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Snow Sports

Winter Sports in the Blue Mountains

Living in an area that experiences four seasons is magical. Just when you think you can’t take another hot day or blustery night, the season changes. Winter in Walla Walla is often challenging for those who like to see the sky or anything beyond their neighbor’s house for that matter. Fog rolls in and not surprisingly gets stuck in the valley. Luckily for locals and tourists alike, there is a solution: snowshoe, ski, or sled under crisp blue skies in the mountains.

Many winter recreation opportunities exists a mere hour out of town, or less depending on the snow pack. Ski Bluewood is the closest ski resort to Walla Walla, just outside of Dayton, Washington, and boasts roughly 400 acres of skiable area, including 24 trails, terrain parks, and lots of quality tree skiing. Several roads that close for the winter double as excellent snowshoeing and cross country skiing trails, although a few marked areas do exist in the Umatilla National Forest. The area does feel even more remote in the winter, so make sure to travel in groups or let folks know your intended travel plans. Winter in the mountains is a great way to get through winter in the valley, so grab your favorite snow sport equipment and head to the mountains.

Photo Credit: Steve Dildine

Sledding at Rose Springs Sno-Park in the Umatilla National Forest Pomeroy District. At just under 5,000 feet, the snow is perfect, the views are amazing, and the winter sport opportunities are numerous. On this particular day, we enjoyed the sledding hill to ourselves. The forest service road that leads to this sno-park continues for many miles as a well-maintained path for snowmobiles, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing. There are two cabins available to rent from the forest service year-round as well. All of this is less than 1.5 hours from Walla Walla.

Designated Winter Recreation Areas in the Umatilla National Forest

A few times a year, an equipment changeover happens for those who recreate year-round in the Blue Mountains. Hiking sandals get rinsed off and put back in the closet, while snowshoes get the cobwebs dusted off the buckles. Typically, snow arrives in the mountains by fall and can linger through late spring. That is a significant amount of time to enjoy a winter sport or two. Within the Umatilla National Forest, there is one designated sledding area and one designated nordic ski area. That doesn’t mean those are the only opportunities to recreate in the winter, actually far from it.

The Horseshoe Prairie Nordic Ski Area, for cross country skiing and snowshoeing, was created in the 1980s as a non-groomed trail system. Snowmobiles are not allowed in this area. Roughly 10 miles of non-groomed trails awaits cross country skiers. Snowshoeing is also allowed, but to preserve the cross country skiing experience please stay off their tracks. There is plenty of room on either side or in the middle to float on fresh powder for the snowshoers. All trails are marked by a letter code system, and blue diamonds afixed to trees mark trails at intervals to assure users they are on course. With a variety of loops and out-and-backs, snow enthusiasts can spend a few hours or all day exploring the forest and enjoying the views.

Andies Prairie is the only designated sledding and winter camping area in the Umatilla National Forest. The sledding area is an old rock pit that has been shaped to provide sled runs. Pack your helmet as this is not your in-town hill. On the weekends the snow park is usually pretty busy. If you can escape during the week, you just might have the place to yourself. Be aware of other folks sledding. Because of the shape of the bowl, people end up sledding toward each other, meeting at the bottom. Make sure to take turns. The slopes toward the top of the bowl are long and steep, and it is really hard to put the brakes on once you get started.

Non-maintained forest service roads are great places to snowshoe or cross country ski. Other sno-parks throughout the forest have areas to sled. Check our growing catalog of outdoor recreation opportunities often to discover new places to have fun. Also, please consider following Outside Walla Walla on your favorite social media platform.

What is a Sno-Park?

There are more than 120 sno-parks in Washington. This program is administered by Washington State Parks under the Winter Recreation Program. Basically, a sno-park is a parking lot cleared of snow near groomed or backcountry trails. Before you sigh with disappointment, it’s actually a pretty interesting program so stick with us. The only non-motorized sno-park in our area is Field Springs State Park, which we haven’t listed yet, but it is on our radar. With just under six miles of groomed, ski only trails, additional trails for snowshoers, and a hill suitable for tubing, the park checks off just about all winter recreation boxes.

