Sand gnats or snow? You decide.

While many drive south to “escape winter” some of us welcome winter for the fun it brings. Instead of sitting on some wind-blown beach swatting sand gnats we like to head out into the wilderness and experience the quiet and serene beauty of winter.

Small motorhomes like Class Bs are really ideal vehicles for winter exploration.  They're small and nimble enough to get up the passes, they're a warm and spacious base for exploring winter, and they can be parked easily in the limited Sno Park parking areas.


Severe Service tire symbol

Oregon DOT's rules require that vehicles be equipped with traction tires or chains.  If you're over 10,000 pounds or are towing a trailer, you must have chains; traction tires are not sufficient.  Another reason for Class Bs — most of us are under 10,000 pounds so “Severe Service” tires marked with the snow-and-mountain symbol are sufficient.

Oregon has lots and lots of Sno Parks.  The rules are simple; you must have an Oregon Sno Park parking permit and you must respect the rules of the park.  The parks are largely staffed and maintained by volunteers, so we all chip in and help out by packing out our trash, conserving firewood in the shelters, feeding the donation box, and so on.  Each park's rules may be different, so read the posted rules before you head in.


Each symbol represents a region and each region can have 20 or more Sno Parks.

The Sno Park permits pay the expenses for the DOT to keep the access roads clear and parking lots plowed; they do not pay for the maintenance or upkeep of the trails themselves.  As a result, some park volunteer groups will ask for a donation if the upkeep of the trails is significant.  Sno Park permits are widely available throughout Oregon in stores and sometimes at the Sno Park itself.

What do you want to do?  Where do you want to go?  Chances are that there's a Sno Park near you.  Oregon's Sno Parks have groomed and prepared trails for Nordic skiing, sledding with the kids, dog sled racing, snowmobiling, you name it.  Whatever your winter activity, chances are that there's a Sno Park that caters to it.  Typically each Sno Park will cater to a specific type of activity; snowmobilers are not asked to share trails with snowshoers.


Gunner the dog enjoying the accommodations. Dogs are welcome at all Sno Parks and you will meet many who, like us, backpack with their dogs.

Dogs are welcome at all Sno Parks.  Since most Sno Parks are on USFS lands, there are no restrictions on trails and dogs can run off-leash. Dogs can stay in any of the shelters as well.  As a courtesy to others, pick up after your dog in the parking areas and other highly traveled areas and get any dog nuggets off the trail otherwise.  You're likely to meet lots of other dogs, so if your dog does not play nice with others plan accordingly.

Gold Lake Sno Park is my personal playground.  This is a Sno Park for backcountry skiers and snowshoers.  The trails are not groomed; on the lesser used trails you are breaking trail as you go.  Once you get into the wilderness areas, the trails are not marked in any way, so a map, compass, GPS, and the knowledge how to use them are all essential.

There are three-walled lean-tos throughout the park.  These lean-tos have a picnic table and a sleeping shelf of some sort.  The rules say that you cannot turn anyone away from the shelter so while sometimes you have the shelter to yourself, sometimes you share it with new friends.

And sometimes you come to a shelter in the wilderness only to find a Scout pack camped out, with 20 boys running around like bats out of hell, digging snow caves to sleep in.  At other times it's just you and your dog.


The shelter at Gold Lake with firewood and a stove

It's always fun and always a great experience.  For a full list of Oregon's Sno Parks, start here and then find the park on the USFS website.  The USFS website gives details for each park; here's Gold Lake.

So next time the sand gnats bite, come to Oregon for the winter.  I'll save you a spot at the nearest shelter and we can share dinner and stories while the wood-burning stove keeps us warm.

Not quite ready to head out on your own but want to try winter camping? Join me and Mike and Jennifer Wendland Jan. 23-25, at Tahquamenon Falls State Park in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. We'll be doing snow camping and getting to know a bunch of other adventuresome souls.

Just make your own reservation. Here are details. And then use comments to let us know you're coming so we can be looking for you.