Central Oregon weather can be a complicated mess, especially in the middle of fall.
Take Monday. In the morning, big glops of sticky snow started falling and the weather could best be described as soggy, chilly and gray. But by late afternoon, the sky was bright blue, and everything seemed lovely and crisp.
This weather can frustrate would-be hikers, as it leaves many trails mucky and muddy.
But there are other options.
Central Oregon is made up of little micro-climates. Just because it's snowing in Bend doesn't mean it's snowing everywhere. And a good way to seek dry trails is to head east.
I sought refuge at Dry River Canyon trail about 17 miles east of Bend. The trail winds through a canyon in the Badlands Wilderness for 2.3 miles. One more reason to hit up this spot now: the beautiful trail, which features twisted juniper trees, high rock walls and flashes of lime green lichen, is closed much of the year in order to protect wildlife in the area. The trail is open now through Feb. 1.
I arrived at the trailhead just shy of noon. I had left behind patches of melting snow in Bend, but out here the ground didn't even look wet and, according to my car's thermometer, it was 9 degrees warmer than in town.
The trail leaves a small parking area and almost immediately rocky hills take shape on either side of the trail. As the path continues, the hills turn to cliff walls and grow taller and taller until you are walking in a true canyon.
The path is relatively easy, but hardly dull. You have to scale a few rocks as the trail winds and meanders along the bottom of the canyon — it twists and turns, rises and falls, just like the “dry river" in its name.
Walking through the deserted canyon, I felt true solitude. After the first quarter mile or so, the sound of the nearby highway faded, leaving me only the sound of the wind rolling by overhead. This sense of quiet and being alone is something I've missed during recent hikes along the Deschutes River and up the Cascade Lakes Highway.
I saw few signs of life other than the trees and lichen. Every time I looked up to the rocky cliffs above, I kept hoping to see the famous mountain goat who briefly lived here.
I found myself in the perpetual hiker's dilemma: Where to keep my eyes? You need to look down to find sure footing amid the rocks jutting into the pathway. (Looking down did net me one great sight: a rock wedged into the soil of the path was perfectly heart-shaped.) Hikers also want to keep their eyes up, so as not to miss the spectacular scenery. I loved examining the different shapes and structures of the ever-changing cliff walls. There were large outcroppings of rocks that looked like tall towers. There were red slashes of color along some cliff walls. Others rose tall and sheer, straight up to the sky.
And what a sky it was. Throughout the hike, the sky and weather continually shifted. I walked in a light rain as sun shone around me. It was the kind of rain that felt so light, I didn't bother putting on my rain coat. Then 5 minutes later, I realized my head was soaked.
Clouds spit down bits of hail for a few moments. For a while, I walked under a slate gray sky. Then I chased a peekaboo blue patch that let in rays of bright sun. I watched clouds rush along the horizon and heard winds hum across the canyon. Being surrounded by the tall rock walls meant I was protected from the gusts of wind.
Walking in a canyon offers a special feeling. I got the palpable sense that I am small; nature is big. For me, this is a welcome feeling. It's nice to have a sense of wonder every now and then, to smile just because you see something lovely. And with Dry River Canyon, there's a lot of lovely to see.