This very large frost-enhanced mountain lion track was observed on the north slopes of Black Butte. photo by Craig Eisenbeis
This very large frost-enhanced mountain lion track was observed on the north slopes of Black Butte. photo by Craig Eisenbeis

As is often the case, I planned an extensive vacation trip for late fall to escape the dreary days between hiking and skiing seasons. I returned, however, only to find that the snow season has yet to materialize. So, my hiking friend and I have been out on the trails again; and I've had quite a bit of feedback that indicates we are far from alone in making some lemonade out of a lemon of a snow season.

In November of 2016, we were snowed out of a planned hike in the Badlands east of Bend. That certainly has not been a problem this season, and the nearly 30,000-acre desert wilderness should be a top destination for hikers looking for some winter trails this year.

If you have not hiked the area, the Bureau of Land Management maintains many miles of trails here. Popular Badlands trails include Flatiron Rock, Badlands Rock, The Castle, The Ancient Juniper Trail, the Larry Chitwood Trail, and many others. The area is lightly used, and we have often been the only hikers in sight. If trudging up and down hills is not to your liking, you will like it here; this is flat country. One negative about the Badlands is that trail signage throughout the area is rather poor; so maps, compass, and orienteering skills are vital, particularly since scattered user trails can lead the hiker astray.

Most trails along Whychus Creek can also be good go-to hikes at this time of year. That includes the Whychus Trail and its connectors south of town, as well as Alder Springs farther downstream. The Deschutes Land Trust's Whychus Canyon Preserve offers some excellent nearly all-season hikes, and the Trust's Metolius Preserve - with its ever-expanding network of trails - has been mostly snow free so far, too. We hiked there last week; and, if it ever does snow, the Metolius Preserve can also offer some pleasant cross-country skiing in an area that is mostly flat.

Also, don't forget about the local trails maintained by the Sisters Trails Alliance. The Sisters Tie Trail is an easily accessed local trail; and Peterson Ridge offers many opportunities, including some that you may not have tried yet! Sadly, a recent car break-in in this area has caused the Forest Service to remind trail users not to leave valuables in their vehicles.

The Suttle Lake Trail may be another local possibility if the dearth of snow persists. Plus, winter trails are often accessible along the Metolius River and near Camp Sherman. The Lower Crooked River is another possibility, along with various spots along the Deschutes River, such as Steelhead Falls. And don't forget Fryrear and Dry (Deep) Canyons, which are just east of town on the way to Redmond.

Hikers should always be properly equipped; but, if you are planning to do some winter hiking, keep in mind that conditions are very different at this time of the year. Carrying the Ten Essentials, extra provisions, and other appropriate emergency equipment - such as a bivy bag - is always important, because potential dangers and problems are magnified in the cold weather. As a result, due diligence and safety precautions take on even greater importance.

Keep in mind that you may encounter icy areas, so be sure to consider the need for proper footwear, traction devices, and trekking poles - particularly on slopes. Instead of preparing only for what you expect, always seek to be over-prepared for unexpected conditions. A few extra pounds of gear can make a big difference in your safety or survival if things suddenly go wrong. Remember that winter weather conditions can change rapidly and without warning; and it is always a good idea to let someone know where you are going and your expected return time.

Hiking in the off-season can produce some big rewards in terms of seeing different things and enjoying new experiences in Central Oregon's winter wonderland. Leaves with inch-long frost spikes, pine groves covered in frozen fog like flocked Christmas trees, quiet solitude, and animal signs in fresh fallen snow are only a few of the treats awaiting the winter adventurer.

During one recent hike on the north slopes of Black Butte, we saw something quite unexpected. Over the years, we've seen plenty of mountain lion tracks, including large and small probable mother and cub combinations; but last week, in frost-enhanced frozen mud, we saw mountain lion tracks far bigger than we've seen before. You won't see things like that if you are sitting at home!