Sunday, January 29, 2017

Oregon Badlands Wilderness: Flatiron Rock

 In the midst of the worst winter central Oregon has seen in 25 years, finding a place to recreate can be a bit of a challenge. Mainly because unplowed roads promise misery for the unprepared driver. I don't want to join the ranks of the many snowbound vehicles I have seen on forest roads in the last couple weeks. So I head to the Badlands. Flatiron Rock trailhead is literally just off the highway. I don't have to navigate any treacherous forest road to get there. I just make a left from U.S. Route 20, and boom, I'm in the parking lot.

Ancient Juniper
A couple route options exist from Flatiron Rock trailhead. We combined Flatiron Trail with Ancient Juniper Trail to form a 7 mile lollipop loop. The scenery in the Badlands doesn't really change, no matter what part of the wilderness you're in. It's relatively flat and covered in old gnarly Junipers (some over 1000 years old), but Ancient Juniper trail had some of the biggest Junipers that I've seen in the wilderness. Some were old and dying and others lush and green. We noticed several were cut with saws, including the Juniper in the photo above. It looked like someone cut a V into it with a chainsaw and then just walked away.

 Flatiron Rock is much more discreet than its neighbor Badlands Rock to the east. It doesn't stab upward like Badlands does. Nevertheless, the views from the top are almost just as impressive. From the northwest corner of the rock the cascade range was clearly visible as far north as Hood. I've heard that Flatiron Rock hides a lot of little caves and crevices ripe for exploration, but the amount of snow made finding such places impossible. 

Views of the cascade range.

As usual in the Badlands, we didn't see many people. We also didn't hear any birds... like at all. It's weird because if you read my blog regularly you may recall that I'm constantly remarking about the huge number of birds I see and hear in the Badlands. In fact, since my last visit I've read that the Badlands and surrounding desert host over 100 different species of bird. Today however, I didn't hear a peep. Maybe they were all hunkered down trying to stay warm. 

Hike out

Monday, January 23, 2017

China Hat: Bessie Butte

China Hat is a spot that I've been wanting to explore since moving to Bend last summer. I've heard people talk about it a lot, seemingly because China Hat hosts any activity under the sun (and moon), including hiking, caving, camping, snowmobiling, skiing, shooting, hunting and unfortunately even dumping. The drive is easy from Bend. From my place I can be on China Hat road in 5 minutes. The drive out to Bessie Butte will depend on the road conditions, but is generally around 10 minutes upon reaching China Hat Road (in winter it can be sketchy because the road is not plowed). This ease of access is one reason this area is so popular. The other reason is that it seems far less regulated than other national forest lands in the area.

Three Sisters in the background.
In a land formed by lava and dominated by buttes, Bessie Butte is not one of the tallest. It does however stick out like a sore thumb due to a fire a few years back that really thinned out the plant life immediately surrounding it. Because of this, from the road Bessie Butte appears much larger than the surrounding buttes. We had the trail to ourselves as we made our ascent in freezing temperatures and a bitter wind. I was immediately struck by the absolutely eye-popping views. Even in winter the 1.5 mile hike to the top was easy. On this day we didn't need snowshoes or traction devices, but sunglasses and a beanie were a must. But those views!! It was a perfectly clear sunny day and those Cascades were majestic.

Almost to the top.
At the top the views were even better. Mount Bachelor, the Three Sisters, Jefferson and even Hood were all clearly visible. Literally, on that fine day, we could see as far as the eye could see in any direction. It was totally awesome, and one of the best views I've had in Bend thus far. 

View east from Bessie Butte summit.
The top of Bessie Butte is big. We saw a couple fire rings and I thought it would make an excellent spot to overnight. The views at dawn and dusk would be totally epic. We also saw a rock pile and a makeshift cross fashioned from twigs. The dogs took a keen interest and were trying to overturn rocks to get at whatever was underneath. I guessed the grave contained someone's pet, but who knows. Regardless, I cant think of a better place to be buried. Shoot, I'd like to be buried there.

Grave on Bessie Butte
The hike was short and easy, but the views make it absolutely worth it. Weather permitting, I would like to get out to China Hat again and explore more. There are a handful of caves I want to check out, and of course, never ending buttes. There are some drawbacks about recreating in China Hat. For starters, there are a lot of forest roads, and therefore a lot of offroad style vehicles that make a lot of noise. Also, apparently China Hat is the premier local spot for shooting. We heard plenty of gunfire and saw people parked off the side of the road just shooting into the forest. Hiking in an area that people use to shoot can be a little unnerving, especially when you see people not being responsible about it. Also, in my experience, areas that see high amounts of recreational shooting also see high amounts of trash from shooting, like spent casings, shot-up bottles and cans, and remnants of clay pigeons. Didn't see any of that first hand in China Hat, and hopefully I never do.

Bessie Butte descent.

Clarifying place names - "China Hat" is an area of the Deschutes National Forest just south of Bend, Oregon. The specifics of location are difficult to define because China Hat is not the official name. Rather, it's the name given to the area by locals. If a local says, "I'm going hiking in China Hat," they are referring to a large geographical area with undefined borders. China Hat is named after the best road that runs roughly north/south through the area, China Hat Road, which is in turn named after China Hat Butte. China Hat Road and China Hat Butte are defined places found on a map or Google search. China Hat is not. Unofficially, China Hat is bordered by Bend to the north, Highway 97 on the west, and Newberry National Volcanic Monument south and west. The eastern boundary is even more challenging to define, but I'll say that if you reach Horse Ridge Natural Area, you've gone too far. If you feel this description is incomplete or inaccurate, please feel free to send me an email with your thoughts.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Oregon Badlands Wilderness: Badlands Rock

Old Juniper on the Badlands Rock Trail

The Oregon Badlands Wilderness is quickly becoming my "go to" spot for hiking and exploration. Access is less than 30 minutes from town, yet the crowds are nonexistent. My original plan for this day was to check out Tumalo Falls, but when I arrived vehicles lined the road leading to the trailhead and people poured from them with snowshoes and nordic skis. It was so crowded that I immediately turned around and headed for the Badlands. Solitude is a big part of why I like the outdoors, and nothing outside turns me off faster than crowds.

An hour later I'm in the Badlands. The hike was usual Badlands fare; flat terrain, Junipers aplenty and all the solitude a man could want. Unlike my first foray into this wilderness, Badlands Rock Trail occasionally opens up to views of the surrounding hills. The Junipers here are more sparse. The country just feels more open. I'm struck by the sheer number of birds I see and hear in this wilderness. I'm accompanied by birdsong everywhere I go. 

From atop Badlands Rock
I was surprised by the size of Badlands Rock when it finally came into view near the 2.5 mile mark. I wasn't expecting it to be so big, and was overcome with the urge to climb it. The scramble was a bit tricky due to ice and snow, but the view from the top has to be the best in the entire Oregon Badlands. 

Unnamed hiker on top of Badlands Rock

More views.
From Badlands Rock, one has two options for longer loop hikes. I went west on Castle Trail which had not been used since the most recent snowfall. Breaking trail was slow going. By the time I reached The Castle (halfway between Badlands Rock and The Flatiron) I felt like I was on a race against time to beat the setting sun, so I retraced my steps back to the trailhead and made it just in time. This area definitely deserves so more exploration. I like the idea of backpacking here, but being a relatively new wilderness, and playing second fiddle to the cascades, I have not seen nor heard of any backcountry campsites... Until next time.

Breaking trail