Sagebrush is plentiful in the Virtue Flat Off-Highway Vehicle Area, a 3,500-acre swath of public land near Baker City. (S. JOHN COLLINS/Baker City Herald)
The BLM calls Virtue Flat near Baker City an off-highway vehicle area, and indeed the 3,500-acre swath of public land is well-suited for all sorts of vehicles.
Whether you prefer zipping up nearly vertical slopes on a dirt bike, tooling around at a more placid pace on a four-wheel ATV, or navigating boulder fields in a Jeep with tires taller than a third-grader, you’ll find a route in Virtue Flat to suit you.
It’s also a great place to ride mountain bikes.
Yet for all its attractions to visitors who arrive on wheels, the area also has virtues to lure hikers.
Because much of Virtue Flat consists of south- or west-facing slopes, the snow tends to melt here sooner than in many parts of Northeastern Oregon.
The other possible late winter obstacle is mud. And Virtue Flat’s mud is that nasty, sticky desert crud that in the span of two strides can add a few inches of height, and a few pounds, to your boot soles.
But during the period after the frost goes out of the ground and before summer’s withering heat arrives, Virtue Flat is a fine place to explore while trails in the Elkhorns and Wallowas are still deep in snow.
One thing it’s not, despite its name, is flat.
The area’s namesake actually lies to the south, a sprawling sagebrush basin.
The 3,500-acre OHV area, though, is more aptly described as rolling terrain.
None of the ridges is especially steep or high, but if you prefer a hike that elevates your heart rate, it’s easy enough to plot a route with, say, 500 feet of elevation gain over a few miles.
Virtue Flat is bordered on the north by Highway 86 and on the east, south and west by gravel Ruckles Creek Road.
The low ground, generally speaking, is on the south and east sides, with the terrain rising as you move north toward Highway 86.
The area is almost exclusively public ground, with a couple of small chunks of private property at the southeast and northeast corners.
To get to the main parking area drive east of Baker City on Highway 86. At the turnoff for the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, turn right onto Ruckles Creek Road. There’s a large BLM sign here pointing toward Virtue Flat.
The parking area is on the north side of Ruckles Creek Road about two miles off the highway.
The disadvantage to this part of Virtue Flat, for the hiker, is that the parking area is where most motorcyclists and four-wheelers congregate.
The eastern half of Virtue Flat tends to be less crowded.
There are plenty of places to park off the Ruckles Creek Road east of the main parking area.
There are two other bonuses to hiking the eastern part of Virtue Flat:
First, the topography there is slightly more varied than in the west, with rather deeper draws and taller ridges that make for more challenging cross-country hiking.
Second, the views of the Wallowas are better.
With more than three dozen marked trails, it’s possible to visit every corner of Virtue Flat without straying away from blazed routes.
But this is open sagebrush country, with just a handful of junipers, so it’s almost as easy to hike cross-country.
A few precautions:
• Because the entire area is open to motor vehicles, expect to see motorcycles, four-wheelers or full-size rigs. Be especially careful if you’re hiking one of the trails that climb steep slopes — a motorcyclist that’s zooming up the other side won’t be able to see you when he flies over the crest.
• Prickly pear cactus are common in places. They’re well-camouflaged against the dun desert soil and, as their name implies, they’ll latch on to any type of fabric. The spines are surprisingly stout and stubborn, capable of piercing suede leather boots.
• This is desert; you’ll have to bring your own liquids.