Friday, May 17, 2013

John Day Painted Hills

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.

Overlook trail

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.

Breathtaking vista

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.

Colorful close-up

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! 

Spring greenery

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.

Arid soils

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.

Wrinkly hills

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.

Carroll Rim

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.


  1. Those painted hills are truly stunning. The lighting on some of your shots gives then a surreal look.

  2. Fabulous. I said I wouldn't add one more place to my "to visit" list, but I just did. Thanks!

  3. WOW - How beautiful and such gorgeous photography! Thanks for the welcome back :)

  4. That is an amazing place - you can see so clearly the different layers of rock.

  5. I've never heard of these before, thanks, they are stunning, indeed. I would have expected this to be in the Southwest, not up North! The iron oxide really makes these pop, I suspect these would make for some spectacular HDR images.

  6. Linda,
    I am SO amazed by these beautiful hills! Absolutely have to see these in person one day--in the late afternoon of course! TY for sharing...

  7. Wonderful shots that brought back some good memories. I visited that area in 1978 when I was stationed in Tucson. On that same trip we drove the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

  8. Oh my goodness, not one thing to say except "wow!" And one more reason to be humbled by the realization that no matter how hard I try, I'll never be able to see it all.

  9. wow!!! I am most assuredly amazed!!!

  10. These are amazing shots! I love how you captured this beautiful place. It is on my list of places to photograph! Thank you for sharing!

  11. Gorgeous!!!! I have wanted to make that stop but we always seem to be in a hurry to get further or get home to make the detour. Now we will have to make it a priority

  12. Gorgeous, stunning shots! I've wanted to go here for years & I love seeing it through your eyes. You lucked out on your arrival timing. Thanks for sharing such an incredible place. You've caught it s-o-o-o-o beautifully well!

  13. Wow... I'm impressed with the beauty of the scenery and your photos.

    Thanks for adding me to your follow list. I have added your blog to blogs I follow in my sidebar.

  14. another blogger I follow was there recently so I wasn't as stunned by your photos as I probably should have been, but I LOVED your spring greenery shot. Thanks for that time of day tip, too. It's hard to get good photos in those desert-like areas due to harsh sun.

  15. I've lived in Oregon my whole life and never even heard of this place!! I just told my husband we ARE going here this summer...can't wait! You're pictures are amazing.

  16. Neat Painted Hills pictures. They are beautiful.

    The Hills and colors remind me of the South Dakota Bad Lands.


  17. Fabulous, such beauty. Nature is the greatest show on Earth ...isn't it ! Thanks so much for this stunning share.

  18. Great photos Linda, such an amazing place I love the shot of arid soil and the last shot, beautiful.

  19. Those are indeed a lovely sight! I never knew they were there, so thanks for the virtual tour!

  20. Stunning, stunning, stunning! I so wish I lived out by you so I could be your hiking buddy.

  21. This is so cool! It's now officially on my list of places I must see. Thanks!!

  22. Amazed and stunned by the vista's you've caught so dramatically. The list of reasons to spend time in Oregon are growing!

  23. Wow, I am amazed! Gorgeous!

  24. Wow, just gorgeous! It's so amazing it doesn't even look real! Now I want to go there :)

  25. Thanks for the kind words and encouragement Linda.

  26. Wow Linda, I was amazed! Every single photo was breathtaking. It kind of reminds me of a hike my hubby did here in UT called the wave.

  27. Amazing place, love the colors, Love these photos

  28. It's gorgeous! And your photos capture it nicely!


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