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Proxy Falls is a different place in winter

If you take a hike on Proxy Falls Trail during summer or autumn, there's a good chance you'll have company. The two waterfalls on this easy hike off McKenzie Pass Highway are among the most frequently photographed in Oregon and often draw a crowd on weekends.

Come back in winter, though, when the highway is closed to vehicles and the preferred mode of transportation is skis or snowshoes, and it's a far different experience.

The journey to Proxy Falls is longer, colder and sometimes requires a bit of route-finding during winter.

But it's also more rewarding, offering the chance to travel a highway that becomes a tunnel through snowy forest and experience Upper Proxy Falls (126 feet) and Lower Proxy Falls (226 feet) ornamented by icicles.

The route, which includes stretches of highway and trail, is seven miles out and back with 1,100 feet of climb.

On the right day — after a fresh dose of snow — a winter trip to Proxy Falls Trail is far better than anything you'd experience in summer.

WAITING FOR SNOW

One of my favorite activities during winter is a sport known as "Winter Waterfall Hunting."

The idea is pretty simple: Visit as many waterfalls as possible covered with ice and snow during the year's coldest months.

The spray of a winter waterfall is so refreshing it clears all the cobwebs from your brain. It makes a fun scavenger hunt when combined with snowshoeing, skiing or snowmobiling, and for photographers, it creates unique scenes.

The problem last season and the beginning of this year has been crummy snow conditions. Proxy Falls — along with many of Oregon's great waterfalls — sits at the 3,100- to 3,200-foot range, which these past few seasons has been too low for consistent snow.

I planned winter trips to Proxy Falls multiple times last year, only to cancel them when the weather brought rain instead of snow.

And so, when a system of mid-elevation snow finally arrived at the end of December, I decided to spend New Year's Day fulfilling my resolution to see Proxy Falls encased by snow and ice on the first day of the year.

THE JOURNEY

The trip to Proxy Falls during winter is simple enough.

From Highway 126 — coming from either Santiam Junction or Eugene — simply turn onto Highway 242 and follow it until you hit the snow gate. There's a small parking area on the side of the road.

The trick once you arrive is deciding what equipment to bring. The snow gate's elevation is 2,100 feet, but the waterfalls are at 3,200 feet, which means you're likely to pick up a fair amount of snow during the trip.

When snowpack is minimal and there's a good path, all you really need are waterproof boots. In deeper snow — when there's significant coverage at the gate — snowshoes or skis are best.

"Many times the snow line is not all the way down to the gate, which makes it more like a hike," said Tyson Cross, winter recreation programs manager with Willamette National Forest.

My day started with plenty of snow, so I tossed on snowshoes right away and kept them on the entire time.

From the gate, the route follows the highway for 2.6 miles before you arrive at Proxy Falls Trailhead, marked by signs and a restroom.

The loop trail branches off to both the left and right.

I headed left, the quickest route to the waterfalls, and started breaking trail among forest and lava fields. The trail isn't marked by blue diamonds, so if you're the first one out after a big snow dump, as I was, staying on the correct route is a challenge. I was also glad to have snowshoes, because there were many downed trees that would have been a major hassle on skis.

At the first junction (0.4 miles from the Proxy Trailhead), stay left to visit Upper Proxy Falls, a 126-foot cascade. Fed by a spring, this waterfall doesn't thunder but rather slides down mossy tiers into a pool below.

Back to the junction, I headed right and reached a viewpoint of Lower Proxy Falls, a more dramatic 226 feet. It fans out in summer, but was a thin string of silver covered in icicles on my trip.

I made my way carefully down to the base of the falls — the creek had a mostly frozen top — and snapped some pictures, enjoying a winter waterfall that had eluded me for more than a year.

The cool spray, drifting off icicles into a forest of white was so refreshing it didn't take long for my brain to feel clean and cobweb-free.

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Snow covers the Proxy Falls Trail, located near McKenzie Bridge, about 60 miles east of Eugene. AP PHOTO.
Hikers make their way up Highway 242, which is closed during the winter, to the Proxy Falls trail, near McKenzie Bridge. AP PHOTO.