Badlands offer off-trail finds

Desert area east of Bend has lesser-known trails and interesting geology

By David Jasper / The Bulletin

Over the years, like any Bendite with an interest in year-round hiking, I've gone to the Ancient Juniper, Flatiron Rock, Homestead and Dry River Canyon trails in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness, all easily accessed from U.S. Highway 20 east of Bend and generally free from much more than a smattering of snow, even during wetter winters.

I have seen the error of my ways. Although I'll always be fond of these popular, sometimes crowded trails — and by all means, knock yourself out if you've not yet explored them — I am a recent convert to Badlands' other offerings: specifically, a few trails off of Dodds Road, along the Badlands' northern boundary.

Leading our early-March trek were Friends of Oregon Badlands Wilderness members David Eddleston and David Paulsmeyer. Joining our group were longtime outing accompanist Map Guy and musician/hiker Mark Quon, whom longtime readers will remember as a close friend of Jim Witty, The Bulletin's beloved outdoors writer who died from a heart attack in 2008 after etching his name in stone on this particular beat.

Quon is one of the main reasons the book “Meet Me in the Badlands,” which compiled Witty's reports from the wilds of Central Oregon, was published.

And Witty is the main reason we went on this particular outing. A few weeks earlier, Quon had sent me an email telling me Eddleston and other “Fobbits,” as Friends of the Badlands call themselves, had taken to calling a particular rock formation “Jim Witty Memorial Rocks.” A few emails later, a plan was hatched.

We rendezvoused at 9 a.m. and climbed into Eddleston's SUV. As he drove east on 20, he gave a primer on Friends of Oregon Badlands Wilderness, which formed in April 2007 at the behest of the Bureau of Land Management.

“It's a stewardship role; it's a nonpolitical role, with a number of things to do,” he said. “Trailhead maintenance, trail patrols, removal of obsolete barbed wire fence, reporting of illegal (wheeled vehicle) trespassing ... monitoring of how roads are going back to wilderness, re-vegetating certain trails and so on.”

He estimates the 169 Fobbits have contributed nearly 8,000 volunteer hours, with a core group of 20 to 30 handling the bulk of the workload. Fobbits have removed about eight miles of barbed wire fencing, which is hazardous to wildlife, as well as a couple of dozen illegally dumped tires and a half-dozen appliances.

“We want to encourage a lot more hikers to come to the northern trailheads. The Highway 20 trailheads get a lot of use, of course, but there are great trailheads here,” Eddleston said, turning right onto Dodds Road at mile marker 9. About two miles from Highway 20, he pointed out Obernolte Road, at whose terminus rests the Larry Chitwood Trail, named for a geologist who wrote about the Badlands prior to his 2008 death.

Our destination lay farther down Dodds Road, however. About 15 minutes later, Eddleston pointed out the right-hand turn and sign for the trail. He continued down a rough gravel road and parked at the edge of a currently dry irrigation canal.

Once we'd parked, Map Guy razzed me for not bringing camera batteries, ignoring my protests that I'd brought along four dead batteries. There is a difference.

Quon mentioned a time Witty forgot batteries on an outing to Pine Mountain. “We had to (go) back the next day.” It's the first of many times Witty's name comes up during the outing.

Not yet done haranguing me, Map Guy said, “He doesn't bring food. I doubt if he's got water.”

When I flash my water bottle, Map Guy said, “That's a shock. ... Jim (would have) water, but it would be water from three trips ago that he had left over.”

We crossed a metal walkway over the canal to set off down the Tumulus Trail. Anything with wheels is banned from the 30,000-acre Badlands, so Eddleston was not pleased when we came across tire tracks.

“We're gonna catch this guy somehow. This is not right,” he said. “It's a federal offense, and there's a fairly heavy fine.”

Eddleston has spotted deer, elk and one bobcat during his many hours in the Badlands. “He stared at me for about 15 seconds, and I went to get my camera. Then he thought, ‘Hmm, I don't think so,' and he went off.”

Paulsmeyer said he once saw a herd of seven elk twice during a hike, “as though they had circled us, and were stopping and looking at us.”

