Prepare to be amazed......
|My first view of these famous landmarks|
Yes, this is for real. I give you the John Day Painted Hills!
If the sight of these rounded, colorfully striped hillsides doesn't take your breath away, I can't imagine what will.
|Mandatory dorky park sign photo|
A place that has long been on my "must visit" bucket list, I've been wanting to see this area for years. Late last April I finally made it happen.
The Painted Hills are part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Located in the middle of Oregon, this very unusual monument, comprised of three units, is separated by more than 50 miles of highway. The Clarno and Sheep Rock Units are mostly focused on fossils. But the Painted Hills Unit's claim to fame are its stunning hills.
I left White River Falls and drove through miles of boring, barren grasslands, until reaching the town of Prineville. Knowing this was my last opportunity to gas up for many miles, I filled my tank and made a final text to my husband that I'd made it this far (not only are there no gas stations, cell service is non-existent where I was going).
|Best seat in the park|
Then I covered the final fifty miles winding through the beautiful scenery of the Ochocco National Forest. The lovely wooded mountains were a welcome sight after many miles through bleak high desert.
|The rust color is due to oxidized iron|
There's not much written information out there about the John Day Painted Hills. But I did manage to glean a few tibits to aid my trip planning. One photography website recommended visiting in late afternoon for the best light. My timing couldn't have been better. As I wound down out of the Ochoccos and approached the monument turnoff, it was almost four o'clock.
|Base of the hills|
Leaving Prineville, the darkened sky indicated rain. Driving through the forested highway, my car was occasionally doused by a passing shower. I worried that the cloudy skies would ruin any evening light on the hills. And I really didn't want to be outside photographing in the rain - particularly during a thunderstorm. But I didn't drive all this way to be foiled by bad weather, so I continued on to my destination.
Leaving the highway by the park sign, I eagerly bumped along a gravel road. Then, turning a bend I got my first glimpse of the hills. And I had to stop. I'd seen many photographs of this place. But in person the Painted Hills were so much better than any photograph could ever depict. Golden yellow soil banded by rusty red stripes and thin black lines. Absolutely stunning!
I parked in the first lot I came to, which offered a trail to an overlook. Grabbing all my camera equipment I happily trekked up to the first viewpoint, and was instantly slammed by a strong gust of wind. The windy weather I'd dealt with at White River Falls had followed me to the Painted Hills. These windy conditions meant the tripod I'd lugged from the car was virtually useless.
|Another wonderful view|
No matter, I was so happy to be here I found ways to steady the camera for the hundreds of shots that followed. A short 0.3 mile trail led visitors along a ridge with a continuous view down to the dazzling hillsides below. In order to preserve this geological treasure, visitors are not allowed to hike around or into the Painted Hills. But this ridgetop path gave a wonderful vantage. A couple of the better viewpoints even had benches. I took my time traveling to the trail's end. With such incredible sights, I was going to be sure and capture everything.
|Nature at its finest|
Although the sky was still dark with clouds, no rain fell. Then I noticed the light getting brighter. The clouds appeared to be thinning. Every once and awhile the sun would quickly peep through a small opening. When this happened, it lit up the Painted Hills beautifully. The yellow soil practically glowed. Even when the sun dipped back behind the cloudy veil, it created a lovely high overcast light that was perfect for photography.
The Painted Hills began as ash erupted from ancient Cascade volcanoes over 33 million years ago. This ash settled into a vast lake and became yellow claystone. The unusual stripes on the hills are due to trace minerals in the claystone. Iron oxide creates the rusty red color, while the thin black lines are due to manganese.
On a Friday afternoon, there was very few people visiting. During my hike along the viewpoint trail, I ran into only two small groups of people. I sat at the farthest viewpoint for over fifteen minutes by myself, watching the light on the hills. My reward for such a long drive.
|View from the Painted Cove parking lot|
After spending at least an hour viewing and photographing the main set of hills, I returned to my car and drove a mile further to the Painted Cove Trail. This is the one place in the park that allows the public to get close to these colorful mounds.
|Looking down on Painted Cove|
The Painted Cove offers a nice boardwalk that takes visitors into the heart of a red and gold claystone hill. It was nice to see the dry, cracked soil up close. The deep grooves down the sides of the mounds made great photo subjects.
|Boardwalk through the Painted Cove|
I hiked a rough trail above Painted Cove. More incredible views awaited. In one direction a great lake spread out between the barren hills (but it was on private property so I wasn't able to get closer). In the opposite direction was another small cluster of colorful mounds. Great photo ops, I made maximum use of my zoom lens.
|Colorful little mounds|
After photographing everything I could (and then some) at the Painted Cove, I returned to the main unit of hills. Slowly driving along the road, I made frequent stops to capture the hills from as many different angles as I could think of. Finally, noting the time was getting late, and realizing I needed to check into my hotel and get some dinner (I was told the only cafe in town closed at 7:30) I reluctantly pulled myself away and headed to the nearby tiny town of Mitchell.
I ended up returning to the Painted Hills the following afternoon, on my way back to Prineville. What a difference the time of day makes on the lighting angle. It was still early afternoon, the sun high in the sky (and no clouds). I discovered the Painted Hills weren't as brilliantly colored as they'd been the previous evening. No mind, I'd come back to hike to the top of Carroll Rim, an 0.8 mile, 400 foot elevation gain trek up the side of the highest hill.
|Panoramic view from Carroll Rim|
After grunting to the top of Carroll Rim, I was rewarded with a breathtaking panoramic view of the entire Painted Hills Unit spread out below. I shot many photos, but realized that this hike is best done in the final hours before sunset. (I've bookmarked this tidbit into my brain for my next visit.) No matter the views were still incredible and I'm very glad I returned and climbed up here.
|Evening sun lights up the hills|
What an amazing journey! And such a fantastic place. I took well over three hundred images of the Painted Hills area. I'm very glad I made the time to finally get out to this remote National Monument and see such an incredible geologic work of nature.
I leave you with this final image - one of my last before I drove away Friday evening. The sun came from behind the clouds for a short minute and illuminated this hillside in warm golden hues. Absolutely stunning! I'm considering making this spring trip to the Painted Hills an annual tradition.
But my trip isn't over yet. I have one more post from my Eastern Oregon tour. The following day I spent the morning in Blue Basin, part of the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Keep it right here for the final chapter - coming next!
Linking to: Weekly Top Shot and Sweet Shot Tuesday.