Potato Hill snowshoers stop for lunch on the Hash Brown Loop. Photo by William Sullivan.

Next-Level Snowshoeing

Trek around Clear Lake or up Potato Hill

So you’ve been snowshoeing once already? Perhaps you tried the easy loop I suggested last month to Gold Lake and the Marilyn Lakes. Now you’re ready for an intermediate snowshoe adventure — and yes, the learning curve with wintry clown shoes is so flat that you are no longer a beginner.

For your next challenge I’m going to suggest two options, both through winter wonderlands with mountain views. Clear Lake is one of the closest snowshoe trips to Eugene, with big unburned forests and an unfrozen lake at the headwaters of the McKenzie River. Potato Hill is a little further away, near Santiam Pass. It generally has deeper, drier snow.

As always, you’ll need a Sno-Park permit for your car. You could buy a one-day pass for $5 at an outdoor store. But now that you’re experienced, perhaps you’ll want to get a season pass for $25. Only season passes can be purchased online. If you buy one at DMV2u.oregon.gov/eServices it will be delivered immediately via email.

Clear Lake

Three thousand years ago a lava flow from the High Cascades dammed the McKenzie River here, creating a lake so clear, cold and calm that ghostly tree snags are still visible under its 100-foot-deep waters. The trees aren’t petrified. They’re just cold, preserved in the still water. Whether you’re hiking in summer or snowshoeing in winter, the 5.4-mile trail around the lake has the advantage of starting and ending at a Linn County Park resort with hot coffee.

In winter, the lake’s relatively low elevation of 3,020 feet means that the snow may be packed crud rather than fluffy powder. There may even be a few bare spots in open areas where sun has melted the snow. As a result, skiers hate Clear Lake. But snowshoers actually do quite well on packed crud, and can even tromp across patches of bare ground.

Start by driving McKenzie Highway 126 past McKenzie Bridge 20 miles. Between mileposts 3 and 4, at a “Clear Lake Resort and Picnic Area” sign, turn downhill to the right on a paved, plowed road. After 0.4 miles, turn right to the picnic area’s parking loop. The resort is 300 feet to your left. For your snow hike, however, set out to the right, past a log picnic shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

The shoreline trail has views through the big old Douglas-fir woods to the amazing emerald green of the lake and the distant spire of Mt. Washington. After 1.2 miles you’ll reach a long footbridge across the lake’s outlet, the McKenzie River. This is a good place for beginners to declare victory and turn back. If you continue on the rest of the 5.4-mile loop, there are no shortcuts back to your car, and there often are bare spots where the trail crosses lava.

Potato Hill

If you’re looking west from Santiam Pass, this big lump of a hill might resemble a potato. In summer it certainly seems a homely, overlooked ridge. But dressed in its winter whites, Potato Hill stands as proud as any cadet.

Snow falls deep here, sometimes as dry powder and sometimes as wet “mashed potatoes.” The recommended 5-mile loop follows marked trails to views of Hoodoo, Mt. Washington and Three Fingered Jack. It’s not a beginner trip for Nordic skiers, but is much easier on snowshoes.

To find the trailhead, drive Hwy 20 east of the “Santiam Y” junction 2.5 miles to a crest with a plowed pullout on the right. If you descend to Lost Lake you’ve gone too far, and if you reach Santiam Pass itself you’ve gone 3 miles too far.

The trail sets off uphill on a snowed-under road, climbing steeply enough that you’ll get warm. At a marked fork after 0.3 miles, keep left for the start of the loop. In another 0.6 miles, a spur to the left climbs to a viewpoint high on Potato Hill. That’s a great detour, but for the easy trip, keep right on the Hash Brown Loop, which wanders through woods for 2.3 miles back to the junction near the trailhead.

When the cold rains of winter darken the Willamette Valley, it’s all too easy to sink into the depression of couch potato blues. Strap on your snowshoes and head for Potato Hill! You are no longer a beginner.

William L. Sulllivan is the author of 23 books, including The Ship in the Woods and the updated 100 Hikes series for Oregon. Learn more at Oregonhiking.com.