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Good news Badlands

Explore a lava landscape that’s now officially a wilderness area

Mar 31, 2009

By William L. Sullivan, for the The Eugene Register-Guard

The new wilderness bill Congress passed and sent to the President last week is a long-awaited present for lovers of wild backcountry.

More than 200,000 acres in Oregon — including a unique high flatirondesert wilderness area known as the Badlands — were designated as wilderness by the bill, which passed the House by a wide margin just two weeks after failing by two votes in a dispute over gun rights. The wilderness package was supported by every legislator from Oregon and Idaho.

For 25 years, the only new wilderness area in Oregon had been Steens Mountain, designated in the final days of the Clinton presidency in 2000. Now we’re a Presidential signature away from having more than a dozen new wilderness areas, many with strange-sounding names: Big Bottom. Sisi Butte. Memaloose Lake.

The Badlands is probably the best choice for a visit this time of year. Many other wilderness areas are still under snow. The desert is blooming.

Hiking the Badlands is an otherworldly experience. There are no creeks, lakes, or mountains. Instead the area is a labyrinth of lava outcrops and sandy openings, crossed by an eerie, dead river that has been dry since the Ice Age.

The fresh-looking lava here erupted from the flanks of the Newberry Volcano 10,000 years ago, puddled up in a prairie, and then buckled into thousands of ten-foot-tall pressure ridges — in much the same way that paint can wrinkle when it dries. The low spots filled with volcanic sand after Mount Mazama’s cataclysmic eruption powdered the area 7,700 years ago.

Bring lots of water because there is none here. If you stray from the old roads that serve as trails in this area, it’s easy to be disoriented, so pack a compass or global positioning device.

It’s also wise to wear layers of clothing. In springtime the high desert can shift fast from chilly to hot. If you wait to visit until summer, beware of sunstroke.

The two best hikes follow nearly level trails to Flatiron Rock, a fortress-shaped outcrop with natural rock windows, and to the Dry River Channel, a canyon cut by the vanished stream.

Start by driving 16 miles east of Bend on Highway 20 toward Burns. At milepost 16 turn left across a yellow cattle guard to the Flatiron Trailhead, a rough dirt parking turnaround. If you have a GPS device, the location here is N43º 57.454’ W121º 03.086’.

From the right-hand edge of the parking area, walk past some boulders 30 feet to a fork in the trail. To the left is the return route of an optional loop. So turn right on an ancient sandy roadbed that veers near the highway before heading north.

The desert here is dominated by sagebrush and gnarled juniper trees. The trees are hardly 20 feet tall, but can be thousands of years old. The oldest tree in Oregon is very likely here.

Spring in the desert brings clumps of yellow, daisy-like Oregon sunshine and the tiny, pea-sized purple blooms of miniature monkeyflower.

After 1.3 miles, veer left at the start of a large triangle where trails meet. A hundred steps farther, you’ll reach another junction, and you’ll face a decision (GPS location N43º 58.209’ W121º 02.398’). If you’re ready to head back, turn sharply left on the Ancient Juniper Trail, an old roadbed that winds 2 miles back to your car.

If you’re headed for Flatiron Rock, however, go straight. Beyond the triangle 1.6 miles you’ll reach the 30-foot outcrop of Flatiron Rock (GPS location N43º 59.362’ W121º 02.748’). Turn left on a steep sandy path that climbs to the rock castle’s parapet, where 10-foot walls line a maze of paths.

For a loop, keep right around the summit of Flatiron Rock to a viewpoint of distant Mount Jefferson. Then continue 0.2 miles to a natural arch in a 20-foot pillar. Just beyond, where two slots join, keep left for 0.2 miles to return to Flatiron Rock’s entrance. Then turn right to hike back to your car.

The next hike visits a channel of the vanished Dry River. During the Ice Age a tributary of the Deschutes River drained a vast lake on the present site of Millican. The stream cut through Dry River Canyon and snaked across this lava landscape.

Dry River Canyon is closed to visitors most of the year (Feb. 1 to Aug. 31) to protect nesting falcons. Out in the Badlands, however, you can hike to a different part of the old river’s channel, where petroglyphs in caves remain from the people who fished here thousands of years ago.

Drive Highway 20 east of the Flatiron Trailhead 1.5 miles (or east of Bend 18 miles). At the bottom of a hill, turn left on an unmarked paved road for one mile. Then turn left into the dirt Badlands Rock Trailhead (GPS N43º 57.216’ W121º 00.883’).

The trail starts as an ungated dirt road that’s closed to motor vehicles. Walk 0.3 mile to a fork in the road. You’ll want to go right here, but first explore the sagebrush area to the left, a homestead from the early 1900s. A wire fence protects an old cistern. All artifacts are federally protected.

Then take the right-hand fork at the homestead and continue 0.9 mile. Along the way the road briefly forks and rejoins. Leave the road when you reach three large boulders on the right (GPS location N43º 57.788’ W121º 00.286’).

Take a track right 150 yards and keep to the right to a pole fence at the mouth of the Dry River channel.

An overhang to the right served as a cave campsite when the river ran with fish, perhaps 6,000 years ago. The faint red ochre petroglyphs here can be damaged even by the oil of fingerprints, so don’t touch!

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