It's a scene of absolute wintertime delight. Cheerful voices mix with children's laughter as families huddle around warm fires. Joyful dogs frolic in the snow with rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed children.
Table Mountain Play Area, located 20 miles east of Ashland, is the ideal spot for a wintertime outing for kids of all ages. For the price of an inner tube or two, the family can hop aboard a soft, spinning donut and slide down the chilly slopes of Jackson County's only snow area designed specifically for snow tubing.
Bureau of Land Management planners, realizing that tubers reach considerable speeds, have developed a wide area that is free of dangerous tree trunks and rocks. The slopes also are open to other sledding activities, and as long as your sled doesn't have metal runners, you're welcome to join in with the saucers and toboggans.
"I've been coming up here for years. It's kind of a family tradition," says Cody Lee Henson. "It's family, it's good cheer, fun for mothers, daughters, sons and fathers. It's just wintertime fun."
Standing near the slope with a tube in his hand, Henson exudes enthusiasm. With his family keeping warm near the fire pit, Henson heads off for another high-speed trip down the big hill.
Looking up from the bottom, the slope is somewhat imposing. A trail up the left side offers a fairly easy walk to the top, where you can decide how far you want to slide. The higher you walk, the steeper the slope and the greater the thrill when you push off into the unknown. There's a smaller slope opposite the big hill for the little ones, who'd probably be a little intimidated by the sheer size and speed of the main slope.
"My wife and her family have been coming up here for years," says Sam Meyer of Medford. It's his first time, but the slope and the scene have already charmed him. With a smile and a watchful eye on the slope, he adds, "It's good recreational fun."
"We all came here when I was a kid," says Amanda Meyer, who wanted to share the tradition with Sam. "It has great childhood memories."
Watching the children play, surrounded by white-tipped trees with snow lightly falling, it's obvious a lot of good memories are being formed. Barely stopping to talk, 5-year-old Jackson Frischman says, "It's really fun. Last time we even went down backwards."
"You get going really fast. You gotta be careful!" advises 9-year-old Kassydie Staples, her voice pitched high and full of excitement. After mentioning that "tubes are funner," she offers a string of sensible tips: "The best thing to eat in the snow is hot chocolate and soup. You need to wear snow gear with many layers."
Table Mountain is a great place to introduce out-of-town friends and family to the joys of Southern Oregon winters. Jen Bayley, who was visiting from Oakland, came with family members who wanted her to experience Oregon-style winter.
"I haven't seen snow in a decade," Bayley says. "I'm very impressed there's free access, and everyone seems to be looking out for each other." Marveling at the scene around her, she adds, "It's very much like a tail-gating party at a football game. There's people gathered around campfires with food and warm drinks " ... it's an atmosphere of camaraderie."
For those interested in other types of wintertime activities, Table Mountain offers an ideal starting point. The parking lot provides access to snowmobile and cross-country ski trails. Restrooms are available, and no parking or permit fees are required.
To get there from Ashland, take Highway 66 east 17 miles, then north three miles on East Hyatt Lake Road. For information, contact the Medford BLM at 541-618-2200.
So take young Kassydie's advice: dress in layers, pack a thermos full of warm soup or hot chocolate and come enjoy a wintertime treat.
Chad Snyder is a freelance writer living in Jacksonville. Writer Bill Miller also contributed to this story.