John Day Fossil Beds Part II – Painted Hills Visions
“When nature has work to be done, she creates a genius to do it.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’ve traveled a lot in my lifetime, probably more than most so you’d think by now some of the excitement would wear off. I mean after 40 (or so ish) years of hiking, backpacking and seeing some of the most stunning spots in the world, there can’t be much left to take your breath away right? But nature is the gift that never ceases to amaze and this place, this weird and wonderful thing called The Painted Hills in an obscure little corner of Eastern Oregon is one of those places. It will literally make you gasp leaving you speechless and mute before such overwhelming beauty….and that’s not even taking any poetic liberties.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We meandered over to the second section of the John Day Fossil Beds only a few days ago. Following the lovely “Journey Through Time” Hwy 26 we continued our prehistoric trip to a boondocking spot on BLM land which I’d been given on the “low-down”* just a few miles from the Painted Hills. After a rather bumpy entrance (probably more than most big rigs would want to handle) we settled into our near-ideal campsite….shade trees, check…mountain views, check…nearby flowing stream, check. No internet signal, but with a site this nice I was happy to forgo that little necessity. We basked for a few hours in the greenery until the sun dropped low enough to glow golden and then sped on over to the hills.
If you thought the Blue Basin was something else, well then you’d better get ready for your world to be rocked. These hills are like nothing I have ever seen. As we rounded the road into the monument we got our first glimpse and whatever I had imagined was blown out of the water. This was waaaay better than any pictures and the visual impact hit me like waves from a grand tsunami.
The first impression was texture -> sensual curves of mountains, arms and fingers wrapping and overlapping like intertwined lovers. The mounds fold their way into the valley, like streams of water stopped in time.
How can a mountain look so soft??
The very next impression was color -> deep reds, bright yellows and pastel purples splashed across the scene like a wild painter’s brush. The colors blend and streak like a impressionist piece of art, made all the more brilliant by the golden glow of the late afternoon sun.
How can colors be so intense???
The last impression was mystery -> Up close the apparent softness of the curves disintegrate into delicate crumbles. The surface isn’t hard like sandstone or rock, it’s a massive mound (literally hundreds of feet tall) of popcorn-light pieces of earth, so fragile you’d permanently scar them by just walking through it. The firmness of the hills is a facade, hidden behind yet another layer of abstract art in the painting of the landscape.
How can this even exist??
Geologically these colorful hills are actually the result of a massive volcanic ash fall from the Cascade Mountains over 33 millions years ago. Natural processes changed the deposits into a type of clay (Bentonite) that expands as it absorbs water creating the close-up popcorn-like appearance. The colors are the result of minerals -> red from iron oxides, yellow from iron & magnesium oxides and lavender from rhyolitic lava. The delicate nature of the ash fall is part of what has helped to preserve so many fossil specimens in the area. Even ancient leaves have left perfect impressions allowing paleontologists to not only recreate the animal history, but also the flora of the area.
But none of this adequately describes the visual impact. It is simply stunning and made all the more so by the fact that there are so few people here. We spent several days exploring the area and absorbing the colorful palette of the hills. There are only a few, short hiking trails (all dog-friendly**) so it’s super-easy to do them all and chances are you’ll have very little company for any of it. If you only have a day come around an hour before sunset to get the best light from the Painted Hills Overlook***. If you have more than a day, pair it with an early morning visit for a totally different look. The colors change based on time of day and rain, so chances are you’ll see something different each time.
No matter what just come. Travel the roads, gasp at the colors and meditate in the beauty of it all. I promise you, you’ll never see anything like it again….
* CAMPING – The particular spot we stayed in is another of those spots whose exact co-ords I’ve promised to keep secret, but I’ll give you a very, very good hint -> if you call the Prineville BLM Office they can direct you to this area (even this very spot, I checked). They control most of the land right around the Painted Hills Unit. Other good nearby camping is Ochoco Divide National Forest campground ($13/night) and Mitchell City Park with 3 RV sites ($17/night with 30 Amp electric). For WiFi the very cute Hwy 26 Espresso stop in Mitchell offers free WiFi (and very decent coffee).
** DOGS IN THE PARK – Dogs are welcome on leash on all the trails of the Painted Hills. Just make sure to keep them off the fragile surface of the hills themselves.
*** PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS – For photography buffs the main portion of the hills face west, so the few hours before sunset will give the most intense colors from the Painted Hills Overlook. Once the sun drops lower you will lose some of the colors, but will gets LOTS of interesting depth of textures in the folds of the hills. Midday the colors & textures are rather washed out.
NEXT UP -> We make new friends, meet old friends, drink beer and get naked. Who said RV life was boring? 🙂