Willamette Pass Winter Getaway

November 25-28, 2009.

Gold Lake Sno-Park > Gold Lake Shelter > Maiden Peak Shelter > Maiden Peak

Gold Lake Shelter

My plans for a solo overnight in the snow somewhere over Thanksgiving Break came together in this tremendously awesome three night trip. It all began late Wednesday evening when I arrived at the Gold Lake Sno-Park after driving down from Portland in Thanksgiving-madness traffic. I changed clothes, strapped on a headlamp, and put on my snowshoes for a pleasant 2 mile stroll to the Gold Lake Shelter.

The air was cold, still, and refreshing. The moon lit up the sky, poking through gaps in the treetops every now and again, making me think there was a car barreling down the road behind me. The noise of the road dissolved into quiet as I approached the shelter. I was moving slowly, feeling every ounce of my heavy pack on my back, and thankful that I wouldn’t be gaining much elevation tonight. Once I reached the shelter I was happy to ease off the backpack and get a fire going in the wood stove. There was a generous amount of firewood stacked neatly on both sides of the 3-sided structure. An ax lay nearby; I quickly got to work splitting wood to keep me warm for the night.

The next morning I lazily rolled out of bed to the squawking call of some local jays. They were clearly interested in me because I had food. That was okay with me because they provided an hour or so of entertainment, and they didn’t steal any of my snacks. I basked in the glow of a morning fire and committed the trail map to memory for my next outing. It would be a mere three mile jaunt with some minor elevation gain to reach the cabin, located just off the PCT.


Lucky for me, there is an incredible troupe of volunteers who maintain these shelters, stock the firewood, and mark the trails for winter travel. I had no trouble at all staying on trail by following the well-placed blue diamonds stuck high up on the trees.

The sun was out, melting the snow and sending little bombs down on my head from the trees. Breaking trail with a heavy pack was hard work, and it was no problem keeping toasty warm. I reached my first landmark after two miles of walking: a junction with the PCT, and turned south towards the shelter. From here it was just over a half mile to go. And it felt like forever. The slope started to steepen slightly, and my belly was yearning for lunch. I trudged on, checking my watch every 5 minutes, to see if I was close to my destination. The sign for the cabin could not appear soon enough. My first glimpse of the cabin settled me immensely, and I bombed down through the snow to get there.

Upon entering the shelter I found it empty. It was time for some chores. Before I unpacked my lunch, I got a fire going and set a huge pot of snow on the stove to make water. The cabin was well supplied, with multiple axes, pans, chairs, foam pads, and miscellaneous doodads. There was even a solar panel array that powered three fluorescent lights downstairs and one in the loft. This was luxiurious. The Forest Service Website said it is built to sleep 15; it would do for me for the night!

I passed the time watching the fire, practicing tying knots, writing in my journal, and snacking on goodies. Once dinnertime arrived I fired up the solar lights and began preparing my Thanksgiving feast. First, the black olives came out for an appetizer. Then I sliced up some big hunks of baguette and set them on the stove, topped with butter, to toast. Then I got my camp stove going to boil water for mashed potatoes and to heat up my turkey meatballs and gravy. With additional sides of jellied cranberry sauce and cheddar cheese my meal was set. I washed it all down with a bottle of oatmeal stout and I was happy.

Maiden Peak

I slept in the next morning, had a breakfast consisting of cherry pie and instant coffee, and was rearing to go. A gentle, steady snow fell outside. It had been snowing all night. The cabin thermometer said the outside temperature was ten degrees so I dressed accordingly. Within minutes of being outside, however, I realized the temperature reading was artificially low so I had to adjust clothing again. No worries, it was only another 3 miles from the cabin to reach the summit of Maiden Peak. I could take my time.

I had to follow the Maiden Loop Ski Trail, which the ranger said was poorly marked, to the Maiden Peak Trail, which led directly to the top. I found the ski trail easy to follow and extremely well marked. Although the trail was unbroken there was a subtle indent in the snow surface that indicated the tread of hundreds of boots, skis and snowshoes from times past. It was sometimes easier to follow the indent than the blue diamonds. When I reached the trail junction I left a confused tangle of snowshoe-prints going in every direction before I found the correct route. Once on route it became easier to follow the markings. The forest was still somewhat enclosed, so often times the path of least resistance was, in fact the path. As the trees began to thin, however, there seemed to be a path everywhere. Whoever follows my footsteps is in for an interesting day. I meandered in a few spots, and eventually left the trail altogether. Once it became evident that I was nearing the top, I figured I just had to go up. This was a typical, conical Cascade Peak with no weird topography to throw me off. Or so I figured. So, as I quickly gained more and more elevation, the temperature dropped and the wind picked up. I wished I’d had my balaclava, but there were enough trees to break the wind that it wasn’t too critical.

Eventually the trees began to diminish in height and I could tell that I was nearing the top of something. A bald, false summit, excellent. Through the clouds and sideways snow I could see a bump not too far away that was clearly higher than where I was standing. I noticed the wind was doing a great job at sweeping the bare ground clean, covering up tracks as quickly as they formed. I promised to move fast so I wouldn’t lose my breadcrumb trail heading back.

Soon I reached the top of the next bump, which dropped off precipitously on the other side. This must be the summit. I took the necessary pictures and hastily moved out of the wind. I noticed my prints had almost completely vanished in that short time. I kept moving until I got back down in the cover of trees. There I stopped to put on my down jacket and eat some lunch. It was so quiet here.

Walking downhill was a pleasure. I took no time at all to return to the cabin. Not five minutes after I arrived I heard voices coming up the trail. Three snowshoers from Eugene had decided to spend the night here. After so many hours of solitude it was nice to have some company. They helped with keeping the fire going and melting snow. We chatted all night, enjoyed lots of food and beer, and shared all sorts of gear tips.

Walking out

The next morning I packed up, said goodbye, and ambled back out the way I came in. It was about 5 miles to the car from the cabin, and it was mostly flat or downhill. I stopped to look at all the animal tracks in the snow. There sure were a lot of them. I wished that I was better able to identify who makes what. They all looked like rabbit tracks to me. The ones that looked different were mutant rabbits. That was the best I could do. The sun shone brightly in the blue sky, but the trees did a great job of blocking the rays, keeping the air cold. Once I made it back to the Gold Lake Road, I noticed fresh ski tracks in the snow. Before long I ran into a couple of cross country skiers, then some others. I carefully made my snowshoe tracks off to the side of the precious ski tracks so as not to irk the skiers. So the last two miles of walking, gently uphill, with a large pack, involved breaking trail. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

This was a Thanksgiving to remember. The peace and quiet, the rustic accommodations, the cold air, the exercise, and the great company surpassed my expectations by a long shot. It was nice to get out during a time when most people are sitting at home, watching football, and telling boring stories. I enjoyed having the trails to myself, even if I had to do a little work for that to happen. I returned home feeling energized, content, and fortunate. And I can’t wait to plan the next trip.

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