Badlands offer interesting run

Trail east of Bend passes through ancient junipers, quiet wilderness

Heidi Hagemeier / The Bulletin /

Published Dec 6, 2012 at 04:00AM

On Saturday, my family drove out of the sunlight to the frozen tundra of Mt. Bachelor.

Don't get me wrong. Even as a storm blew sideways, it was a marvelous downhill day. The snow was soft and plentiful for early December, and we sang out a few “hallelujahs” as our legs remembered how to fly on skis.

But after hours of enduring a continuous snowblast facial, on Sunday I was ready to head east to the Larry Chitwood Trailhead, a corner of the Oregon Badlands Wilderness. It was called the Obernolte Trailhead until a few years ago, when it was renamed in honor of Chitwood, a U.S. Forest Service geologist who died suddenly in 2008.

There, autumn seems like it's hanging on. The air felt pleasantly crisp and the ground firm from recent rain. The sun made an appearance to offer up some much-needed vitamin D.

My legs transitioned from ski to run, padding through the sandy soil.

The trails form a well-marked lollipop with a few loop possibilities. My pal and I ran down the center of the circle and then circled back along the easternmost trail, making for a 5.6-mile outing.

Except for a few rock formations to climb, the Badlands are known for flatter terrain, and our journey Sunday could qualify as easy. Runners like ourselves perceived the ever-so-slight climb, which seemed to peak at the farthest point from the trailhead. But otherwise the trails make for a simple jaunt, only requiring a pair of sturdy-ish, low-top hiking shoes.

Our loop never rose enough to provide the Cascades views sometimes glimpsed from Badlands locations to the east. Yet other intrigues awaited.

The ancient junipers, which are the signatures of this wilderness, were our constant companions on this journey. Gnarled and moss-laden, they remind us that a human lifetime is but a fleeting thing compared to the hundreds of years they observe their stretch of ground. The oldest juniper tree in Oregon was at least at one time suspected to be across U.S. Highway 20 on Horse Butte, an elder of 1,600 years.

These trees have observed much in their time. This day, though, I picked up on a few things myself.

Deer tracks showed that the ungulates range throughout the area. The width of the trails indicate that vehicles once zipped through these parts.

In addition, it's hard not to spot a small field of rusted cans in the first three-tenths of a mile from the trailhead.

The Badlands were once home to Meek's Trail, a branch of the Oregon Trail. Old maps showed it likely passed on the northern end of the wilderness area, not far as the crow flies from the Chitwood Trailhead.

While some of those rusted cans reasonably come from garbage dumpers from decades ago, others could potentially date back to that time when European pioneers trudged west. Thus, until an assessment is undertaken to know the area's possible cultural value, federal law protects them as potential artifacts that if removed would change the character of the land.

I also thought about Chitwood, a Forest Service man honored here on BLM land.

Chitwood helped found the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Brent Fenty, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, said Chitwood had extensively researched lava formations throughout Central Oregon, including the inflated lava tubes within the Badlands.

“He spent time there hiking, and helped other people understand what an amazing resource we have in Bend's backyard,” Fenty said.

While such people came before us, this Sunday our slice of Central Oregon was relatively empty, despite its location a mere 15 miles from Bend.

How lucky we are to have quiet wilderness out our back door: A perfect spot to feel the rhythm of your breath on a gentle run and the warmth of the late autumn sun on your face.

— Reporter: 541-617-7828, hhagemeier@bendbulletin.com

If you go

Getting there: From Bend, drive east on U.S. Highway 20 for about seven miles. Turn left on Dodds Road and continue for a little less than four miles to Obernolte Road. Turn right and continue to the end to the trailhead.

Difficulty: Easy

Cost: Free

Contact: www.blm.gov/or/resources/recreation/badlands