BANDIT SPRINGS SNO-PARK, Ore. — My skis cracked through the crusty snow as I weaved among towering, red-bark ponderosa pines.
A slight downhill carried me into a meadow of white, where I picked up speed and started truly moving through the forest.
When I stopped to look around, there was no sound but the chirping of well-hidden birds in the trees, which rose high into the blue sky on the mild winter day.
Crust-cruising on classic Nordic skis is always thrilling, even more so in the quiet solitude of the Ochoco National Forest. Far away from the crowded sno-parks along Century Drive west of Bend, the Ochoco Mountains provide a wide variety of winter recreation in Central Oregon without the packed parking lots and hordes of trail users.
Bandit Springs Sno-park, 27 miles east of Prineville off U.S. Highway 26, offers the most diverse network of cross-country skiing and snowshoe trails in the Ochocos, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The trails range from easy to most difficult.
Interestingly, the sno-park also serves as an Oregon Department of Transportation rest area along Highway 26. After a drive of about an hour and 15 minutes from Bend, I noticed the sign for the sno-park. Right after that one was a big blue sign marked “Rest Area.”
All those truckers stopping there to use the toilet probably do not realize they are at the tipping-off point of a remote but unique winter trail system.
After using the rest area myself, I set off to use the snow portion of the sno-park.
I started from the trailhead looking for the classic ski tracks but could not find any, which speaks to the remote nature of the sno-park. There was, however, a well-worn snowshoe track. In keeping with sno-park etiquette, I made my ski tracks on the opposite side of the trail corridor from the snowshoe track.
The trail was well-marked with frequent blue-diamond signs affixed to trees. So while I was alone in the vast forest and not always certain exactly which trail I was on, I never felt lost because I always knew I was on an established trail, which provided some comfort.
Skiing in the Ochocos offers a sense of adventure not necessarily found in other areas in Central Oregon. At Meissner Sno-park near Bend, for instance, moving aside for other skiers is more of an issue than getting lost.
“In general, there’s a lot less people recreating in the Ochocos than right outside Bend,” says Patrick Lair, public affairs officer for the Ochoco National Forest. “That can be a draw. Certain times of year we have big events, but in general, we don’t have the numbers that Deschutes National Forest has directly around Bend.”
Continuing on a trail marked Ponderosa Loop, I eventually arrived at a small creek, which trickled quietly through the deep snow. At a marked junction, I turned onto the McGinnis Creek Trail, which was marked blue for “more difficult.”
The trail took me up a steep, rugged hill through the trees, which was a challenge on skis. But soon I arrived at the meadow and started to pick up some momentum as I skied downhill back toward the trailhead.
I never encountered another soul on my three-hour ski through the woods. But when I arrived back at the parking lot, a trucker had pulled off the highway to use the facilities.
Just north of Bandit Springs and also on Highway 26, Ochoco Divide Sno-park is a motorized area popular with snowmobilers. South of Bandit Springs is the Marks Creek sled hill. (Annual sno-park permits are $25, and daily permits are $4.)
Located at more than 5,000 feet in elevation, the Ochoco sno-parks have plenty of snow this winter for skiers, snowshoers, snowmobilers and sledders. Heavy snowfall from December and into January should make for sufficient snow through the winter in the Ochocos.
In the past two winters, however, the Ochoco sno-parks suffered with little to no snow.
“This year there’s a lot of snow, so there’s been an awful lot of use going on up there,” Lair says. “Last couple years, not much use. But people come from far away when there’s good snow.”
Walton Lake Sno-park, located off Forest Service Road 22 a few miles southeast of Bandit Springs, is likely the most popular sno-park in the Ochocos, according to Lair. The sno-park provides opportunities for Nordic skiing, snowshoeing and sledding, and it boasts the highest concentration of snowmobile trails in the Ochoco National Forest.
Each winter Ochoco Snow Sports, a nonprofit snowmobiling club, grooms about 100 miles of snowmobile trails in the Ochocos.
Wildlife is abundant in the forest east of Prineville, including wild horses and herds of elk near Walton Lake, Lair notes.
User conflicts at sno-parks in the Ochocos are rare, Lair says, even with so many various activities.
“There’s a lot of people,” he says, “doing a lot of different things.”
But not so many that you can’t find some peace in the forest on a winter day when the sun sparkles off the deep snow.