There are also two snow play sno-parks in Washington in our area, which are Fields Springs State Park and Rose Springs (Pomeroy Ranger District). These areas allow general snow play. Both also have tubing hills. At Rose Springs, there are 47 miles of groomed trails. These areas share trails with snowmobiles, so make sure to use your ears and share the trail responsibly. Although a majority of the sno-parks are snowmobile sno-parks, those areas are also available for non-motorized winter recreation. So even though sno-parks are basically cleared parking lots, they allow for much easier access to snow sports and typically offer facilities. These areas do require a permit, which are available online only.

There is a similar program in Oregon. The money raised from the permits fund snow removal and maintenance efforts. Any remaining funds are carried over to the next year, and are potentially used to develop new sno-parks. Most of the Oregon sno-parks easily accessible to Walla Walla are located near Tollgate, Oregon. Snowmobiling is the dominant recreation sport in this particular area, but there are plenty of trails to go around. The aforementioned Horseshoe Prairie Nordic Ski Area and Andies Prairie are across the street from each other near Tollgate as well. With winter recreation possible near half the year, it makes sense to add a winter sport to the hobby list.

Photo Credit: Steve Dildine

Isn't sledding sweet (shameless plug for our local baseball team)! This face says it all, especially when that sweet face crashes into a snow bank, but nothing a little hot chocolate won't fix. Andies Prairie Sno-Park is the only designated sledding and winter camping area in the Blue Mountains. This is not your grandmother's snow hill, but rather a shaped and grated rock pit. Helmets encouraged. For little ones just trying out their snow legs, the Fort Walla Walla Park hill is likely more appropriate.

Resources for Checking Weather Conditions

Some mornings it is hard to commit to a trip up the mountain if conditions are less than ideal. We have a few tips to help make that decision a little easier, although typically we vote go. The Tollgate webcam is a nice glimpse at conditions in the mountains. The webcam is updated frequently and is located just a few miles from Spout Springs Ski Area (which is currently not operating). If heading north of town, perhaps to Ski Bluewood, simply follow them on your favorite social media platform. They post quite regularly, and rightfully are boasting about near perfect conditions. During the week, considering calling your local Forest Service office, and take advantage of both Washington and Oregon Department of Transportation websites. Always travel with emergency gear, including supplies to keep you warm and fed as well as an emergency kit. Definitely let family and friends know where the day’s adventure is taking you and when to expect your return.

Downhill Skiing

Nothing beats the fog in the valley like a day at the ski resort. Our area has relatively mild winters but moisture in the mountains produces nice fluffy, dry snow. You won't absolutely freeze on the way up the lift, and the way down doesn't sound like a snow cone machine. Though resorts in our area aren't numerous, it keeps the lines manageable and the runs numerous.

Cross Country Skiing

The word remote comes to mind when researching and writing about cross country skiing in the Blue Mountains. Definitely a sport for those with an adventurous spirit and endurance wouldn't hurt either. Don't be alarmed if you are the first tracks on fresh snow, so make sure to ski prepared. Enjoy the quiet of the forest as juxtaposition to the often chaos of winter holidays.

Snowshoeing

If you aren't quite ready to give up hiking, consider strapping on a pair of showshoes and getting back out there. Take advantage of crisp, mountain air and clear, blue skies. It is an easy piece of equipment to throw in the back of the truck on the way to fall release or barrel tasting weekends. With so many Forest Service roads available, there are a plethora of trail possibilities.

Sledding

Who doesn't love sledding? Fun in the snow; not a huge investment; great for the whole family; and actually a decent cardio workout. There are a few hills in town that will meet all those needs, but if next level sledding is your thing, we have a few suggestions for you. Grab your helmet, hand warmers, and maybe even a first aid kit and go sledding.

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