: Gregor Halenda

Snowy DIY Family Fun in Oregon

When you just want a little winter escape for the day, here's how to do it safely, for the best experience.
November 13, 2020

It was just a bank of clouds rolling in, but from where we were, it looked like a gigantic wall of white, foaming, crashing surf.

The sun was out, the sky was blue. My son, Spencer, and I had just glided off the Magic Mile chairlift at Timberline Lodge & Ski and Snowboard Area on Mt. Hood and come to a stop at the top of the snowy slope. It was a perch we’d gotten to know well after more than five years of skiing together as a family on Oregon’s tallest mountain — and another 15 I’d spent exploring and writing about it before that.

It was the middle of winter, but the sunshine and fresh, clear mountain air made it feel like summer. It was frigid, though, and that wave of clouds drifting in and blotting out much of anything down below reminded us of where we were and what season it really was.

“You ready, Spence?” I asked.

“Let’s go, Dad.”

And down the mountain, into the clouds, we went.

No matter if snow play is a tradition in your family or you’re looking to venture out for the first time, Oregon is a great outdoor playground all year round. The mountains, the Coast, the rivers and lakes, the high desert, the soaring forests — all of it make getting outside with the family the ideal thing to do. Winter, with all its snow and stunning scenery, is no exception to that rule. Whether you’re sledding with the kids, skiing with the family, schussing outside of Bend or snowmobiling not far from Salem, here’s how to make your own snowy family fun.

Timberline is one of five family-friendly ski areas at Mt. Hood, all of which offer lessons, gear rentals and hot chocolate for warming up.

Downhill Days

Thanks largely to the Cascade mountains, Oregon has an endless variety of epic spots for downhill skiing and snowboarding. Mt. Hood is home to five ski areas itself — Timberline Lodge & Ski Area, Mt. Hood Meadows, Skibowl, Summit Ski Area and Cooper Spur Mountain Resort — all of which are within striking distance of Portland for a fun day trip. What’s more, all five areas have a range of terrain, spanning from beginner to expert, so they’re great for skiers of all abilities and ambition. To hit the slopes closer to Bend and Central Oregon, Mt. Bachelor is the peak of choice, while Willamette Pass and Hoodoo Ski Area make a day of skiing within reach for folks in places like Bend as well as Eugene and Salem. All of Oregon’s major ski areas offer lessons, gear rentals and hot chocolate for warming up after a day on the hill.

Before you head out, it’s critical to check weather and road conditions; pack face coverings, hand sanitizer, warm layers, extra food and water for all; and make sure you’re comfortable driving in the conditions.

Purchase tickets early this year for Cosmic Tubing at Skibowl, which is being offered in a limited capacity but offers the same thrills for all ages.

Sledding Slopes

It’s hard for anyone — young or old — to resist a speedy sled down a snowy hillside. And luckily, Oregon is home to some sweet spots for sledding that will make anyone appreciate this universal joy. Most of the large ski resorts in Oregon have dedicated tubing hills. Only Skibowl has the one-of-a-kind Cosmic Tubing experience, complete with 600,000 LED lights, pumping dance music and a sky full of lasers. Those looking for a more traditional sledding experience close to Portland can take their own sleds or tubes to some of Mt. Hood’s Sno-Parks, like White River West or Little John. About 15 miles west of Bend, the Wanoga Snow Play Area Sno-Park has a fun sledding hill, while Mark’s Creek Sno-Park, east of Prineville, offers up big sledding thrills on its slightly steeper hill.

As you’re out enjoying the snow, do your part to leave the area cleaner than you found it and pack out all food wrappers, broken sleds, pet waste and other garbage. Make sure your children know about keeping 6 feet of physical distance between others, and to keep their face coverings on as they play. Respect other sno-park users and show kindness to all.

