One of my favorite types of winter adventures are hiking and climbing what I’ll call “hibernating mountains.”
While popular in summer, once the snow piles up and the trails disappear, these mountains are generally avoided in favor of established winter snowshoe and ski routes that begin from sno-parks or ski areas.
A trip up a hibernating mountain is different in that it typically begins in green forest before climbing into increasing amounts of snow, where the trail disappears and snowshoes are needed to reach the summit.
They’re a fun, unique and often quicker way to have a snowy adventure than driving all the way to Mount Hood or Santiam Pass. A few favorites include Marys Peak, Whetstone Mountain and Tumble Ridge in Detroit.
But there are downsides and danger, primarily because hibernating mountains aren’t managed or marked for winter recreation. There are no blue diamonds showing the route and it can be easy to get lost. Conditions can become steep and dangerous and change dramatically over the winter — snowless one week and deep in powder the next.
They call for a greater degree of caution.
That hit home during a recent climb up Henline Mountain, a hibernating mountain in the Opal Creek Wilderness east of Salem.
In summer, it’s a short but steep hike to a viewpoint at the site of an old lookout tower with great views of Mount Jefferson.
In winter, it’s something else.
Last weekend (Feb. 1) I took a swing at a winter ascent of Henline Mountain with Oregon’s snowpack at close to normal levels for the dead of winter.
The hike began on the side of Forest Service Road 2209 in lush forest covered in sword ferns. In the first mile, I passed two beautiful viewpoints across the Little North Santiam Canyon and saw just a dusting of snow.
I carried snowshoes plus all the gear I normally bring on a winter trek — including a GPS tracking device and survival kit.
Slowly the amount of snow picked up, with an inch or two on the ground around 3,000 feet and then enough to strap on snowshoes at 3,400 feet.
It was beautiful, with rays of sunlight slanting in through white-and-emerald trees. But over the next few hundred feet, the going got tougher. The snow became increasingly icy, and I was glad my snowshoes were outfitted with crampons.
By 3,700 feet, things felt dicey. The snow was deep enough to have completely eliminated the flat ridge of the hiking trail, meaning I was traversing along a steep and icy slope, up and around trees with wells easy to sink into.
After very slow moving, I decided to turn around about a quarter-mile short of reaching the old lookout site. I was climbing solo, never a great idea, and while it felt as though I could probably make the viewpoint, it seemed smarter to turn around.
I’ve written a lot of stories about solo hikers and climbers who felt fine about their situation and were well-prepared but after a slip or mistake had to be rescued.
There’s just less room for error in winter.
More in Oregon hiking news:
- 15 essential waterfalls hikes near Salem, Oregon
- How injured Silverton hiker Leslie Drapiza survived frigid nights in the Gorge wilderness
- Oregon outdoors more expensive in 2020: 6 new permits, fee increases to hike, fish
Overall, I’d recommend Henline Mountain as a fun way to access the snow and enjoy the two lower viewpoints. Closer to spring, as the snow melts, it could make a fun snowshoe ascent.
The willingness to turn around is an important decision of any trip into the outdoors, but particularly on a hibernating mountain in the wilderness.
HENLINE MOUNTAIN TRAIL
Where: Opal Creek Wilderness, just off Forest Road 2209 east of Mehama
Length: 5.4 miles round-trip to lookout site; 7.2 miles to summit
Climb: 2,170 feet to lookout site; 2,800 to summit
Winter plan: Snowshoes or crampons would be required to climb high on the mountain and even then it might not be smart. Hikers take this one at their own risk.
Directions: From Salem, head east on Highway 22 to the second flashing light in Mehama. Turn left on to Little North Fork Road and follow it 16 miles to a junction. Stay left to remain on Forest Service Road 2209 (avoiding the turn off for Three Pools) and travel another mile, passing the Henline Falls Trailhead, to a parking pullout on the right for Henline Mountain. About an hour from Salem.
Coordinates: N44 50.540 W122 18.564
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 12 years. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at [email protected] or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.