I hear you: You want a perfect day in the snow. You don’t want to have to drive far, and you don’t want to put on chains. You want an uncrowded snowshoe loop that’s easy enough for kids. You want a lunch spot overlooking the Three Sisters. Then you want a coffee shop by a snowy lake. You even want a huge icy waterfall.
My response is: Ickenick!
Although most people have never heard of Ickenick Sno-Park, it actually can satisfy all of those conditions for a fun day in the snow.
This overlooked Sno-Park, on Hwy 126 near Clear Lake, is at the relatively low elevation of 3,200 feet. That means it’s closer to Eugene than the mountain passes, so you almost never need chains for the drive. It also means that the snowpack can be wet, icy, thin or nonexistent. Wait for a day when the mountains look thoroughly white.
If you get to Ickenick and there’s no snow, don’t panic. Just drive on to Santiam Pass, turn right on the road to the Hoodoo Ski Area, and keep left to the Ray Benson Sno-Park. There’s always snow on the trails for snowshoeing and Nordic skiing up there — and they’re always crowded.
To find uncrowded Ickenick, drive Hwy 126 east of McKenzie Bridge 20 miles. Half a mile beyond the turnoff for the Clear Lake Resort, turn left into a small plowed parking area. You’ll need a Sno-Park permit for your car here. The permits are available at outdoor stores for $5 a day or online from the DMV for $25 a season.
Two loops begin here for snowshoers and Nordic skiers. For the shorter 4-mile loop to the viewpoint, head up a gated, snowed-under road for a tenth of a mile and turn left on the Isaac Nickerson Loop.
This is called a “lollipop trail” because the route is shaped like one of those sweets. You trek up a “stem” for 0.9 mile. Then you turn left on a 2-mile circuit around the lollipop itself before returning to the stem. The trail gains only 400 feet of elevation. You go up and a little down through old-growth Douglas-fir forests and a 30-year-old clearcut.
At the extreme far end of the lollipop, a gap in the trees finally provides the view you’ve wanted to the Three Sisters in all their snowy glory. The roar you hear is not from the highway, but rather from Sahalie Falls, thundering over a cliff 800 feet almost directly below. Although you can’t see the falls yet, you can see what created that cataract. The snowy stripe in the woods below the Three Sisters is the Sand Mountain Lava Flow. It poured down from the Cascades 3,000 years ago. The lava dammed the McKenzie River, backed up Clear Lake and left the river tumbling over a rock lip.
When you complete the lollipop by zipping back downhill to your car, round out your snow day by visiting the results of that volcanic eruption. Drive half a mile back toward Eugene and turn left into the plowed entrance of the Clear Lake Resort.
Once a fishing club’s retreat, this resort is now managed by the Linn County Parks and Recreation Department. The lakeside café doesn’t serve meals in winter, but it does offer hot drinks and snacks. Rowboat rentals are just $15 an hour. If you want to spend the night, you can get a rustic one-bedroom cabin with a propane heater and a mini-kitchen for as little as $55 a night, assuming that you bring your own bedding. For reservations, check LinnParks.com or call 541-967-3917.
After recharging with coffee or cocoa at Clear Lake, stop by the icy waterfall I promised. Drive back toward Eugene 3 miles and park in a pullout on the right for Sahalie Falls. It’s only 300 feet down to the viewpoint of the waterfall, but the path is not plowed or sanded in winter, so you’ll want to wear the same snow boots you used on the Ickenick loop. Even then, the path is so icy that you need to hang tight to railings.
Sahalie is the Chinook jargon word for upper, sky or heaven. In summer the falls are a crowded stopover. In winter, when the swollen cascade roars like heaven’s thunder, you will probably face Sahalie’s wrath alone. Cling tight to the railing — and each other.
A perfect day in the snow should end with humility. At Sahalie’s ice-crusted falls, you will be dwarfed by the power of the ancients, the lava and the real world. After the frolics of your winter trip, take that lesson home.