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A winter day in the Blues to beat the winter blues

By Melissa Queen

There I was spending yet another Saturday morning typing away trying to get caught up on email after email when I heard it. The heavy, existential sigh of my husky, trapped in the suffocating, sweltering environment of my adequately-heated home in winter. Maybe it’s cliche to say that it was the mountains that were calling, but it was certainly fair to say that it was my mountain dogs who were whining…so we must go.

So we loaded up the car with warm layers, hardy snacks, our snowshoes, and (of course) the dogs. And we took off for a snowshoeing adventure to Horseshoe Prairie in the Umatilla National Forest.

But while my dogs – one an Alaskan Husky and the other a Bernese mountain dog mix – are well equipped for winter sport, I – dear reader – am not. I mention this only to say that if you think you are about to read an adventure narrative of someone who thrives in extreme winter climates…please be assured I am the wimpiest wimp that ever was when it comes to cold weather. But be also assured that – wimp though I am – I still find snowshoeing a great way to move (and even keep warm) in the winter months, and want to spread that love.

If you are also looking for a fun way to stay active in the winter and build memories without building up a lot of credit card debt buying expensive gear, then snowshoeing might be for you! If you want to try it out but aren’t sure if you’ll stick with it, you can rent snowshoes at Dusty’s Ski and Snowboard shop in Walla Walla. You can also get winter apparel or other amenities if you packed too light and left your winter layers at home.

The Horseshoe Prairie Nordic Ski Area is a great winter destination that provides easy to navigate, inclusive, and beginner-friendly experiences for snowshoers and cross-country skiers alike.

Here’s the easy two mile route we took, perfect for anyone exploring the area for the first time:

We set out north from the Horseshoe Prairie Trailhead. At the Nordic Ski Area Marker A, we headed west along the Tamarack Trail loop. This trail is groomed for nordic skiing, and off to the side are set tracks for cross country skiers. There’s ample room on the groomed trail for both, but snowshoers (and their furry friends) should be mindful of these set ski tracks and be careful not to step in them.

At the Ski Area Marker B, we headed right to go north to continue along the Tamarack Loop. While the Tamarack Trail is in its own right a good route, we were after a bit more of an unleashed adventure. So at the Enchanted Forest trail junction, we decided to branch off from the beaten…err….groomed path. The Enchanted Forest is exactly that. It offers snowshoers the chance to be immersed in a secluded winter wonderland surrounded by snowy trees.

And while the Enchanted Forest provides the chance to feel lost among the trees – you won’t have to worry much about actually getting lost, thanks to the recently improved trail markings and detailed mappings developed through a partnership between the Umatilla National Forest and the Blue Mountain Land Trust’s Blues Crew.

The Enchanted Forest trail cuts across the interior of the Tamarack loop, coming out on the eastern side of the groomed Tamarack Trail. When we reached the trail intersection, we took a right to head back south along the Tamarack Trail, until we reached the next junction where our current path intersected the Umatilla Rim Trail. Back into the snowy trees we went, heading east along the Umatilla Rim Trail and then south down the St. Bernard Trail, until we came out right where we started – at the Horseshoe Prairie trailhead.

After the drive back into Walla Walla, we closed out the day with a couple of pints at the Crossbuck Brewing taproom. Their Switcher Kolsch, with its Bavarian hops, and their German Pilsner both seemed like fitting ways to raise a toast to our alpine adventure.

Things to know before you go:

  • The Horseshoe Prairie Nordic Ski Area and its surrounding forest are located on land that holds an important place in the traditions of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes. Learn more about how the Blue Mountains, including this area, are used by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla to support their culture and way of life.
  • Access to the snowshoe and nordic ski trails is in an Oregon Sno Park recreation fee area. The fee is $6 per vehicle for day use, but passes have to be acquired ahead of time because there is no payment dropbox on site. Accepted Sno-Park passes for Horseshoe Prairie day use can be purchased at several locations around Walla Walla and Milton-Freewater, including the Milton-Freewater Ranch and Home.
  • If you pack it in, pack it out. If you aren’t already, get familiar with these basic seven principles of Leave No Trace for protecting and preserving natural landscapes.
  • Winter recreation is the most enjoyable when everyone’s enjoying it. If this is your first time in a nordic ski area, learn how to share the snow with others by familiarizing yourself with winter trail etiquette.

Getting there:

From Walla Walla, drive southwest on WA-125. At the Washington-Oregon state line, the highway becomes OR-11. Continue heading south through Milton Freewater and on towards Weston, Oregon. From Weston, go east on OR-204 for 26 miles. The Horseshoe Prairie trailhead will be on the right, but vehicle parking is past the trailhead on the left in the Andies Prairie Sno-Park parking lot.

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