Twenty-five miles east of Prineville, there is a small house. Six miles east of the small house is nordic skier paradise.
The Ochoco Mountains are part of the Deschutes and Ochoco National Forest in Central Oregon. If you were to cut out the state of Oregon, fold it in half from east to west, the Ochocos would be on that crease, just north of center. Prineville (pop. 9192) is the nearest town and, before a Facebook data center was built there a couple years ago, it was known for ranching and being the birthplace of the Les Schwab tire empire (“Free beef!”). Our memories of Prineville are not sweet: a pickup full of dead coyotes on a stake outside a downtown bar and two rednecks bashing in our car door in a McDonald’s parking lot. We fared better this time.
You can stay the night in Prineville or, if you’re lucky, you can stay the night at the small house, a former Ochoco Ranger House. It sleeps eight (three bedrooms, two bathrooms), has a full kitchen with basic cookware, and is my new favorite place in the whole world. (Online reservations available.)
We packed the car full with ski gear and groceries and hit the road around 2PM on a Friday. Stopping only for 2-for-1 milkshakes at Burgerville and some cocktail limes in Madras, we rolled up the icy driveway of the cabin at 6:30 PM. The day was sunny and spectacular, the week-long inversion still wrecking havoc on the mountain snowpack. We were treated to a glorious purpleorangeyellow sunset as we drove towards Prineville, fingers crossed that the deer were all nestled in their little deer homes and not interested in leaping out in front of our speeding vehicle.
The temperature drops quickly and steeply in the Central Oregon highlands; it was 25 degrees and falling as we unloaded the car at the ranger house. The snow in the yard was still fluffy, the only ice along the packed trail between the back door and the driveway. Given the spring-like conditions of the week, I was expecting typical Cascadian freeze-thaw snow: icy and treacherous in the morning, sloppy and wet in the afternoon. While not perfect, I was very pleasantly surprised by the mostly excellent snow.
Our Saturday target was the summit of Lookout Mountain, the tallest in the Ochocos and Crook County, Oregon’s 40th highest. The County usually doesn’t plow the Forest Service Road (NF Road 42 – Canyon Creek Road); under normal winter conditions, you have to drive as far as you can up the road and then ski to the trailhead. They will occasionally plow the road for winter logging, however, which is how we were able to drive to the lower trailhead. (The road is closed during the week to accommodate logging traffic.) The road was like a skating rink, packed ice and snow from weeks of log trucks driving up and down the road. Despite never getting above 25 miles an hour, it only took us 20 minutes to get from door to trailhead. We parked on the side of the road, the only car for miles and miles.
The trail that goes to the top of Lookout Mountain from the pass on NR Road 42 is the Independent Mine Trail (#808). It parallels the old Lookout Mountain Road for about a mile before coming to a multi-trail intersection with the Lookout Mountain snowmobile trail, the Mother Lode trail, the Lookout Mountain hiking trail (from the ranger station 1,000′ below) and the Independent Mine trail. (It’s confusing.) At the lower trailhead, we peeled right, sidestepping up to the ski / hiking trail immediately out of the summer parking area, and followed a set of old tracks up a minor ridge through ponderosa pine and gnarled aspen groves to a wide clearing with our first big view of Mt. Jefferson.
After about a mile of skiing, we arrived at the multi-trail intersection and continued on the Independent Mine trail through denser fir and pine forest. Continuing up a moderate grade, we traversed the north-facing slope of Lookout Mountain, stopping to make some turns in an opening with perfect powder and a grand view of Mt. Jefferson.
We continued up the trail for another 15 minutes, then switchbacked into a clearing with expansive views east to Big Summit Prairie and the Maurey Mountains. As much as I love sunny skiing, the exposure was relentless. I skied to the privacy of a small pine and stripped down to my underwear. It was hot. Rosie giggled behind me and provided commentary as I tried to remove my pants without taking my boots out of my bindings. It worked; it just wasn’t pretty.
We continued on up the wide, sunny ridge in tank tops and long underwear, soon coming to a viewpoint where we could see our destination – the top of Lookout Mountain – and the surrounding hills. Round Mountain sits six miles to the north, another objective for another weekend. Mt. Jefferson poked its white head from the foothills of the Cascades.
We carried on along the ridge and lost the blue diamonds somewhere along the way. We weren’t worried; we had maps and a compass and we could see where we were going so we continued on and up, making our way through copses of trees and open areas with a thick hoar frosting, eventually popping out at the base of the final push to the summit.
The wind had blown most of the snow off the summit of Lookout Mountain. Tufts of sage and grass poked through a thin schmear of snow. A log pole signified the top of the mountain and I promptly climbed it, unaided.
The 360-view was indescribable. To the west, we could see as far south as McLoughlin and as far north as Rainier, all of the major peaks clear and shining brightly in the sun. Behind us was Big Summit Prairie, the Maurey Mountains, and the Strawberries. All of my photos are trivial when compared to the live view.
We stopped on top for lunch, photos, and to reapply sunscreen, unbelieving that it was the middle of January. It was too hot to drink the tea we brought. We all applied wax to our skis; the snow had turned grabby and sticky in the sunshine. At times, it was like walking with 15 pound snowshoes – the very opposite of skiing.
We batted around the idea of trying to follow the Independent Mine trail back the way we were supposed to ski, but we were all pretty cooked from the sun and the grabby snow so we just skied out the ridge a bit further for the view and then returned the way we came up.
I suggested taking the snowmobile trail back to make a loop and led the group to a white diamond trail at the base of the summit. We skied down the marked trail to a steep drainage and meadow area where the trail and its markers disappeared. Bill and I skied around looking for a connection, but the day was growing late and we were on the north face of the mountain, where it felt darker and later than the 2:30 PM it was. After some debate, we decided to turn around and head back up to our known trail, which is always tough when you’re tired. After 20 minutes and several hundred feet of elevation gain later, we tagged back into our tracks and headed down.
We got back to the car as the sun dipped behind the mountain, casting perfect golden light on the surrounding hilltops. Twenty minutes later, we sat in the cozy living room of the little ranger house with our celebratory cocktails and the whole body satisfaction that comes with seven hours of skiing and a day at the beach. Soon, the smell of chili and cornbread filled the house, a prelude to our dreamless slumber.
I had to be in Prineville the next day at noon to meet my ride to Bend. We rustled the kids up at 6:30, ate breakfast, and were out the door at 8AM for what I hoped was 2 hours of good skiing at Walton Lake. We were the only car at the sno-park as we geared up and headed off into the woods. The snow was icy and slippery in the trees, difficult to grab and get traction. It got better as we broke into the meadows of the Corral Loop, but was still challenging where previous tracks had frozen in the night and were narrower than our skis.
I miscalculated how long it would take up to ski the 5-mile route and worried that we wouldn’t be back to the car in time for us to get back to the ranger house to clean it and then get to Prineville at the meeting time. There is no cell phone service at the house, which is wonderful generally but a pain when you know you’re going to be late. We skied fast, unable to fully soak in the great trail and unable to get around Walton Lake.
In the end, it wasn’t a big deal. But it left a little bit of a bitter taste in my mouth on what was otherwise a glorious weekend. I could spend at least four days at that little ranger house, skiing and exploring during the day, reading and relaxing into the deep quiet of the Ochoco Mountains at night. We only scratched the surface of what these mountains have to give us and I’m anxious to get back to take more of it in. Soon.