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Great hiking in the Oregon Badlands
A hike through the Oregon Badlands Wilderness provides spectacular scenery and geological history
An ancient juniper tree in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness.
January 21, 2013
There’s plenty of snow in the mountains for winter recreation but there are times when I opt to set my cross-country skis and snowshoes aside, grab my hiking boots and head for low-elevation hiking destinations.
One great winter hiking standby is the Oregon Badlands Wilderness. The 30,000-acre area, about 15 miles east of Bend, is so unique that as soon as you start hiking, you get a feeling of something ancient. Maybe it’s the 80,000-year-old lava flows or perhaps the 1,000-year-old juniper trees.
There are plenty of hiking opportunities on the 12 trails that total about 50 miles. A few of my favorites are the Ancient Juniper Trail, Flatiron Rock Trail, Badlands Rock Trail, Dry River Trail and Tumulus Trail.
The Ancient Juniper Trail and the Flatiron Rock Trail both begin at the Flatiron Trailhead located 16 miles east of Bend on Highway 20. The Ancient Juniper Trail is an easy 2-mile loop leading through a forest of large junipers that average between 400 and 1,100 years old. The oldest juniper in the state (estimated at around 1,600 years old) is located just outside the Badlands. The area’s geology has allowed the junipers to reach such an old age. Living in pockets of soil within the lava fields has protected the trees from wildfire.
One of the coolest geological features in the Badlands has to be Flatiron Rock. From the trailhead it’s about two and half miles to this nondescript jumble of volcanic rocks that are about a hundred yards wide, a few hundred yards long and about 50 feet high. But after walking up the sandy trail leading into these rocks, you immediately enter a sand-filled corridor that encircles the entire outcrop, resembling a moat of some great castle from a foreign land.
As a matter of fact, about a quarter of a mile to the east is another landform called The Castle, which has a similar elevated moat encircling it. The Castle and Badlands Rock can be seen from the first opening in the wall if you walk counterclockwise.
On the walls of the moat are strange displays of arches, holes and natural rock statues that resemble just about anything imaginable. Through openings to the west are views of Mount Bachelor and the Three Sisters. Farther to the north, Mount Jefferson and the peak of Mount Hood can be seen.
At one point, I climbed up the inner wall to find a small, relatively flat-topped plateau covered with sagebrush, grass and a few small junipers. Flatiron Rock appears to have formed much like a rising loaf of homemade bread. As it rose, a crack formed around its upper edges. In the case of Flatiron Rock, this crack began to fill with a mixture of sandy, eroded pieces of lava and windblown volcanic ash.
The trail continues to the north boundary of Oregon Badlands Wilderness for another two miles.
The Badlands Rock Trailhead is the most popular access point into the Badlands and connects with several other trails. Badlands Rock rises 100 feet (the tallest feature on the Badlands) from the relatively flat landscape and is part of a cracked pressure ridge in the ancient lava field. From the top of the rock are 360-degree views of Central Oregon.
To reach the Badlands Rock Trailhead, travel east from Bend 18 miles on Highway 20 and take a left before the highway turns south and heads uphill. Go about a mile to the trailhead where maps are available at the kiosk. Roundtrip hike is about 6 miles.
The Dry Canyon Trail also begins at the Badlands Rock Trailhead and is the longest trail in the wilderness, going from the southern to the northern boundary.
In one part of a secluded canyon, I came across a few tenajas, which are pockets in the lava rock that were scoured out by the erosive force of water and stones. A few of these held some water, a very scarce resource on the Badlands. Dozens of Townsend’s solitaires and robins could be seen flying in and out of the water pockets or sitting nearby in junipers and on rocks waiting their turn.
The Tumulus Trailhead is located on the northwest side of the wilderness and is reached via Johnson Ranch Road, which can be accessed from Alfalfa Market Road and Dodds Road. The paved segment of Johnson Ranch Road ends at the transfer station but continue south on a rough road along the canal for 1.2 miles then park at the wide area east of canal.
There are a few options once you get on the trail. One is to take the Black Lava Trail south about two miles until it hits private property at a fence and gate. Near the end of the trail, on the east side, is an old corral that looks to have been constructed in the early 1900s, perhaps to gather stray cattle or maybe even wild horses. Most of the corral is sided with natural lava.
On the way back, hikers have the option of taking the Basalt Trail at about the halfway point. This short trail connects to the Tumulus Trail, which then leads back to the trailhead making a short loop.
For those wishing to take long hikes or horseback rides, the Tumulus Trail also connects into the Badlands Rock Trail and the Dry Canyon Trail.
All across the Badlands are blobs of black lava that rise out of the landscape forming mounds and pressure ridges. These cracked ridges are known as tumuli (an individual ridge is called a tumulus). Tumuli are formed when a pahoehoe lava flow (lava with a smooth, billowy, or ropy surface) moves over a small slope, creating a dome formation. As the lava cools, a crust forms on top of the flow and the lava below the crust forces a dome of crust upward. If the dome of lava cracks, the lava inside the tumulus will often drain out, leaving a hollow cave.
It’s believed that early ranchers named the Badlands due to its shallow soil and poor livestock grazing. Most of the soil consists of eroded lava and windblown volcanic ash (much of it from the Mount Mazama eruption 7,700 years ago).