Located less than 20 miles east of Bend, Oregon, the recently created Badlands Wilderness Area is a good place to escape the hubbub of the city and contemplate the region’s volcanic past. Don’t expect spectacular scenery, however. As its name implies, this is a dry, tortured landscape whose harsh beauty is disguised in gnarled trees and twisted lobes of lava.
The 31,000-acre Oregon Badlands Wilderness was created by act of Congress in March, 2009. Federal Wilderness Area designation assures that no manmade development will be permitted within its boundaries. The use of motorized vehicles such as noisy dirt bikes and ATVs is also banned. Administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the area is set aside in its natural state for hikers and horseback riders to explore, where unique geological features, native plants and animals are protected.
Our introduction to the Badlands took place in September, arguably not the ideal season to visit. At summer’s end, most of the grasses and wildflowers had long since gone to seed, although the fall-blooming golden rabbitbrush was all about. After seven mostly rainless weeks with temperatures frequently in the 90s, the place was parched and dusty. It receives less than 12 inches of rain annually.
Starting at a trailhead just off Highway 20 on the south side of the Wilderness Area, we headed north on the Badlands Rock Trail. The twin-track trail suggested that it was once a primitive road. (In fact, mounting environmental damage caused by off-road vehicles was one of the justifications for creating the Wilderness Area.) The easy trail rose gradually as we hiked northward. After a mile, the scattered juniper trees became more numerous, some of them quite photogenic. After three miles we came to the jumbled outcrop of Badlands Rock which seemed to be the highest point in the area. From its 3,700-foot summit, we enjoyed a nice panorama: Three Sisters to the west, Newberry Crater to the south, etc.
Photographers will find fascinating subject matter in the Badlands. A few of Oregon’s oldest and most time-tortured juniper trees grow here, including some over 1,000 years old. Often the trees are rooted in fantastically shaped pressure ridges of ancient lava. In fact, the Badlands are built on contorted lava that flowed through tubes from Newberry Volcano some 80,000 years ago.
After a bite of lunch, we hiked westward on the Castle Trail and southward on the Flatiron Trail to make about a seven-mile loop back to our starting point. There were deer and coyote tracks in the dusty trail, but we saw none of the mule deer, elk or pronghorns that are said to frequent the Badlands.
Dusting ourselves off before getting in the car, we remarked that it might be better to visit in the spring when the desert wildflowers would be in bloom. There are a dozen official trails that criss-cross the wilderness with trailheads on all sides, so we suspect there are many photogenic nooks and crannies yet to be discovered.
To get to the Badlands Rock Trailhead described here, drive east from Bend on Highway 20. After milepost 17, look for a road on the left (north) beside some tall gravel piles. Follow this road about ½ mile to the trailhead at a newly developed parking area surrounded by a split-rail fence. The Wilderness Area is nearly flat and has no streams or springs, so carry plenty of water and pay close attention to the trail signs. It is easy to get disoriented.