Every step in the Badlands Wilderness is a cushioned landing on sand.  Every breath inhaled is far from the salty sea. It’s all spicy juniper and sagebrush. Today, Wes and I run 15 slow and appreciative miles in this 29,300-acre wilderness east of Bend with our two black labs on a spring day of clouds dancing across achingly blue skies. And oh, do we ache for blue and for sun and for the brightening signs of spring after a heavy snow winter.

On this day, meadowlarks belt their sure, sweet arias. A yellow-rumped warbler darts among juniper limbs like a slip of the sun. California quail chuckle. Flickers join them in undulating laughter.  Often, there is silence within this BLM wilderness so close to home. Fallen juniper berries skirt the ancient trees in a circular wash of denim blue.  Some of the junipers are 1,000 years old.


We begin at the Flatiron trailhead. Here, the Wilderness boundary is just beyond the primitive parking area. There’s no buffer. You enter immediately, leaving behind all that’s motorized and immersing in a land “protected and managed to retain its natural conditions” (1964 Wilderness Act).

As a newcomer to Bend, I am especially grateful for the  volunteers who campaigned  for the Badlands Wilderness, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. I’m inspired by the leadership of the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) and the more than 3,000 individuals who wrote letters of support. Many volunteers continue to contribute as stewards.  The lessons of the campaign are valuable today, when speaking up for what we love and for all that’s threatened is more important than ever.

IMG_0887Running on this day is mostly a contemplative endeavor, pausing at will to admire all that’s miraculous in nature, like the cottony white sagebrush galls festooning certain sagebrush. How wondrous to touch the soft balls and know that inside live tiny gall midges. Here’s what happens. A flying gall midge lays an egg on a sagebrush leaf. The egg hatches. The larva feeds on the leaf with saliva so powerful it dissolves plant tissue and triggers sagebrush hormones to start growing this life-supporting gall all around the larva. Some midges grow and pupate for two years before bursting through to fly out. Within the gall, so much more may happen, like parasitic wasps laying eggs inside the midge larva. Wrap my hand around a gall and I’m holding a mini-ecosystem.

(Ancient juniper, Badlands Wilderness, from ONDA website) 

Our route takes us out the Trail of Ancient Junipers, identified as venerable elders by their lichen-draped branches, their asymmetrical shapes, and wide trunks with flaky reddish bark.  We then trek north on the Flatiron Trail,  east on the Castle trail (named for the lava rock formations), south on the Badlands Rock Trail, northeast on the Dry River Trail and backtrack to return on the Homestead Trail.

The day is ideal for running, cool and yet endowed with the sun’s warmth between the waltzing clouds. Our black labs are three and thirteen. Pepper, the three-year-old, bounds over rabbitbrushes with a gravity-defying lightness. Summer is the dignified member of the household, resolute and steady. At the end, she slows down and so do we to match her regal pace. Our legs tire, yet the sand underfoot remains forgiving and our spirits are replete with the juniper-infused elixir that is the Badlands Wilderness.

Click here for the: Oregon_Badlands_Wilderness_Map