Just minutes north of Bend, there's a huge, multiuse High Desert recreation mecca, a perfect place to escape winter on a mid-February day.
Apparently, lots of people, but I was not one of them until last week when I made the short drive with a friend to the southern edge of the 32,000-acre Cline Buttes Recreation Area, which abuts Eagle Crest Resort east of Redmond.
The area, a mix of old-growth juniper, sagebrush steppe grasslands, buttes and river canyons, has something to offer many outdoors-minded folks: off-highway vehicle (OHV) riders, hikers, runners, mountain bikers, equestrians and anglers. Each user group gets their own piece of the public land. The Bureau of Land Management has lots of interesting plans for this place.
The BLM and its various partners are developing new trails, trailheads, signs and maps for various sections of the Cline Buttes Recreation Area.
Their current focus is on two nonmotorized trail networks in the Maston area on the southeast corner and the Tumalo Canal Historic Area on the central southern end, said Greg Currie, a landscape architect with the Prineville District BLM. By the end of this year, he said, trailheads, workable trail loops and maps for those areas will be clearer.
I wanted to see both areas, and we started at Maston. The Maston trailhead is clearly signed from Cline Buttes Highway. The new trailhead on Newcomb Road — complete with picnic tables and an outhouse — is impossible to miss. After a green gate, the web of flat, wide paths around the trailhead funnel into a more primitive singletrack that bears the marks of many mountain bike tires.
That was about the last moment at which I was absolutely certain where I was. Soon, the trails sprawling before me outnumbered the trails marked on my outdated mountain biker's map.
But don't let that deter you. There are a couple of power lines bisecting the Maston area that can help you orient yourself. Periodic views of the Cascade Mountains, Cline Buttes and even Smith Rock State Park give you a general sense of direction. And the area is bordered by roads, developments and the Deschutes River, so it's not like you can get THAT lost.
My hiking partner, Leslie Cogswell, has a good sense of adventure and is perpetually positive. I had billed the day hike as an explorative endeavor. Besides, we were armed with emergency essentials in case we got lost: water, cellphones, PBJs and an obscene amount of Valentine's Day chocolate from Cogwell's husband.
I had hoped to head due east from the trailhead and arrive at an overlook of the Deschutes River, which borders the eastern side of the Maston area. We never found the overview or the river.
We were tramping more northward than we should have been when we crossed paths with two women walking a dog. Not surprisingly, Cogswell, a bit of a social butterfly, knew the women. In chatting, we learned that getting to the river could be a bit of a scramble. They gave us some directions, but it was pretty clear that finding the river was going to be anything but clear. We were happy to march among gnarly junipers and soak in the sun. I crumpled my map into my pocket and we just made some intuitive turns here and there, plodding through dusty, wide equestrian trails and pattering along harder packed mountain bike paths.
As trails get more developed and better marked, designated mountain bike and horse trails will run parallel to each other, with vegetation buffers in between them, Currie said. Pedestrians can use any of the trails.
Some areas of Maston are being closed for raptor protection, Currie said. The regional development plan designated the 4,100-acre Maston area as “primary wildlife emphasis," meaning the trail development aims to “create large unfragmented patches of land and to minimize disturbance to wildlife, including raptor nest sites and foraging areas," Currie said. Closures and restoration work might help other wildlife species as well, he said, because the area is relatively small and surrounded by rapidly developing lands.
If it weren't for our nonstop jabbering, the place would have been quite peaceful. Besides the two hikers, we saw one mountain biker and one horseback rider on a recent weekday, although tracks suggested that many of all kinds of users frequent the area.
We walked in a somewhat clockwise circle, landing on Newcomb Road, a bit before the parking area, for about a two-hour hike.
We still wanted to check out the Tumalo Canal Historic Area on the other side of the Cline Falls Highway before heading home, but we wouldn't explore the canal trail area to the same extent.
We drove south on Cline Falls Highway a half-mile, turned west on Barr Road, and continued about 1.7 miles to an undeveloped but obvious parking spot near some big signs on the right.
The Tumalo Canal Historic Area “was designated as an area of critical environmental concern in 2005 to protect, preserve and interpret the old irrigation canals that are part of a much larger system developed in the early 1900s to help with land sales and settlement in Central Oregon," according to a BLM website. Some trails follow the relic canals.
We just dipped our toes briefly into this area, out of curiosity, but realized we really needed to do this one another day.
In fact, there's tons of exploration to be done across the whole Cline Buttes Recreation Area.
I had, before the outing, originally hoped Cogswell and I would climb up Cline Buttes, the recreation area's namesake, to fulfill some puzzling human impulse to summit peaks.
However, in talking to Currie before my outing, he said access points and trails on the buttes can be very confusing and, in some cases, cross private property. Eventually, Currie said, public access points and trails will be clearer on Cline Buttes, too. This year, it is likely that BLM will fence, gate and sign the Buttes area to make it a nonmotorized-use section.
So maybe next winter, when there's a spell of weather that makes urban trails icy and the nordic skiing imperfect, Cogswell or some other adventurous hiker and I will come back and wander around on Cline Buttes, the heart of this up-and-coming recreation area.