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.
DRIVE TIME: The Badlands is 20 miles east of Bend.
THE WAY: From Bend, travel east on US 20 for about 18 miles and turn left at the Bureau of Land Management information kiosk. From there, several short dirt roads provide access to the Badlands.
TRAILS: The Dry River Trail is the only named route, ascending 5 miles to the head of the gorge. There are also 30 miles of unmarked dirt roads that are rough enough to use as trails and are closed to off-road-vehicle use in winter (one road is open to vehicles in winter, but traffic should not affect hikers).
ELEVATION: The lowest point in the Badlands is 3,400 feet (in the northwestern corner). The high point is just above 4,000 feet.
CAN'T MISS: Sunrise over the desert plains when snow lightly dusts the juniper and sage. You might forget all about summer in the Cascades.
CROWD CONTROL: Winter is quietest. Spring is good, too, but in fall there's a heavy concentration of hunters.
GUIDES: Exploring Oregon's Wild Areas: A Guide for Hikers, Backpackers, X-C Skiers, & Paddlers, by William L. Sullivan (The Mountaineers Books, 800-553-4453; www.mountaineersbooks.org; $16.95). USGS 7.5-minute quads: Horse Ridge and Alfalfa (888-ASK-USGS; http://ask.usgs.gov; $4 each).
WALK SOFTLY: Avoid getting too close to eagle and owl nesting areas in the canyon walls of Dry River Gorge.
CONTACT: Bureau of Land Management, Prineville District, (541) 416-6700; www.or.blm.gov.