About a mile from the trailhead, Eddleston and Paulsmeyer led us off the trail. Four of the party's five members had GPS units, and at least two knew how to use them, but I'm not naming names. We scattered, avoiding one another's footprints to avoid creating new trails.

“This is actually not soil,” Eddleston said. “This is lava ash from Mount Mazama. It covers the Badlands to an average depth of two to three feet.”

Along the way, we get some great nature lessons. Eddleston pointed out some old junipers: “Once they get that reddish color, that means they're three centuries (old).” The oldest official juniper in the area is across the highway on nearby Horse Ridge and is more than 1,600 years old, he said.

We also learn that the bright-green growth on the trees' limbs is wolf lichen, a poisonous lichen homesteaders used to kill wolves by stuffing it in a bait carcass.

“If you're out here and you do need foodstuff, you can make a house with it, but don't eat it,” Paulsmeyer advises.

A half-mile after we left the trail to our first stop, we reached “Dead Horse Canyon,” so named after the shot-dead horse Eddleston discovered at the bottom two years ago. “He gradually disappeared over a period of a year, all his bones getting scattered with the scavengers and the coyotes,” he said. We manage to find plenty of the unfortunate horse's bony remains.

Underfoot were mosses and other small, easily ignored growth that Eddleston tells us is “cryptobiotic” ground covering, a mix of moss, fungi and other ingredients. It's “very, very vital. Normally, when it's not moist, it's a very gray color.”

When Fobbits lead kids on spring hikes out there, they'll pour water on it to show how “within seconds it springs into life as bright, bright green.”

I was soon pouring out some of my precious water supply, and sure enough, instant green.

But the best thing we learn about is the packrat middens, which are basically hardened piles of packrat excrement. Just outside their homes in the cracks and crevices of rocks, packrats urinate on their own droppings, and because of the sugars and crystals in the urine, the whole thing hardens into shiny brown glop. Once you've seen some of this stuff, you start seeing it everywhere. Well, at least on off-trail rocky ledges in the Badlands.

We also learn about the geology of the area, created by a lava eruption from Badlands Volcano, about a third of a mile in from mile marker 15 on Highway 20.

“All this that we have here all comes from that one particular lava flow,” Eddleston said. “All the lava spewed out from there and created the Badlands.”

The rocky formations such as Jim Witty Memorial Rocks occur after stretches of lava cool and crack. As Chitwood once wrote for the Deschutes National Forest, “Normally, long fingers of lava inflate much more at their wider sections, creating swollen or tumescent areas with cracks down their middle. These are called tumuli and, along with their highly elongated cousins called pressure ridges, are common in the Badlands.”

Eddleston said that Witty Rocks are unusual because they have more pressure cracks than any other formation he's seen.

Once we finally reached the rocky structure named for Witty, we scrambled up for a view of the Cascades, Smith Rock and other landmarks in the distance. Jim Witty Memorial Rocks are approximately 1.71 miles southeast of the Tumulus Trailhead.

For those properly equipped with GPS, the coordinates are at decimal degrees N 44.03517 and W 121.00682.

The rest of the hike is a mix of bad puns. We next cut west, most of it off-trail, to Black Lava Trail. At its end, there's an abandoned horse corral nestled in a rock formation. Eddleston was once with a group that found an obsidian arrowhead near the corral. Because it's illegal to remove such historic artifacts, they carefully placed it in some rocks, and now no one can find it, he said.

In all, Eddleston tells us as we reach his truck, we hiked eight-and-a-half miles. The next day, I had the sore calves to prove it. But just four days later, I brought my wife along to further explore the north edge of the Badlands for a hike at Larry Chitwood Trail.

Unfortunately, I could not locate any packrat middens, and it was not for lack of trying.

If you go

Getting there: To reach Tumulus Trailhead from Bend, take U.S. Highway 20 east. Near mile marker 9, turn left on Dodds Road and continue east. At mile marker 6, head south on unpaved road about one mile to the parking area at the trailhead, being sure to stay right at fork in road, approximately a half-mile down.

Difficulty: Easy on marked trails, moderate if wandering off-trail.

Cost: Free

Contact: Bureau of Land Management, Prineville District, 541-416-6700; www.meetup.com/ friendsoforegon badlandswilderness