There probably isn’t such a thing as a bad day cross-country skiing. Like one or two other things in life, even bad skiing is still a darn good thing. However, trying to eke out the last couple of April ski days in a season can be like eating a melting ice cream cone. It’s good, but it might be messier than it’s worth. But, there is one ski area where end of season skiing is more than just ok, it doesn’t resemble melting dairy desserts, and it’s actually pretty remarkable. That area is Mt. Bachelor, Oregon.
Located about 20 minutes from Bend, Oregon, Mt. Bachelor has all of the traits you’d expect to find in a premier ski area: a trail system with enough kilometers to keep things interesting, and excellent grooming. But it has something extra that sets it apart–a ski season the length of which is second to none. Mt. Bachelor’s season generally runs from late November to June—or longer. That’s why it’s often the choice of the U.S. national teams for their late spring/early summer camps. In fact, if you hopped on a plane and flew out to Bend today, you’d find over 7 feet—yes feet, not inches—of compacted base which came from over 459 inches of snow this winter. In other words, prime mid-season conditions.
Great Skiing in May and June
According to Mt. Bachelor’s cross-country manager Sydney Powell, “We always try to open around Thanksgiving and groom until the end of May. We then have camps which go through June. Maybe once in the last 10 years they haven’t been able to groom in May. Once we cross the 100 inch snowpack, it’s very likely we’ll groom through May.” Not only is the skiing excellent, but the weather is beautiful as well. “The weather in May is variable,” Powell says. “It can be in the 60s during the day and below freezing at night.” So, if you visit, prepare to ski in a T-shirt and bring lots of sunscreen.
Sue Foster, Nordic director from 2010-2022, reiterated that the standard season is from November until Memorial Day weekend. There was only one year during her time as manager that they were unable to operate through Memorial Day. Foster told FasterSkier that “The average snowfall is 462, so this year is right around average; in 2011 it was 616”—yes that’s over 51 feet of snow, or about the height of your average four story building!
Getting to Mt. Bachelor is a bit of a challenge, but certainly no more difficult than many other Nordic destination areas. Powell says that flying into Redmond Municipal airport is the best bet for most people; it’s about 20 minutes from Bend. Otherwise, you’re looking at a 150 mile drive from Portland. In the winter, driving from Portland can be difficult as roads can be treacherous or closed, so the drive could be more complex. One of Foster’s tips for winter visitors was to make sure that you rent a car with good traction.
There are a variety of opinions on the best time of year to visit. Powell favors February and March. “By that time, we have a good deep snowpack and we’re getting into the mid-winter part of our season, but March and April also have reliable spring skiing conditions.”
Dylan Watts, Nordic Director of MBSEF (Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation) recommends visiting in the spring but avoiding the spring break week. “There’s a lot of room in the calendar when the skiing is just great. You have clear nights, so things are fast and firm in the morning with endless crust skiing opportunities. The mountain does a tremendous job with their grooming. As long as it’s doable, they groom pretty much everything. The snow is so heavy that this week (third week of April) I was worried we would lose the trail signs under the snowpack. We have so much snow that some of the hills have actually flattened out. Once people get here, they see how worth it it is and how unique a place it is. If had I had to summarize it would be Mt. Bachelor; super long season, tons of snow.”
Chuck Kenlan, executive director of OBRA (Oregon Bicycle Racing Association), and manager of the Nordic center from 1999-2002, recommends visiting this time of year to take advantage of the crust skiing. “Clubs from all over the country will be up here having training camps in early June. The skiing is fantastic. Like all spring skiing, it’s timing your start and finish. There’s that sweet spot where it becomes really fun. I’ve joked that the only reason I ski in the wintertime is to have fitness when the crust skiing season starts. It can be incredible. You can head out into the forest, ski across Todd Lake and ski wherever you like. I’ve alpine skied in mid-July and cross-country skiing was available as well.” Kenlan feels that the best time to visit is right now. “Consistently, this time of year is amazing…They continue to groom, and they take the grooming seriously, so the groomed trails are really nice. If you want to ski in a T-shirt, it’s great. Bring tools to add structure. You also need waxes that can repel the dirt, there are lots of trees that drop debris.” Kenlan offered another useful trip when visiting: “Avoid traffic from downhillers. Leave early or go at about 11 after the morning shift is leaving.”
The secret sauce to Mt. Bachelor’s enviously long winter is it’s location. The ski area is located at about 5,700 feet, with a maximum elevation of 6,400. Down in the valley where Bend is located, elevation is only 3,600 feet; neighboring Redmond is a little above 3,000 feet. The relatively high mountains and lower valley combine to create a near perfect confluence for skiing.
It’s not just elevation that’s responsible for Bachelor’s incredibly long season, it’s also the type of snow Powell said. “It’s pretty wet and consolidates, and sticks around a long time. We call it ‘Cascade concrete’. It sets up, condenses, and takes a long time to melt.”
With 56 kilometers of trails there’s enough variety to keep things interesting. There’s a nice ratio of easy to difficult trails.
“The trails are amazing and fun to ski,” Kenlan says that. “They ski incredibly well. They have a reputation of having a lot of uphills…but it’s never really long difficult climbs. It’s really fun skiing. There’s also a great training oval for novice skiers.”
