I stood at the trailhead looking to the east. The sun was just coming up over the horizon from behind a concentration of clouds. Long shadows of juniper and rock stretched toward me. I soon hoped to feel the warmth of direct sunlight on my face. The temperature was just above freezing and with every exhale, frost formed on my mustache. It had been a long time since I’d experienced so much anticipation for a hike that I couldn’t sleep the night before. I’ve hiked dozens of times in this area, but this was different. For this hike, I’d be inaugurating my Wilds Project!
I packed my backpack the night before and was out the door around 6:15am on Saturday, January 10th. Two cameras, large tripod, a wool blanket, layers of clothing, gloves… I packed much more gear than I needed for a day trip into the desert, but a heavier pack would be a good way to help whip me into better shape. (And, oh boy, do I need to get into better shape!)
My hike, according to my GPS:
The Oregon Badlands Wilderness is one of the few Wilderness Areas in central Oregon. Along with the Three Sisters Wilderness to the west, it’s the closest wilderness to my town of Bend, Oregon. Heading out east on Highway 20, the Oregon Badlands will appear on your left in about 11 miles. It’s not a huge area – 29,537 acres – but it has seven official trailheads and about 40 miles of trails. I believe the most popular trailheads are those closest to the highway, but I couldn’t say for sure since I rarely run into anyone at all. The Ancient Juniper Trail, Flatiron Trail, and the Badlands Rock Trail tend to have more human tracks than the others, and most Bend hikers I know tend to also know these trails.
For this adventure, I would start from the northeastern corner of the wilderness at the Dry River Trailhead.
There’s something magical about this Wilderness in the winter. The sun keeps low on the horizon through most of the day this time of year in central Oregon. Frosty juniper branches, sage grasses, and even moss is layered in frost, causing the desert to shimmer.
The most common lichen – maybe the most common organism – found in the Badlands is this bright green-yellow Letharia vulpina, commonly called wolf lichen.
This time of year, the brightest colors of the desert are of lichen and moss. The ground soil is covered in them, the lava rocks have colonies growing on them that are older than most of us, and the juniper trees are weighed down with them.
Lava inflation is a process where cooling puddles of lava begin to swell, similar to a loaf of rising bread. This process occurred in this area over 7,000 years ago when Lava Top Butte erupted, filling the valley that is now the Oregon Badlands Wilderness. Lava can swell 5-10 times its original thickness. (Chitwood, 1987) In the photo above is a formation of this process, called a tumulus. There are probably hundreds of tumuli through the badlands, ranging in size from a few feet tall and wide to large ones (like this one), which stand over 80 feet in height and over 100 feet long, having swelled 10-20 times its original thickness. When the inflating lava cracked as it rose, it creates small slot canyons through these large mounds of lava rock. You can see these interesting formations from satellite images.
View of the area from Google Earth. (Tumalo Trail can be seen on the right, passing by a few tumuli in the upper right.)
I climbed up a tumulus to look into one crack. It was about 8-10 feet deep and about 40-50 feet long, but not wide enough for me to walk through comfortably. However, it isn’t unusual to find one that you can explore.
There was a strong smell of animal coming from this tumulo, and half expected to meet a bobcat or cougar around the next corner. A horse was killed two days prior to this hike just a few miles from my location, and all signs pointed to a cougar attack. Although I did not see many animals on my hike, I certainly saw signs of them.
With such a sandy surface, it’s easy to see how many animals travel and live in the Oregon Badlands by the signs they leave. Clockwise from the top left: tracks of a black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus), tracks of a coyote (Canis latrans), scat of a badger or coyote, track of a bobcat (Lynx rufus), scat of a badger (Taxidea taxus), and two photos of coyote scat. I saw a couple jackrabbits, and a few flocks of small songbirds, but that’s it. Many of the animals of the badlands do most of their travel (and hunting) under the cover of darkness, but it would have been nice to see the bobcat or badger!
Long before the United States Congress designated the Oregon Badlands Wilderness in 2009, this area was used by ranchers and homesteaders. Remnants of human occupation can be found frequently through the area. Old fence posts and barbed wire put up when grazing was allowed are being removed by volunteer groups such as Friends of the Oregon Badlands Wilderness (FOBBITS). Old dumps, mainly rusted cans, can be found in piles throughout the wilderness as well. Since the uses of wilderness include protection of archaeological and historical sites, it is unclear if these “historic” piles of old cans will ever be removed.
After 13.4 miles of hiking, I arrived back at my car. I had explored the Oregon Badlands from sunrise to sunset and did not see another human. It was an excellent start of The Wilds Project. To view more photos from this hike, visit my Flickr gallery.