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Badlands up close

BEND — OK, I admit it. I have not spent much time in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness.

Like some of you, when I make a point to hike in Central Oregon, I am usually motivated by the promise of snow-capped peaks, gushing waterfalls and deep ponderosa pine forest.

That's all west of Bend.

East of town, those promises become entirely different. Replace the ponderosas with twisty old juniper trees scattered here and there like debris. Replace the mountains with unusual rock formations shaped by time. Replace the gushing waterfalls with almost no sound at all, utter quiet save for the chirping of birds.

These things, I discovered on a couple of recent hikes in the Badlands, can be just as rewarding.

To begin to appreciate the desert, you have to see it — and I don't mean from the seat of a car as you're whizzing by at 65 mph on U.S. Highway 20.

My trips east of Bend on that highway had usually been for mountain biking at Horse Ridge. Biking along the ridge, you can get sort of a bird's-eye view of the Badlands north of the highway.

But I finally decided to get up close and personal with the Badlands last week. I drove about 16 miles east of Bend to the Flatiron Rock Trailhead, right off Highway 20.

This is just one of many trails in the Badlands, a 30,000-acre wilderness area (no bikes!) named for its harsh terrain. This time of year, though, that harsh terrain becomes almost inviting when compared with the snow-covered trails west of Bend.

Most of the wilderness includes the rugged Badlands volcano, which has features of inflated lava, according to the Bureau of Land Management. Windblown volcanic ash and eroded lava make up the sandy, light-colored soil that covers the low and flat areas in those fields of lava.

A variety of wildlife makes the Badlands its home, including yellow-bellied marmots, bobcats, mule deer, elk and antelope. Bird species encountered in the Badlands include prairie falcons and golden eagles.

My plan was to hike to Flatiron Rock and back — for a round-trip distance of nearly 6 miles — then find another hike to total about 8 miles for the day.

As I plodded along the wide, sandy trail, the first thing that struck me was the simplicity of the hike on a crisp, sunny day that would soon turn quite warm. The mostly flat path meanders through the juniper, rocks and sand, with no demanding climbs or hair-raising switchbacks.

The second thing I noticed was the trees. Each juniper tree is unique. Some are bushy and full of life, others are aged and mangled, their branches rising to the sky like some sort of defiance to the passage of time.

Some of these ancient trees in the Badlands are more than 1,000 years old, according to the Oregon Natural Desert Association. I seemed to develop an enthusiastic appreciation for these junipers as I hiked past one after another. Still, I find it hard to describe them.

But this will certainly work:

"The western juniper is far from statuesque, not even close to colossal when compared with other tree species, and is given to growing in contorted, stunted, twisted, warped, crumpled, distressed and arthritic configurations ... But the old soldiers, the gnarled, disfigured veterans, some of which were saplings when Leif Eriksson led his expedition to North America 1,000 years ago (well before Columbus sailed the ocean blue) are a lifelong study in rugged individualism."

That perfect, profound personification is one of countless gems from the late Jim Witty, the longtime outdoors writer for The Bulletin who died five years ago. Witty had an unabashed love for the Badlands. A book compilation of his articles is even titled "Meet Me In The Badlands: Exploring Central Oregon with Jim Witty."

Witty was a colleague of mine for seven years, and I thought of him as I trudged through the loose dirt. I took a steep path up and to the left when I reached Flatiron Rock, an unusual rock outcrop that is part of the nondescript Badlands shield volcano.

Rock walls, some taller than 10 feet, line the trail. Taking a closer look at the rock, I could see the holes and features shaped by lava flows of long ago. Some jagged rocks even form remarkable arches.

As I walked among these otherworldly rocks, junipers dotting the path here and there, I began to understand Witty's love for the place.

Atop Flatiron Rock, I looked north and east to the rest of the Badlands, and west to faraway, snow-covered Cascade peaks.

After the 3-mile hike back to the car, I drove 11/2 miles farther east along Highway 20 and made a left on a paved road, just across the highway from the turn to the Horse Ridge Trailhead. The popular Dry River Canyon Trail can be accessed from there, but I drove on, looking to hike along the Dry River Trail, a different section of the old river's channel. (Confusing, I know, but they are two different trails.)

I started from the Badlands Rock Trailhead and turned onto the Dry River Trail. After a mile or so, I made a right turn at three large boulders, and the path there led me to the mouth of the Dry River channel.

I hiked down into the channel, gray rocks towering over me. In a few places, the rock is shaped into natural cavelike formations. Near these ancient campsites, faint, red ocher petroglyphs — from the natives who fished there thousands of years ago — can be seen.

The Dry River once drained ancient Lake Millican, and its course can now be traced through the Oregon Badlands Wilderness north to the Crooked River. The drainage area of Dry River extends eastward to Hampton Butte and southward to the east flank of Newberry Volcano and all of Pine Mountain.

I explored the Dry River channel for a while before trekking back to the car.

I had hiked nearly 8 miles and never saw another soul.

Alone in the desert, we can find beauty — and our own "rugged individualism" — in the simplest of things.

Thanks, Jim.

Views abound from atop Flatiron Rock in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness. - AP /The Bulletin, Mark Morical