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How to Properly Snowshoe in the West Cascades of the Willamette Valley

By Geoff Nudelman

The quick ascent of Highway 22 catches even seasoned drivers by surprise. 

Heading south from Portland, then following the highway east from Salem, the scenery remains flat and expansive, but about 20 minutes in, a gentle grade begins. Before you know it, you're 1,000, then 2,000 feet up, passing through the small communities of Mill City, Gates and Detroit. This is especially striking in the winter as Detroit Lake takes on myriad shades of white. The snow covers the ridges and valleys of the de facto gatekeeper of the Middle Santiam Wilderness and Willamette National Forest.  After Detroit, Highway 22 neatly develops into a winding journey through the Cascade mountain range, with unique opportunities to enjoy some of the Willamette Valley's best snowshoeing minus the crowds of Oregon's more popular mountain destinations. Snowshoeing on any of the Santiam's varied trails makes for an excellent weekend adventure and can be done in an overnight or two-night itinerary.

One of the best-kept secret trails lies off a quiet, often-plowed turnoff about 30 minutes east of Detroit on Parrish Lake Road. It's a great first-day hike as deep snow begins right off the small parking area and continues on for several miles. Most snowshoers only do the first 3-4 miles, so the only footprints you'll see beyond that are those of deer, rabbits and other wildlife. Along the way, you'll get views of Three-Fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson and the Santiam River. It's an excellent 3-4-hour trek (depending on your speed) with plenty of prime spots to set up shop for lunch. After the descent back to the highway, you're probably going to be ready for dinner and a good night's rest. Detroit has a few lodging options, including the Lodge at Detroit Lake, which offers renovated, cabin-style hotel rooms right on the town's main street. Check out Cedars for a top-notch Bloody Mary and a burger. 

Detroit is the perfect starting point the next morning to go in two different directions: head back down Highway 22 to explore another trail or head up towards Breitenbush Hot Springs for another version of seclusion. 

Breitenbush's famous retreat requires a reservation and is usually booked months out, so you'll need to book well in advance to enjoy it, but the National Forest land outside the property grounds is open and available for exploring. Just head up Forest Service Road 46 from Detroit and set your coordinates for the South Breitenbush Gorge Trailhead. The trail will be a bit past the Hot Springs, but offers another level of solitude as many make the property their stopping point. 

Heading on back, you could either spend another night in Detroit, or drive back Highway 22 towards Salem, making sure to stop at Rosie's Mountain Coffee House in Mill City for an unbeatable berry scone or one of the many breweries on either side of Interstate 5 as you head towards Portland. That's what we call a weekend well spent in the Willamette Valley.

General Snowshoeing Tips for your Trip:

  1. Weather is unpredictable in the mountains, so be sure you have a capable 4WD or AWD vehicle with enough clearance to pass snow ruts in the roads. You can check road conditions on the main highways at tripcheck.com before heading out. For example, while FS-46 is generally plowed all of the way to Breitenbush, many side roads are not. Highway 22 can be treacherous at any given time and may carry a chain/traction tire requirement. 
  2. Bring more food and water than you think you'll need in the event you get stuck or are out snowshoeing longer than planned.
  3. Dress wisely based on conditions. 
  4. Snowshoeing is tougher than hiking, especially in untracked snow, so only do as much as your individual and group fitness allows. Leave enough energy to return to the trailhead. 
  5. Either download an area map or bring a paper copy as cell service is non-existent outside any of the small communities along Highway 22 and over the mountain passes.

Additional websites for weather conditions and alerts: 

Your adventure begins with the official Willamette Valley Travel Guide. Request your complimentary printed guide or download a digital guide today.

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