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Badlands Wilderness Area, near Bend, offers a great range of hikes that showcase the high desert

LON AUSTIN  - Ancient junipers are an iconic element of the Badlands Wilderness Area, which was designated in 2009.Looking for a hike to do in the winter?The Badlands Wilderness Area east of Bend is a great choice.

The area is generally free of snow, has hikes with interesting geology, and also has hikes protected from the weather.

Last week, my two grandsons were visiting, and we decided to check out the Badlands.

The most popular trails in the wilderness area are the Flatiron Rock Trail, the Tumulus Trail, the Trail of Ancient Junipers, all accessible from the Flatiron Rock Parking area, and the Badlands Rock Trail, which is located 18 miles east of Bend.

However, we chose to try one of the less traveled trails, the Dry River Trail.

We parked our car and stopped for lunch before starting our hike.

I loaded my backpack with camera gear and water, and we set off down the trail.

My grandsons quickly ran ahead. Fortunately, they soon stopped to explore a bird's nest and animal droppings they saw beside the trail.

Running ahead again, they quickly found a pile of large boulders that left an opening on the ground that they could crawl into. The entire hike was filled with nooks and crannies that they could explore. Larger caves were located higher up on the canyon walls.

Near the end of the canyon, the trail is blocked with rocks. Climbing over the rocks allows access to the upper canyon. However, my youngest grandson had difficulty navigating the boulders, so we turned around and started back to the car. Near the end of our hike, we climbed to the canyon walls to one of the smaller caves located at the base of the cliffs, giving the kids one more opportunity to explore before returning to the trailhead.

What I have noticed recently is that it is becoming harder to keep up with my grandchildren. Although the youngest is just 8, neither had any trouble hiking the entire trail. In fact, both were still running from time to time on the way out.

The Dry River Trail is not the most scenic trail in Central Oregon, but it has plenty to see and do, and it is an entertaining hike to take with kids.

The wilderness area has two primary parking areas, one approximately 15 miles east of Bend, and a second area 18 miles east of Bend, both off U.S. Highway 20. Portions of the Badlands are also accessible from parking areas south of Alfalfa.

The trailhead for the Dry River Trail is located near the Badlands Rock Trail. Coming from Prineville, take George Millican Road south to Highway 20. Once on Highway 20, turn right and drive towards Bend. Approximately 5 miles from the intersection, there is a sign on the right that says Badlands Wilderness. If coming from Bend, the sign will be on the left, 18 miles east of Bend. Turn into the road, but instead of following the access road to the Badlands Rock Trail, immediately turn right and drive through an ODOT gravel storage area. On the east side of the gravel, you should see a one lane, rocky dirt road. If you do not have a high-ground clearance vehicle, now would be a good time to park. The road wanders through the juniper for approximately a mile, before ending at a circular turnout.

The trail starts at the south end of the parking area and enters a dry canyon that runs east, paralleling Highway 20. The trail winds through ancient juniper trees in the canyon's bottom for 2.3 miles. At that point, there is a series of boulders blocking the trail. Ambitious hikers can climb over the boulders and access another half mile more trail before the canyon is finally blocked for good.

Most of the trail is flat, although some of it is rocky. The canyon, which runs north all the way into the Crooked River drainage, begins in a shallow portion of the canyon. However, the canyon quickly narrows, and the walls get steeper as it reaches a depth of nearly 300 feet in the deepest portion of the canyon. Although adjacent to the highway, the hike is surprisingly quiet.

The canyon was formed by an ancient river that drained Lake Millican. The lake and river are both long been dry. However, the rounded boulders have clearly been shaped by the forces of water and look out of place in what is now a dry canyon.

For those interested in geology, the hike offers a look at the strata of past volcanic eruptions, with towering basalt cliffs as well as small pockets of cinder. The canyon walls are pockmarked with small caves. Although hard to find, there are also several ancient petroglyphs carved into rocks along the canyon walls. The easiest petroglyphs to find are located on the south side of the canyon under a small rocky ledge. We located a trail to the petroglyphs, but my youngest grandson was not comfortable climbing on the narrow and slippery trail, so we have no photographs of the petroglyphs. Perhaps that will be for a different day.

If you are going to check out the hike, you are either going to have to do it soon, or you are going to have a wait. That is because the trail is seasonally closed from Feb. 1 through Aug. 31 to protect wildlife.

The United States Congress designated the Oregon Badlands Wilderness in 2009, and it now has 29,180 acres. It includes land in Deschutes and Crook counties. All of this wilderness is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

There is no charge to hike on the Badlands.


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