Epic vistas of Three Sisters highlight ski or snowshoe to Jefferson View Shelter
One of my favorite winter quests over the past decade has been skiing to as many of Oregon’s snow shelters as possible on public lands.
The wooden huts — sometimes three-sided and other times fully enclosed — provide respite while cross country skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling hundreds of miles of snowy trail in the Cascade Range backcountry.
They’re all pretty spartan, typically with a wood stove and benches, plus maybe a table if they’re on the fancy end. In other words, you don't stop for the luxury.
What makes them special, and each unique, is the view they provide. Many were built by local ski or snowmobile groups, and you can almost imagine them being planned for just that perfect spot — where the view catches the backlit spire of Mount Washington or the sunset light across Diamond Peak.
They’re a place to take your skis off, munch a snack, heat up some apple cider or maybe sip that beer you’ve spirited in, and soak in the winter view while recharging your batteries in style. In a few, you can spend the night.
Most skiers have a list of their favorite shelters. A few weeks ago, I added a new one to mine: Jefferson View Shelter. If you like big mountain views, I’m not sure you could do better.
The name makes me laugh because while there is a view of Mount Jefferson, it’s the Three Sisters that seem so close you can almost reach out and touch them. All three spread across the horizon, joined by other Cascade peak friends, at one of Oregon’s most scenic spots to recharge.
It’s just 5 miles, give or take, via skis or snowshoes to Jefferson View Shelter, but there are some challenges and quirks in exploring this unique area outside Sisters. You cannot spend the night inside the shelter, but you can snow camp nearby and use it as a spot to warm up.
Getting to Jefferson View Shelter
The journey to Jefferson View Shelter begins about 11 miles southeast of Sisters, at a place that’s no secret but isn’t bad when it comes to crowds.
Upper Three Creek Sno-Park, which sits at the end of Three Creek/Forest Road 16, is a bit unusual in Oregon’s family of sno-parks.
Many of the state’s winter access points are clustered together in popular winter recreation areas such as Santiam Pass, Willamette Pass, Government Camp area and Cascade Lakes Highway.
Yet there are a few solo sno-parks, at spots where roads are plowed in national forests, and Upper Three Creek is one of those. As a result, it’s far quieter than other places in recreation-crazy Central Oregon.
“It is definitely not as busy as the sno-parks off the Cascade Lakes Highway on most days,” said Sara Baughman, recreation team lead for Deschutes National Forest in the Sisters Ranger District.
Baughman suggested arriving before 10 a.m. on peak weekends but said parking is rarely an issue.
“We do have overflow parking available and it is very infrequent that parking fills up entirely,” she said. “Anything 10 a.m. or earlier should be a safe bet for finding parking.”
Baughman did note there are sometimes delays in plowing the road to the sno-park after big storms.
‘A fantastic destination’
Once everything is figured out, Baughman noted that Upper Three Creek is “a fantastic destination for either snowshoes or cross country skiing,” she said. That’s particularly true this year with Oregon’s best snowpack since 2011.
“The snow has been holding up and will be sufficient for some time,” she said. “I definitely recommend trying to visit on a sunny day. The views are really one the finest bits of the adventure.”
I took that advice and visited on a perfect Saturday — a bluebird day — and found few cars there at 8 a.m. Parking was about three-quarters full upon leaving in the early afternoon.
To ski or snowshoe?
From the parking lot at Upper Three Creek, your big choice is between skis or snowshoes.
There are separate paths for each, rather than just ski or snowshoe tracks right next to each other. It makes a difference. The snowshoe path was constructed in the last couple years, in a partnership with Sisters Trails Alliance and the U.S. Forest Service, and keeps users nicely separated even on busy days.
If you’re not super experienced, I’d pick snowshoes, which are easier. It’s about 2.3 miles one way and 4.6 miles round-trip, with some climb, via the snowshoe path to the shelter.
The ski trail is very fun if you have good metal-edged skis and some experience, but I’d say it’s a medium to challenging route for beginners, in part because of a long and steep-ish hill that's especially tricky when it’s icy.
Ultimately, I picked the ski route and had a lot of fun, with some rollers and the downhill. There’s also a lot of wide-open terrain and additional areas to explore on skis.
Bring the sunblock
The best part of this route is the mountain views — they’re all around. This is largely due to the route traveled into the scar of the 2012 Pole Creek Fire. With so many trees gone, the views regularly take in the Three Sisters and surrounding Cascade peaks.
It also means that sunblock and sunglasses or goggles are a must. On bluebird days, there is very little protection from the sun, at least on the ski trail, and failure to put on sunblock could easily lead to turning a very tomato color. The snowshoe route is a bit better protected.
The trails to Jefferson View Shelter are well-signed and straightforward, making it hard to get lost. Even so, make sure to print — or just download to your phone — the map of this area.
If you’re up for a little extra adventure, there are a number of looping side routes such as Warren’s Loop and Nancy’s Loop, which each add a few miles to the trip but don’t take you too far afield.
If you reach Jefferson View Shelter, recharge and are looking for greater adventure, you can continue on Three Creek Lake Trail. It’ll eventually reconnect with snowed-over Forest Road 16, which becomes a shared ski-snowmobile route to Three Creek Lake. It’s a total of 6 miles one-way (or 12 round-trip) to Three Creek Lake from the sno-park.
A private company runs backcountry ski tours and rents winter yurts in the Tam McArthur Rim area.
If you love Oregon’s backcountry shelters, there’s a very high chance you’ll enjoy an adventure to Jefferson View. And with Oregon’s snowpack the best it has been in a decade, now is an ideal time to check it out.
Jefferson View Shelter / Upper Three Creek area
In a nutshell: A scenic three-sided shelter in Deschutes National Forest backcountry and accessible via skis or snowshoes.
Trip: About 5 miles round-trip on skis or snowshoes, with options for longer adventures
Location: About 10 miles southeast of Sisters
Trailhead: Upper Three Creek Sno-Park
Fee: Sno-Park permit
Map: Jefferson View / Upper Three Creek area
Directions: Follow Three Creek/Forest Road 16 from Sisters south to the end of the road at Upper Three Creek Sno-Park. Snow tires recommended.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 15 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.
This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Epic vistas highlight ski or snowshoe to Jefferson View Shelter