Tumalo Falls, 14 miles west of Bend, is stunning in the snow and ice. Make sure to check weather and road conditions before you go. (Photo by Nate Wyeth)

Cross-Country Coolness

Because it takes a little more effort than, say, sledding or downhill skiing, cross-country skiing can be a little harder to get the family motivated about. One way to skirt that hesitation: Hit areas with groomed trails and warming amenities nearby. The expansive network of Central Oregon sno-parks provides multiple options for families looking to give cross-country a go. Edison Butte Sno-Park has 24 miles of groomed Nordic trails, along with two warming shelters to help everyone catch their breath. Many Nordic trails are used for different types of recreation and maintained by snowmobile clubs, so be respectful of all users.

It’s also a good idea to know the ability of those in your party before you head out. Check in with the individual sites to see which are beginner-friendly in distance and terrain. (Those with shelters are a nice option, for rest breaks.) Dutchman Flat, close to Mt. Bachelor, has 19 miles of trails, while Skyliners Sno-Park offers access to the 6.5-mile round-trip, ungroomed trail to Tumalo Falls — a classic Oregon winter escape if ever there was one. For a scenic ski not far from Eugene, Gold Lake Sno-Park has a gentle loop around the lake and two cozy shelters with wood stoves. On the east side of Mt. Hood, Teacup Nordic is a favorite for its 12 miles of groomed, scenic trails (make sure to buy a trail pass ahead of time). On the south side of the mountain, find 6 miles of groomed trails near Trillium Lake.

Here’s a pro tip you may already know from experience: Parking areas often fill up quickly, so head out midweek for fewer crowds and try to avoid school holidays. Know that popular areas may be limiting their capacity to help enforce social-distancing protocols, so parking spots will be reduced. Have a backup plan in mind, as well as extra hot chocolate and snacks (along with gas in the tank) for a longer-than-expected car ride.

Book a guided snowmobile or snowshoe tour with Mt. Hood Outfitters or another local expert for a stress-free experience. (Photo by Oregon's Mt. Hood Territory)

Turning It Up

For those families who like their snow days to be in a tad higher gear, Oregon has more than its fair share of options for snowmobilers. There are scenic beginner routes through the Central Oregon Cascades, groomed trails running through the Mt. Hood National Forest and tons of other trails. For newcomers, taking a guided tour may be the best way to get a taste. Expert-led groups like Central Oregon Adventures, Mt. Hood Outfitters and others offer tours and rentals. Lots of the sno-parks in Central Oregon have trails for snowmobilers, as do the ones in the Newberry National Volcanic Monument.

Sno-parks like Edison in Central Oregon are a favorite with pups and kids of all ages who love to romp. Make sure to recreate responsibly and always pack out what you pack in. (Photo by Nickie Bournias)

Playing It Cool

Of course, sometimes it’s just fun to head out into the snow to change up the scenery and have a little winter escape for the day — no big plans required. Bundle up, stick the sleds and a thermos of hot chocolate in the car, and head out. The sno-parks at Mt. Hood are great for playing in the snow, building snow forts, strolling through the snowy trees and taking in jaw-dropping views of the mountain. The same goes for sno-parks in Central Oregon. Head out with the essentials and just see where the day takes you. Have a snowball fight at the Swampy Sno-Park before embarking on some of its 20-plus miles of groomed and ungroomed trails for snowshoers and Nordic skiers, or grab some food and drinks from the food truck at Virginia Meissner Sno-Park, and hit the Nordic trails for a refreshing workout.


If You Go:

  • Valid sno-park permits are required at designated areas; check before you go and find out more here.  
  • Before you travel, know that the mountain roads are often snowy, icy and slick, with chains required for vehicles in winter months. Check road conditions and conditions at your destination before you head out by checking in with the ranger district or ski area. Major roads and highways may be closed this winter due to fire-related conditions and damage.
  • Winter in Oregon can be unpredictable, so come stocked with fuel, extra food, water and emergency supplies. Most importantly, dress the family in layers, with waterproof outerwear, and keep close tabs on children and pets.

About The

Jon Bell
Jon Bell is an Oregon writer and author of the book, On Mount Hood: A Biography of Oregon’s Perilous Peak. He writes about the outdoors, travel, business, the environment and many other areas from his home in Lake Oswego, where he lives with his wife, two children and black Lab.

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