Skiing the switchbacks of the OC&E Wood Line trail


    Gary Vequist glides along an easy downhill along the OC&E Woods Line trail. <br><p>Photo by Lee Juillerat{/p}

    Looking for a switch from cross-country skiing venues? Maybe switch back in time on a trail that once was heavily traveled by trains that carried massive loads of logs to lumber mills in Klamath Falls and, less remembered, other rail cars loaded with potatoes, grain, cattle and sheep.

    The OC&E — or Oregon, California & Eastern Railway — runs more than 60 miles between Klamath Falls and Bly, while the Woods Line veers north at Beatty for about 38 miles to the Sycan Marsh.

    Combined as the OC&E Woods Line State Park, the former railroad/turned rails-to-trails spans nearly 100 miles, making it Oregon’s longest linear state park. While it’s mainly used by bicyclists, runners, walkers and equestrians — especially the 7-1/2 paved miles from Washburn Way in Klamath Falls to Olene — during high snow years sections east are sometimes good for cross-country skiing.

    So far, this is a good year.

    Possibly the best starting place with snow is at the Switchbacks, the high point along the OC&E between Olene and the community of Sprague River. It’s also a historic location. Construction plans for the OC&E (originally the Klamath Falls Municipal Railway) was a 100-plus years ago dream scheme that was only partially realized. Original plans envisioned drilling a 1,300-foot-long tunnel through Bly Mountain. Because of construction delays and a shortage of funds, in the early 1920s a “temporary” double switchback was built over the 236-foot high hill.

    Temporary has long been permanent.

    As designed, the double switchback allowed trains to be split to climb the hill. The switchbacks were necessary because the heavy, loaded trains could only climb a gentle 2.9 percent grade. Trains could pull only 50 cars at a time, so it proved to be a bottleneck, especially for freight trains carting loads of lumber. For skiers and mountain bikers, that gentle grade means no steep uphills or downhills. Instead, the resulting loops around the mountainside extend the distance.

    Our ski began from the Switchbacks parking area, which appropriately was part of a switchback that trains backed into. There are two choices — north toward the Sprague River Valley, Beatty and Bly, or south past the Devil’s Garden toward Dairy, often paralleling Bliss Road.

    Even in late morning the snow was firm and icy, making the downhill glide quick and slick, but as the snow softened, smooth. The southbound route passes alongside Devil’s Garden. During spring through fall, hikers often leave the OC&E to explore the Garden, where deposits from the eruption of Mount Mazama 7,700 years ago created a delightful geological maze of pyroclastic ridges and formations that in coming months will erupt with a heavenly array of wildflowers, including arrowhead balsamroot.

    Enjoying the snow, we skied past Devil’s Garden, clicking off miles. The first gate along the trail was snow-stuck-shut and will remain so until warming temperatures melt enough snow so it can be opened. Instead, like gymnasts burdened with long feet, we clambered over an adjacent barbed-wire fence then angled back onto the trail, resuming skiing past snow-soaked fields and along the former railbed corridor through canopies of Ponderosa pine and juniper.

    Near a cabin on adjacent private land a second gate had been — thank you — left open. Farther south, exposed sections of an adjacent stream sliced through the breaking snowpack. After reaching a pre-designated milepost, we doubled back to a trailside lunch stop.

    On the return ski, made easier by our freshly packed tracks, the morning overcast had transformed to soft blue skies, with occasional clouds looking like white pillows. The elevation we lost on the way out was steadily but gently regained. At one overlook we saw the raised grade of the trail we had followed that curled around the mountain. Near the parking area — freshly plowed during our absence by a park worker — we passed an information kiosk, vault toilet and picnic area, where the tables were semi-hidden by mounds of snow.

    While others in our small group leisurely finished returning to the trailhead, some of us skied the trail toward Sprague River, laying fresh tracks to overlooks with views of the Gearhart Mountain Wilderness and forestlands toward the Sycan Marsh. Other times I’ve followed the OC&E on zig-zags down Bly Mountain’s north side and through forest openings to the community of Sprague River.

    Skiing the old rail grade was a nice switch from our usual routes. If the snow stays, we’ll be switching back.

    Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

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    Getting There

    To reach the OC&E Woods Line Switchback Hill from Medford, follow Highway 140 east to Klamath Falls, a distance of about 80 miles. In Klamath Falls, continue to follow Highway 140 about 18 miles past the town of Dairy to its junction with Bliss Road. Turn left and follow Bliss Road about 14 miles to the well-signed trailhead.

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