For Oregon skiers and snowboarders Willamette Pass is a ski resort always on the radar for its affordability and great community vibes. The resort is the nearest ski area to Eugene, just over an hour or 70 miles by car up Highway 58 at the apex of Willamette Pass. It’s coincidentally almost the exact same distance from Bend traveling on Highway 97. The resort operates five days per week from Wednesday to Sunday.
We decided to head over on a Wednesday in January during the quiet of the post-holiday season to get in on the new snowfall and fresh groomed runs. Professional snowboarder Josh Dirksen was our guide and talent for this trip. Originally from Eugene, Dirksen got his start snowboarding at Willamette Pass in the early 90s. He has since gone on to make a career out of the sport, traveling the world, competing and filming and now inspiring riders to master the basics of the sport—specifically carving stylish turns.
Sampling The Goods
It was a snowy day when we made the drive over from Bend. We left town a little after 7 a.m. and were booting up in the uncrowded, packed powder parking lot adjacent to the base lodge well before the lifts started spinning at 9 a.m. The resort, which in 2022 joined ownership with Mountain Capital Partners, has tickets pricing on a dynamic model that accounts for demand. We casually strolled over to the Eagle Peak Accelerator high-speed six-person lift—the only six-pack in the state—and loaded right on. The lifts ascends up from the main base area at 5,120 feet all the way to the 6,683-foot summit—a substantial 1,563-foot run. Did I mention there was no lift line? This was really shaping up to be a great day.
As you approach the top of the lift, the shoulder of the summit falls away on the left to reveal a very, very steep run. This is the famed RTS trail or Real Tough Stuff—at 52-degree it’s one of the nation’s steepest ski runs and was the one-time site of the U.S. Speed Skiing Championships, where the top speed of 116 mph was set. Adjacent is a treed run that’s nearly as steep dubbed SDN, or Steep, Deep & Narrow. (While this trail is inbounds, the ski patrol does not patrol it, so it is very important to always ski with a buddy and be aware of the dangers of tree wells.) Dirksen went straight for this run. We followed him through the frosted trees, it was steep enough that the fresh snow sloughed off the face, traveling along with us. This is definitely a black diamond run with mandatory sharp turns around trees, rock drops and tight chutes for the taking. We session SDN a few more times, dropping in a little further along to find new features and fresh tracks. We continued taking runs on the frontside, heading skiers right off the lift, we found a great mix of well-spaced tree skiing and groomed intermediate runs. The runs were long and the high-speed lift has us back to the top in no time.
Both RTS and SDN empty out above a network of mellow intermediate groomers. These runs can be accessed by the Twilight triple chair, which also originates in the base area. Even though we were getting into more technical terrain, Willamette Pass is known as a resort that caters to beginners and families with a dedicated magic carpet surface lift and the Sleepy Hallow chair just above the lodge. This is where groups gather for the resorts twice-daily free adult beginner lessons. Participants can also rent skis and snowboards—the rental shop restocked for the 2023 season with brand new skis and snowboards, an expanded high-end Demo ski fleet and new adult and kid helmets. On weekends, the resort offers affordable kids ski and snowboard lessons, which are a great deal given that all kids under 12 ski free with advanced purchase of the Power Kids Pass.
After a morning spent exploring the frontside terrain, we get word from the ski patrol that the backside was opening soon following the morning’s avalanche mitigation work. The backside terrain is remarkably steep in places and it’s also north facing, which is a good thing when it comes to snow depth and preservation. We ride off the top of Eagle Peak and ride down the backside. It’s even deeper back here and completely untracked. The terrain includes a series of groomed intermediate runs on either side of a network of black diamond steep tree runs that flow down underneath the Peak 2 triple chairlift. This backside terrain wraps around a second rocky mountain peak and there’s clearly opportunity for alpine riding around the features. We checked out potential lines on the mountainside, but the snowpack needed a bit more depth before this terrain was rideable.
Dirksen continued on as the ultimate guide as we traverse into and out of tree runs that funnel right back onto the groomers. The snow started to pick up as we headed back to the frontside and into the uncrowded base lodge for lunch. On Saturdays the lodge hosts live music with families spread out at the plentiful cafeteria-style tables and upstairs at the lounge bar. A busy day at Willamette Pass can see as many as 1,000 visitors, but today, it’s just us and a few other day skiers, which is just fine. We refuel with homemade burritos and hot pretzels while the snow keeps coming down outside.
As we head back to the lift it’s clear that the snow has piled up in the short time we were inside. We drop into SDN and the deep fluffy snow is now almost up to our knees. This is clearly the day of days at Willamette Pass. We go bell to bell, stopping only when the lifts shut off at 4 p.m.
The snow has covered our car through the day and we prepare ourselves for a snowy drive home. We glance longingly at the upper lot where overnight campers are tucked in for the night. Willamette Pass has a limited number of electrical hook-ups available on a first-come, first-served basis as well as parking for overnight non-electrical guests.
I vow to return again this winter, maybe next time bring up the family on a weekend to get the full community experience. Or maybe I’ll just keep an eye on the forecast and try for another midweek powder extravaganza at our own private ski area.
Winter roadways can be an accident waiting to happen—read up on best practices for winter driving ahead of your planned outing.
Those skiing in steep and ungroomed terrain should be familiar with Deep Snow Safety and become informed on traveling and recreating in avalanche terrain.