According to the BLM, hikers can reach ‘the heart’ of the Oregon Badlands Wilderness by travelling the remote Tumulus Trail which winds around large lava blisters littered with dark hidden alcoves, dry moats and wide open juniper woodlands.
To get to the Tumulus Trail we opted to follow inroads located in the Alfalfa area where Walker and Johnson Ranch roads meet. Perhaps fittingly for this kind of remote area one must pass by the local Transfer Station, and I’m inclined to think that this is just a covert way of encouraging lowly types to leave their trash before venturing any further on down the road. Although, the deeper you get into this area, the more dumped trash and junk you’ll see along the way, so clearly … not everyone is paying attention. However, once inside the Badlands Wilderness Area most of the junk goes away and it’s just juniper, sand and lava rock for as far as the eye can see.
Trailhead access is located adjacent to a gate along the main area canal. From Alfalfa, drive ¼ mile west on Alfalfa Market Road, turning south on Johnson Ranch Road for 1 mile to the transfer station. Here the pavement ends and you continue along a rough road south along the canal for 1.2 miles. Park at the wide area east of canal; do not block the canal road. Trailers are not advised.
We opted to stop at Renolds Pond Trail before heading off to find the Tumulus Trailhead, and actually, that’s a pretty interesting sight to see – it is quite a big pool of water and clearly one place in the Badlands where waterfowl can can be seen.
Although not overflowing with birds we did see several geese and a small colony of ducks. There are also several campsites along the circular trail, so if you plan to walk this spot, expect to bump into some peeps along the way.
After a quick trip around the desert oasis, we got back in the truck and headed out to find the trailhead. Now, I must tell you that the best map for this is the large BLM area map – do not rely on the little map located inside the Badlands brochure – that one will at the very least, leave you puzzled and confused.
The actual trailhead is quite a ways down a winding road that follows an irrigation canal and be warned; there are many (many) off-shooting roads along the way but as long as you stay close to the canal, you’ll get there eventually. Perhaps the most curious thing about this trail is that when you first see the sign to the trailhead, you can’t actually get there from here. To explain that – the sign is visible from the road but it sits across the roaring canal – and one must travel quite a bit farther down the road to where two canals intersect and a walking path begins. Oh, and the walking path is not marked, so you’ll have to just trust me that you’ll eventually find what you’re looking for. Once you reach the gate, park your vehicle and walk through the foot traffic access and head out along the canal.
Black Lava Trail and Tumulus Trail create a sort of loop in the desert, and if you opt to try that trek then just walk on past the trailhead sign staying along the designated Tumulus Trail adjacent to the canal. This trail will eventually loop around and take you to the Basalt Trail and from there you can hang a right and wind your way back to where the trailhead sign sits. At least, that is what our plan was for this hike as we were toting an 8-year-old who is just starting his hiking career, so we kept the hike at around 3 or 4 miles so as not to endure a lot of kid complaining along the way. And, for the most part, it worked.
BLM is quick to point out that it’s easy to get lost in the Badlands desert – and this trail in particular – so sufficient navigation skills are highly recommended. Keeping your bearings is an important consideration when hiking just about any Badlands trail. They are all very dry and dusty treks along lonely stretches of juniper and lava rock strewn landscapes, and even if you are on a designated trail there will be tons of intersecting trails, pathways, roadways and unmarked turnouts along the way. Also, pack lots of water, wear a hat and keep an eye out for wildlife. Getting there is only half the battle. Surviving the experience will make you a seasoned Badlands badass hiker. Seriously. Just ask that eight-year-old.