A sure cure for the Pacific Northwest’s long-winter blues lies a short drive east of Bend, in central Oregon’s Badlands Wilderness Study Area. Though temperatures dip into the teens, the Badlands is generally snow-free—and people-free—all winter. With 32,000 acres of wide-open elbow room, you’ll get a healthy dose of backcountry solitude.
The Bureau of Land Management proposed federal wilderness designation for the Badlands in 1989, and though Congress hasn’t acted on the proposal, the qualities that inspired it haven’t changed.
The region’s low buttes and rock outcrops spread liberally over a gently sloping plateau. Mini-canyons slice through the rugged terrain, providing sheltered ravines for camping. Native sagebrush and juniper trees add a pungent aroma to the crisp air, and on clear days you can see the snow-covered crests of the Cascades to the west. Petroglyphs appear here and there on the weathered rocks, signs of a mysterious legacy to ponder on lonely winter nights.
Much of the Badlands’s charm lies in its lack of designated trails. You can simply wander through the open sage country and pitch a tent in the sand. A good introduction to the Badlands is the Dry River Gorge, a 400-foot-deep canyon carved long ago by an Ice Age river. Hike into the mouth of the gorge and make yourself at home among the caves, rock art, junipers, and scattered ponderosa pines. Mosses and colorful lichens grow on the walls and boulders of the upper gorge.
You’ll need a map and compass to explore the heart of the Badlands. From Dry River Gorge, continue northeast and follow the Dry River, where you’ll find some of the largest western junipers in Oregon (up to 50 feet tall). A mile northwest of Dry River, look for striking formations of black lava that contrast starkly with the yellow sand.
At the end of the day, find a sheltered spot to sit and watch the horizon. If you’re quiet, you might find you have company after all—a herd of pronghorn antelope, a few wild mustangs, or maybe a lone coyote howling at the moon.