BEND, Ore. — From easy, gentle slopes in the trees to steep, technical couloirs high atop Cascade peaks, the Central Oregon backcountry offers something for every skier or snowboarder willing to venture beyond the lifts.
Those seeking the most easily accessible backcountry slopes would probably prefer Vista Butte or Tumalo Mountain, while those who crave a more arduous mountaineering adventure might look to Broken Top or South Sister.
Here is a rundown of some of the more popular backcountry ski and snowboard locations in Central Oregon:
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A short drive from Bend, Vista Butte is perhaps the area’s simplest backcountry touring site.
Vista Butte Sno-park, 20 miles southwest of Bend, is basically just some extra room for parking along the shoulder of the highway on the way to Mount Bachelor.
From the Sno-park, reaching the summit of the 6,619-foot Vista Butte to the northeast involves a 700-foot elevation gain along the well-worn skin track. The southwest portion of the butte offers the best lines for skiing and snowboarding, and it is not all that steep.
Most of the snowriding on Vista Butte is among the trees, so skiers and snowboarders should watch out for tree wells, areas around the bases of trees where unconsolidated snow collects.
“Vista is kind of a jewel,” said Carlos Cummings, avalanche-safety instructor and backcountry guide for Oregon Ski Guides, in Bend. “It’s very short, very mellow. It’s a great place to go on a first tour where you’re not having to worry too much about avalanches.”
Just across Century Drive from Mount Bachelor, Tumalo (elevation 7,775 feet) is probably the most accessible, and most visited, backcountry skiing and snowboarding spot in Central Oregon.
The skin track starts at Dutchman Flat Sno-park and climbs 1,400 feet up the south side of the mountain to the summit. The payoff for snowriders is the steep pitch down the treeless northwest bowl of Tumalo. Backcountry enthusiasts can spend a full day doing laps up and down the bowl.
“It’s quite quick and easy to get to for a significantly steep run,” Cummings said.
Tumalo is a mixed-used area, and the eastern half of the bowl is open to snowmobiles.
Todd Ridge, the horseshoe ridge around the west and north flanks of Todd Lake, is a backcountry location that requires a significant step-up in commitment and skill level.
A snowmobile is not required to access Todd Ridge, but it certainly is helpful. The distance from the Mount Bachelor Nordic Center (the typical starting point) to Todd Lake is about two miles. The lake can be accessed via Cascade Lakes Highway (on a snowmobile or skis) or via backcountry ski trails from the common corridor that starts at the nordic center.
A well-used skin track starts from the Todd Lake trailhead (elevation 6,150 feet) and continues around the west side of Todd Lake.
“It is so popular that most people, when they’re expecting to be the first one of the day, they’ll see evidence of somebody being there earlier,” Cummings said.
Tam McArthur Rim
Accessing Tam McArthur Rim (or Tam Rim, as it is often called) requires a six-mile snowmobile ride from Three Creek Sno-park, just south of Sisters, to Three Creek Lake. Jutting 1,500 feet above the lake, the rocky Tam Rim stretches for two miles with perfectly pitched north-facing slopes — a scenic invitation for snowriders seeking deep, virgin powder.
Located near the lake are a number of yurts where backcountry skiers can stay overnight to maximize their opportunity. Timberline Mountain Guides (which operates Oregon Ski Guides) and Three Sisters Backcountry Inc. offer guided ski trips at Tam Rim, which reaches 7,732 feet in elevation.
Most of the runs on Tam Rim range from 800 to 1,200 vertical feet, according to Shane Fox, of Three Sisters Backcountry.
“Lapping an 800-foot bowl is awesome for backcountry skiing because you’re not skinning for too long before you drop in again,” Fox said.
South Sister is the perfect backcountry location for an intermediate skier or snowboarder looking to spend a full day deep in the mountains, according to Cummings. The wide-open terrain above the tree line features long and fairly steep slopes.
Reaching the South Sister trailhead in the winter requires a seven-mile snowmobile ride from Dutchman Flat Sno-park to Devils Lake. The skin track follows the South Sister climber’s trail used in the summer and fall.
Cummings considers Broken Top the most technical and challenging place for backcountry skiing in Central Oregon. He says it involves “full-on ski mountaineering,” meaning crampons, ice axes and ropes could be required.
“Broken Top is like the jewel, if you will, in Central Oregon,” Cummings said. “South Sister is great, but on Broken Top you’ll find steeper lines, more committed lines, lines that will be more prone to avalanche activity.”
Oregon Ski Guides offers guided backcountry trips to Broken Top. Their standard approach to the 9,175-foot peak starts with a five-mile snowmobile ride from Dutchman to Ball Butte.