Ray Benson Sno-Park is the highest elevation Sno-Park on Santiam Pass, and is located right next to Hoodoo Ski Area. This winter wonderland is located right in the shadow of Mt Washington, and the always interesting, cliff-sided Hayrick Butte is just off to the side. There are over 18 miles of Nordic trails accessed through the park, but one of the best is the South Loop to the Brandenburg Shelter.
The South Loop trail begins from the southwestern side of the Ray Benson Sno-Park. Look for a nice, blue sign directing on along the correct path. You will travel just a short distance through the trees before you come to a big opening with snowmobile tracks going everywhere. Stay on the left side of the opening and you will soon see blue diamonds marking the trail as it dives back into the trees.
The trail travels along the eastern face of Hayrick Butte as it heads south towards Big Lake. Hayrick Butte it a cool geologic feature called a tuya, or a volcano that erupted while it was buried under a glacier. This is why it has a its signature flat top and nearly vertical sides. In about ¾ of a mile, you will encounter the intersection with the Claypool Butte Trail. Power past it for another 0.2 miles to reach the end of the lollipop stick of the South Loop Trail.
From here, I prefer to make a left and head east because it offers the best views. Mt Washington will be visible ahead of you through some wide-open areas, as opposed to through the trees if you head south. However, heading south would get the majority of the climbing over with before reaching the shelter, so pick your poison.
Anyway, heading east, you will continue to tromp through the lodgepole pine forest over a remarkably flat stretch of trail. You will pass over the Pacific Crest Trail less than half a mile from the intersection, and about a half a mile from that, things start to get interesting. You will find yourself on the northern end of a large cinder field, that, when buried in five-plus feel of snow, is a beautiful snowy plain. And the lack of trees in that snowy plain makes for some unbelievable views of Mt Washington.
Shortly after leaving the snowfield, you will come to a four-way intersection. The South Loop continues south, to your right, so make your turn and march on. You will soon enter that snowy meadow again, and this time, not only is Mt Washington dead ahead, Hayrick Butte pops back into view on your right. The majority of the next half mile or so is very open, leaving you to soak in the views and not even notice your aching legs.
You will come to the intersection of the South Loop and Brandenburg Loop trails near the base of Brandenburg Butte. Head to the left on the Brandenburg Loop and in just a short, quarter mile, you will find yourself at the beautiful Brandenburg Shelter. The views are unreal, with Mt Washington to the south and Three Fingered Jack to the north. The Shelter is usually stocked with firewood and there is a nice wood stove inside. This makes for a great place to chill for a while, warm up, and take in all the mother nature has to offer.
When you are ready to depart, continue heading south from the shelter on the Brandenburg Loop. The only real climbing on the trip occurs here, as you gain 100 feet in the next half mile as you loop around the south side of the butte. You will hit the high point as you round a small, southern ridge of the butte, and then will head down the west side. The trail then descends nearly 200 feet in the next mile as it heads down the butte and towards Big Lake.
Shortly after rounding the southern ridge, you will again encounter the South Loop junction. Stay straight, heading towards the west so you can finish out the loop. The trail will hit its low point right before it turns back to the north. The final 1.5 miles can get kind of old, as you march through the forest and slowly climb the 120 feet back to the sno-park. But just try and remember the views, and it will all be worth it.
Ray Benson Sno-Park is located near Hoodoo Ski area at the summit of Santiam Pass. Head 20 miles west of Sisters or 5 miles east of the Santiam Junction on Highway 20. Head south on the road to Hoodoo and continue past the ski area and then past the tubing area. The sno-park will be 1.5 miles from the highway.
Passes: An Oregon Sno-Park permit is required November 1 through April 30.
Dogs: Allowed and must be on leash or under voice command at all times.
Open Season: This area will usualy be snow covered from sometime in December until into April.