Another favorable aspect of the area is the temperature range. Powell says there are only a handful of days when temps dip below zero. “Usually we’re in the 20s-30s during the daytime and we get a lot of sunshine. If it gets below zero (Fahrenheit) that’s usually only overnight.”
World Class Grooming
The grooming is also top notch. Powell said that they try to groom all the trails every evening as long as the snow cooperates. On average, it takes eight to 10 hours for one operator to groom the trail. “The grooming machines are kept off the trails while skiers are using them.” During the spring, trails close at 1:30 p.m and grooming starts at 2:00 p.m.
Foster emphasized the importance of trail grooming. “My relationship with my Operators was the most important part of my job. I don’t think folks know or appreciate the depth and talent of a good Operator. I was lucky to have some of the best and most responsible Operators in the business and I still feel that this was the secret to success in my career. These young men were avid skiers and were smart and dedicated. They knew every inch of the trail system, what was underneath the snow, the strengths and limitations of the machinery, how the Cat would react to varying conditions, and how to maximize operational efficiency to produce the best surface on a daily basis in the nightly timeframe. They did this every night, making a multitude of independent decisions to ensure that result.”
The ski center issues daily detailed grooming reports. Their Nordic Conditions Reports have developed a bit of their own following. They’re extremely detailed and useful; more than just “We groomed today.” For a sample, you can check out their most recent conditions.
Most of the accommodations are in the valley, so acclimation is made easier by being able to ski at elevation, sleep, rest, and live at a much lower altitude. Powell recommends seeking lodging in Bend or Sun River which puts you about 30 minutes from the mountain.
Foster added that “Mt. Bachelor operates on a permit from the United States Forest Service, therefore there isn’t lodging on site, or many of the private amenities you may find at other resorts.” But if it’s top-shelf skiing and a long season you’re after, those other things probably don’t matter.
More than just skiing
Watts points out that Mt. Bachelor’s unique geography also creates other incredible opportunities. “In the spring, visitors can ski all morning, return to the valley and hike, bike, or fly fish. It’s a combination which is hard to replicate elsewhere. Additionally, since the cross-country center is part of a downhill operation, there’s always the opportunity for Alpine skiing. The bike shops also rent bikes as well. Road biking and gravel biking are also great. There are also a lot of golf courses.”
Kenlan agrees with the view that there’s plenty to do besides ski. “Bend is an outdoor recreation mecca. Fat tire biking is available near the trail, there’s a snow park right before you get to the Mt. Bachelor parking lot.” Fat Bikes are not allowed on Mt. Bachelor ski trails, but Kenlan says that Fat bikes are allowed on the snowmobile trails, so you don’t have to break trail. “If families come and want to fat bike, there are many options. Bike rental is available at several local bike shops if you don’t want to haul your bike to Bend. Mountain biking is also becoming popular [once the snow melts] at Mt. Bachelor. There’s lift service available.”
If you can judge by the presence of the U.S. cross-country team, U.S. biathlon team, and U.S. paralympic team, then the effort to get to Bachelor is well worth it. According to Powell, each team has held, or will hold spring camps on the mountain. Powell added that there’s no impediment for unaffiliated skiers using the trails while national team camps are there.
One of Foster’s favorite memories was during a U.S. ski team visit. “One of my unforgettable memories of this grooming crew was on a day in May of 2021, when Matt (Whitcomb) made a special request for a trail section to be groomed for a classic time trial for the team the following day. The trail was in one of the most exposed areas in the network and while the snow was great elsewhere, this particular section was super thin, and the back side was already a ribbon. With the intensity of the sun, I doubted that it would even be skiable the next day. But I told him I would see what I could do, and I made the call. When I reached my lead Operator, I only asked him to do whatever he could do. His response was, ‘Do you think they want double tracks?’ The following day I arrived to a boulevard of snow the length of the “problem” area, a full PB400 width, with double classic tracks. To this day, I have no idea where that snow came from.”
Being on snow regularly through June offers opportunities not found elsewhere. Up for some April racing? Mt. Bachelor has that as well. Through its partnership with MBSEF, it offers the Cascade Crest Ski Race & Tour, which was held April 29th. This year’s race was postponed because there was too much snow! Not many places in the world face that problem in April. The event offers everything from a 5k kids race to a 50k marathon. If you want to keep your racing chops finely tuned into the spring, this event might be just the ticket.
Mt. Bachelor’s Nordic program isn’t just resting on its prodigious snowfall to attract skiers. Powell is also focused on the changing demographics and growth of Bend and developing programs to get more people into the sport. “A lot of people move to Bend from a warmer climate and want to take up a winter sport, so we need to appeal to them. Lessons are a big way to reach new people. We have private lessons and clinics. She’s on skis is a female specific program to draw women into the sport. “
There are also three local Snow Parks (Virginia Meissner, Wanoga, and Edison) which offer additional cross-country skiing. For non-skiing activities, visitors can also check out ice skating at The Pavilion and Seventh Mountain Resorts. If you need to chill with some rest time, Foster has many recommendations for activities off the mountain. Local attractions which she recommends are the Tower Theatre and the soaking pool at McMenamins (also known as The Old St. Francis School), which is located in a former Catholic schoolhouse, which was converted to a hotel and has a long list of amenities.
So, regardless of what combination of activities you want, Mt. Bachelor has something to offer. Best of all, no matter what else you choose to do, you can ski in prime conditions while most of North America is roller skiing!