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Table Mountain Loop at Buck Prairie

Sooner or later a determined cross-country skier finds the right day to tackle Buck Prairie Nordic Area's Table Mountain Loop. Ideally, the wind is down and you are following tracks through new snow. Sometimes Mount Ashland and Mount Shasta rise above a sea of low-lying fog.

Realistically, you may be breaking trail through deep powder or fighting ice and wind. In soft snow, a well-equipped novice with excellent stamina and knowledgeable companions can handle the 10-mile tour, which starts at a road summit 13 miles above Ashland on Dead Indian Memorial Highway.

The well-marked trail progresses southward through clear cuts and woodland margins to a blustery ridgeline. Temperatures usually dip as you climb and snow conditions improve, but sometimes an inversion layer produces stickier snow higher up. Driving snow can obliterate landmarks and blue diamond trail markers. When weather conditions change during your tour, you can retreat to a sheltered lower road that runs roughly parallel and east of your route.

Following an easy one-mile ski to an outhouse, turn right up Natasha's Web to a meadow with a map board and your first taste of the day's wind conditions. Continue on Natasha's to an intersection with the Table Mountain trail at two miles. Soon, the trail narrows and turns uphill through the trees. At a clearing with a post in the middle, note an escape route to the left — a shared-use road that descends steeply to the lower road.

The trail continues straight through the woods, where one steep section may require a herringbone maneuver on some skis. You can opt for a detour through a parallel clear-cut by turning right then left at an arrow and rejoin the trail above.

On a clear, still day, the bluff at 3.2 miles is a good resting place. Remember to sip water frequently, because staying hydrated maintains energy levels. Bring extra clothing layers, including your warmest gloves or mittens, because hands cool off quickly during stops and descents. Wind here often exposes rocks and shrubs, and ski tracks can fill quickly with an icy glaze.

Dip back into the woods and ski another mile to Henry Mountain (6,040 feet), 860 feet above your starting point. From here you can return as you came (8.4 miles round trip) or descend southeast one-half mile toward Table Mountain on a trail that stops short of the peak on a snowmobile road. Turn left (north) and descend to a glade near Cottonwood Creek then ascend to an intersection with Natasha's Web (2.8 miles). Stay right for a gentle 2.4-mile descent to your car.

Expect blowdowns on the upper part of Natasha's and on the snowmobile road.

Buck Prairie is off-limits to dogs. Sno-Park permits are required. Maps are available at the trailhead, at BLM, 3040 Biddle Rd., Medford, or Ashland Ranger Station, 645 Washington St.

For companions who know the way, ski with the Southern Oregon Nordic Club on Jan. 31.

Mary Beth Lee is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at gentlejourneys@ashlandhome.net