-Park is the jumping-off point for the easy, 4.2-mile round-trip Gold Lake Road Snow Trail. Farther north, trail seekers find powder stashes along U.S.-20. Tombstone Sno-Park leads to trails like the easy Tombstone-Prairie Hill Snow Trail (3.5 miles one way) and the more challenging Echo Snow Trail (5.6 miles round-trip). From the Potato Hill Sno-Park, visitors can access the 4-mile Hash Brown Loop Snow Trail through old-growth Douglas fir forests. Lava Lake Sno-Park has several short, easy options for beginners to kick and glide.
The majestic waterfalls of the West Cascades are even more arresting in winter as their frigid veils plunge through snow-crusted outcroppings and ice-layered canyon walls. Near Oakridge, petite Salmon Creek Falls flows year-round into deep pools at an attractive day-use area along Salmon Creek. Nearby Salt Creek Sno-Park offers Nordic skiers and snowshoers a 4.5-mile loop trail with views of impressive Salt Creek Falls — Oregon’s second highest waterfall at 286 feet — and gushing Diamond Creek Falls. Accessible from OR-126, Koosah Falls plunges 70 feet into an icy pool along the McKenzie River. From here, strap on your snowshoes for a 2.6-mile hike leading to majestic Sahalie Falls tumbling 100 feet through the carved lava. You can also drive to the parking lot at Sahalie, which has an ADA-accessible viewing platform.
Willamette Pass Resort
A little over an hour east of Eugene, Willamette Pass Resort is the Valley’s closest groomed winter terrain. With a summit elevation of 6,683 feet and more than 1,500 feet of vertical, the resort catches an average of 430 inches of snow per season. This winter wonderland takes all comers. Snowboarders and skiers carve down 29 trails on 555 acres of skiable terrain — more than half of it groomed. Two terrain parks keep adrenaline pumping with boxers, rails and booters. Those looking for a more sedate session enjoy the resort’s 20 kilometers of groomed Nordic trails. Those same trails are open to snowshoeing, as are 300 adjacent acres of ungroomed backcountry. Willamette Pass provides lessons and rentals, too. Check the resort’s website for information about passes, deals and road conditions.
Hoodoo Ski Area
Perched atop Santiam Pass about two hours from Eugene, Hoodoo Ski Area takes powder hounds up to a summit of 5,703 feet with a vertical rise of 1,035 feet. With 800 skiable acres, 34 trails and an average annual snowfall of 450 inches, Hoodoo is home to a 3-mile-long run. But there’s more here than high-adrenaline hijinks. Family-friendly Hoodoo is home to the Autobahn tubing park — a series of epic, 800-foot groomed runs that are essential to the winter adventure list. The resort also offers night skiing on Friday and Saturday and 18.5 kilometers of Nordic trails — most of which are perfect for beginners. Visitors can rent alpine and Nordic skis, snowshoes and singular snow bikes.
Cold weather builds a keen appetite in winter explorers. Luckily, the town of Oakridge is home to Brewers Union Local 180. Stop in for Oregon craft beer, good pub grub — like the ever-popular bangers and mash — and a family-friendly atmosphere (including Scrabble Night, open-mic night and darts). Grab a table at The Ridge Homestyle Cafe for hot coffee and hearty breakfasts such as steak and eggs or biscuits and gravy.
Gear up for a day of adventure in Eugene with Agate Alley Bistro’s delightful brunch offerings such as the smoked salmon Bennie and the savory shakshuka. At the day’s end, wind down in the elegant atmosphere of iconic Marché — the bistro that started Oregon’s farm-to-table movement. The taste of winter is on tap at Eugene’s craft breweries with seasonal offerings like Ninkasi Brewing Company’s toasty Sleigh’r Winter Ale and Oakshire Brewing’s Spiced Apple Porter.
If You Go
Always check road conditions before you go, and abide by traction tire and chain requirements. Keep essential equipment in your vehicle. All Oregon Sno-Parks require a permit, which can be acquired at various outdoor and sporting-good stores in most Oregon towns.