John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Painted Hills Unit
Wednesday, October 17We took two days to get from the mountainscapes of the Cascades in Washington to the moonscapes of the Painted Hills in Oregon. It was an abrupt transition in temperatures as well, and we soon found ourselves in shorts and shirtsleeves. Out of the mountains, the terrains turns arid and rolling hills replace rock.

The route Mary fixed took us through an array of lesser traveled roads where we seldom saw another car for 100 miles. Much of the time, we paralleled the Columbia River. We overnighted in Boardman at a lovely County Park on the river. Early afternoon on Tuesday, we arrived in the tiny town of Mitchell. There is little-used city park with 4 electric sites at one end of town. Well, it used to be little-used. It is not fancy. We pulled into the lot and I maneuvered the rig into place in one of the narrow slots. Just as I was backing in, a 40’ diesel pusher and a truck pulling a 5th wheel, pulled in We all just fit in the four spaces. The power – although newly installed – is dicy. Twice we lost power for a time, once later in the evening. The nights are in the high 30’s here and we were all using our electric heaters I guess.

It wasn’t long before the resident turkeys showed up. I was hearing an odd chirping sound coming from the scraggly trees along the dumpy stream next to the campground. I was looking on the ground, but the sound was coming from the trees above. Roosting turkeys. They showed up pretty regularly, over the 2 days we camped there. Moving up and down the road and through the little park nearby, they seemed to tolerate us well enough.Since the formations at Painted Hills face mostly west, getting there at sunrise was not really necessary. The hills are largely backlit – especially this time of year with the lower sun angles. We waited until late morning before driving the 8 miles into the park. The road into the monument winds through a canyon the eventually opens up into wide cultivated fields. Occasional mud hill formations rising behind gave us a few early looks at what was to come.The road turns to gravel about a mile from the end, but it is easy to drive in a car. At our first main stop, I could see the hills were quite dark and shadowed from the sun still not high enough to fully illuminate them. We could see the dramatic strips of coloration, but not as vividly as with better light. Instead, we busied ourselves on the opposite side of the road where the sun shown full-on.  Instead of stopping at the main overlook of the monument, we chose to first drive the road further in. There are 3 short hikes off the road that lead through and to different formations.Along the road to the Red Hill hike, we stopped occasionally to photograph the oddly colored hills. Today we have brilliant sunlight. I thought the light would be to harsh, but the cracked surface of the hills seem to absorb, not reflect, the intense light. Taking care with what angle I chose to photograph from made a difference between too harsh and too saturated.
The Red Hill walk is pretty appropriately named. But if you came at it from a different direction, you might call it the yellow hill hike. The trail rises gently and winds around a couple of multi-colored hills. Animal tracks, some fading in a blur of blending mud, some fresh, crisscross the hills, creating a kind of focal point. Finishing that walk, we moved on to the Leaf Hill Trail. It boasts leaf fossils that are found on one particular hill, but a fence keeps anyone wanting a closer look from getting close. We didn’t make any photos here, but it was a pleasant walk with some views of the surrounding hills from the higher points on the trail. The Painted Cove Trail is another easy walk through interesting hills. A spur trail rises up to a higher lookout and really affords a nice view of a lake that cannot really be seen any other way. It is hidden from the ground, and on private property. By now, it was early afternoon. We drove back to the main overlook to have our lunch at one of the benches placed along the rim trail. We hung-out there for another hour as the light got  lower and softer. This rim trail is a gradual rise up along the top edge of the formation. The main trail is easy to walk, but a branch trail is a little rougher.From the parking area, there are a few different sections to walk to and by. The first views are of the further reaches back toward the monument entrance. The sun was just beginning to created shadows on the hills. The light is a little softer and the tans, golds, and reds really stand out. A little higher along the trail, we walked behind some of the hills. Here, the hillsides are eroding in a way that blends and blurs the color stripes running through them. I loved the illusion of softness in the hills. Later, I came upon an area with dueling yellow and red hills dotted with black spots. Compositions went on and on. This was the most interesting area to me. Toward the end of the trail, the widest views open up. I found more nice abstract forms in the hillsides here, We lingered at the end of the trail for a while before returning to the parking area. Down at the junction of the main park road and this parking road, there is the short 3/4 mile Canyon Rim Trailhead. It rises 400 feet in 2 long switchbacks to the top of the long ridge that sits opposite the main hills area. We wanted to see the views from the top.We waited until late afternoon hoping the light would be softer and the air clearer. The controlled burns in the area have created somewhat smoky air – especially in the mornings – until the light breeze comes up to push it away later in the day. This trail provides plenty of new viewpoints as it rises up the hillside. The air was still a bit hazy, but not so bad as to keep us from making images. Once the trail switchbacks around, views from the other side of the ridge can be seen. Much of the surrounding area is ranch land, so pockets of green pasture stand out from the browns of the surrounding  terrain. From the top at the end of the trail, views all around the area opened up. I liked the new perspective as well. We again lingered here for a time before heading back down the trail. Once back in the car, we revisited a few of the turnouts on the way out of the monument. The light was lower now and we finished off our day in the same spot we started before we headed back to camp.
We have less than a week left in this trip. Our plan is to head south to spend our last few days out at Prairie Creek State Park in Northern California – if we can get a campground.

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