Oregon Badlands

Bend sits between two wilderness areas: the well-known Three Sisters Wilderness to the west and less-visited Oregon Badlands Wilderness to the east. The badlands are a typical High Desert landscape: dry, flat, and volcanic in origin. The official wilderness designation encompasses over 29,000 acres of junipers, basalt outcrops, and sagebrush. A network of trails criss-crosses this landscape, and one of them leads to an elevated perch above the plains, with views for miles from the top of Flatiron Rock.

It’s overcast today. Spring was warming up but the clouds have halted the temperature’s rise for now. It’s cool and calm here, yet all around us the horizon is blurred by precipitation where the mountains meet the clouds. It feels like dusk, though the sun is still a few hours from setting. Under these cloudy skies, we leave the trailhead and enter into an endless juniper sea.

This stretch of High Desert is flat — well, mostly flat. The sandy trail wends through the sparse vegetation and rolls over exposed basalt. We’re walking across lava as we head north, although we could walk in nearly any direction from any point in this part of Oregon and say the same thing. These are badlands born from below. Don’t think of South Dakota when contemplating this landscape. Prairies are nowhere to be found here in a geography built on igneous rock that lies just below a dusty cover. Later research will prove inconclusive on the age of the rocks under our feet. Are they 10,000 years old, or is it more like 80,000? Either way, they’ve been here far longer than us.

The forest surrounding us is comparitively short in stature. To the west, where the Cascades rise into a vaporous shroud, there are towering hemlocks, firs, and pines. Those conifers reap the blessings of water, mostly in the form of snowmelt, and stretch skyward towards their cloudy benefactors. Indeed, just beyond that high divide sits a denser, damper forest perennially lush and verdant on the wet western slopes. Here, though, is a badland, a dry land, a near-desert. The junipers that have made this place their home know how to survive on less than a foot of annual rainfall. They are hydration hoarders, and their skill is becoming a problematic for other water-loving organisms. As humans have altered the natural fire regime in this region, junipers have boomed. Their range has increased, and thus groundwater has become locked in their capacious roots. They are not an invasive species, though some people might tell you otherwise. They are simply built for this ecosystem, and we happened to tip the scales in their favor.

We pause to admire the hardiest individuals. Some of these junipers are well over 1,000 years old. Like the lava on which they sit, these trees have far more experience here than we do.

At Flatiron Rock, a broken fold of basalt thrust 20 or 30 feet above the surrounding flatlands, we gain a bit of elevation and a view to go with it. The junipers run on to the distant hills across an unbroken plain of hardy conifers. Gray Butte, Powell Buttes, Newberry Volcano, and Bear Creek Buttes hem them in, yet the junipers seem the dominating presence in this landscape. The vista is entrancing, but we pull our attention back to the edifice we’ve ascended. A path roams through the folds in the rock, and we follow it through this simple labyrinth of basalt, sagebrush, bunchgrass, and, of course, juniper. This is a natural fortress, and we have briefly stormed it. We won’t stay long, but the idea is inviting. There are plenty of spots to hunker down for the night, plenty of nooks and crevices to take shelter from a storm, plenty of walls to scramble and paths to follow into the wilderness. Perhaps another time.

The sun dips below the clouds en route to the western horizon. The junipers light up, superimposed on the dark skies to the east. The temperature is dropping. We walk south, back across the lava, the dust, the sand lilys blooming underfoot. The junipers stand guard along our path. They have spent centuries in this land, and have centuries to go. To the junipers, this is no bad land, and I have come to agree with them.

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