A Good Time for Badlands
A hiker and his best friend brave one of the BLM's most unique wilderness areas.
as told by Gavin Hoban
Out my kitchen window, the snow is finally easing up. A big snowfall in Bend usually means only a trace of powder lies east of town. Today I know I want to hike. Burned out on months of Nordic skiing plus the promise of a lightening sky has led me to the newly designated Oregon Badlands Wilderness. In the rain shadow of the Cascades, the frozen paths of the Badlands make for fast hiking.
At the trailhead, I quickly realize my miscalculation: nine inches of snow had settled and the temperature is 19 degrees and falling. With no other cars present, Bodie, my Labrador, and I have the Badlands all to ourselves. On the trail, Bodie romps like he did as a puppy, his nose plowing the snow like an Arctic ice breaker at full throttle. All is silent save the occasional snort from Bodie.
Not a single limb stirs among the large, gnarled 1,000-year-old western junipers, snow clinging to their deeply furrowed trunks. I'd imagined them as ghostly figures marching silently, in procession. But they are as immovable as the neighboring sea of volcanic blisters called tumuli, which pepper the nearly flat landscape. Bifurcated ridges of lava, these tumuli yawn at the sky with gaping mouths of black basaltic teeth.
The crunch of snow underfoot reminds me that one can only experience this much snow in the Badlands perhaps once every winter. And with a change of heart, I long for my beat-up rock skis, so-named for their suitability for skiing on rocks. To the west, a high cirrus sky is moving in. A momentary cold gust of wind descends from nearby Bear Creek Buttes cutting through my gloves as if they aren't there at all.
I stop and climb a tall tumulus to orient myself, moving through a narrow moat-like crack. Sharp stones grab at my clothing until I reach the broad, flat summit. The ground is sharp and porous; large empty bubbles called vesicles have remained here as a memory of the frozen froth of lava which erupted some 80,000 years ago. An experienced tumulus climber, Bodie chooses to preserve his paws despite the covering of snow.
From my lookout, I take my bearings on Horse Ridge and West Butte and make a plan to travel cross-country back to the trailhead. I take notice of the thick blanket of freezing fog at ground level spreading quickly south from Powell Butte. Descending through the snowy lichen and moss-covered uneven path, I am very careful of my step.
Weaving south across the Badlands volcano, I am acutely aware of the passing of time: everything in the Badlands seems ancient. Older than history itself. I lose myself in my thoughts but notice the freezing fog bank which now covers the horizon and my navigation points. Looking back at my own history, I am reminded of foggy San Francisco summers from my boyhood. Bodie wanders in and out of the fog like a banshee.
I stay my course, emerging near the trailhead as both fog and daylight wane to the west. My weary legs grudgingly guide me the final steps to my truck. As Bodie and I feel the warm blast of my heater, I wonder when I'll bring my rock skis to the Badlands. Perhaps next year.
To learn more and plan your visit to the Badlands Wilderness, please check us out online.