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John Day Fossil Beds National Monument – Painted Hills Unit

Another view from the Lookout Trail

After driving 232 miles, Marissa and I finally turned off U.S. Highway 26 for the Painted Hills unit of the John Day Fossil Beds with just a few hours of solid daylight left. Looking skyward, I was worried to see a huge bank of clouds obscuring the sun, threatening to ruin the evening’s photo prospects. I had done a little research about where we were going, and looked at a fair number of photographs of the Painted Hills, but none of it prepared me for what I saw when I rounded the first bend on that dirt road.

Painted Hills First View
The first view of the Painted Hills after entering the monument.

Rolling like dunes of sand and marbled with bright reds and oranges, the hills stretched into the distance to our left, meanwhile on our right, two-toned red and cream slopes rose up and gave way to columnar basalt a hundred feet above. In a split second we were transported from the semi-desert of central Oregon to the sandy deserts of Africa, or maybe Mars.

With effort, I pulled my eyes away from the kaleidoscopic hills, and back to the winding road in front of me.  A large pull-out was available immediately after we rounded that first bend in the road, and I am sure it has served many visitors who, upon seeing the hills for the first time needed to stop their vehicle to take it all in.

Resisting the impulse to pull over and immediately start taking pictures, I continued on the wide gravel road as it weaved around cone-shaped hills and steep bluffs. Reaching what felt like the top of a small pass we turned left at the sign that said “Painted Hills Lookout” and parked where there was room in the gravel cul-de-sac.

Late evening clouds over the painted hills.
Late evening clouds over the Painted Hills.

Stepping out of the van, I was greeted with the pleasant smell of juniper and sage. The lookout trail overlooks a colorful basin of dry streambeds on the left, and rolling scrublands dotted with juniper, sage, and grasses to the right. It is a short quarter mile walk to the lookout, and small patches of yellow arnica and pink daggerpod flowers decorated the trails margins. After staying out past sunset to photograph the hills, we found a nice secluded spot to sleep for the night up the road a ways.

The next day we were excited to explore, but first we had to eat breakfast. While the water was boiling for oatmeal and coffee, a little movement in the brush near our camping spot caught my eye. I followed the movement, with telephoto lens in hand, to the base of a twisted sage bush where I found a small Western Fence Lizard perched in the bush eyeing me sardonically. I crouched down and began carefully picking my way over the stony ground until I was as close as my Nikkor 70-210 f4 would allow. From that spot, I watched the lizard pounce down out of the bush for an insect, and then return to its perch up in the bush. I captured a few frames, but I was mostly interested in seeing what he would do next. When Marissa announced breakfast was ready, I carefully crept backwards the way I had come and returned to the van to eat.

It is all in the look.
It is all in the look, the blue spot on the throat of this Western Fence Lizard identifies him as a male.

After breakfast we were on the road, our first destination was the ranger station and picnic area where we grabbed a few free maps of the entire John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and each of its individual units. Having already seen the Lookout Trail we planned to visit the Painted Hills Unit’s remaining trails: Carroll Rim, Painted Cove, Leaf Hill, and Red Hill. None of the trails are longer than half of a mile round trip, and we were glad for it, the day was shaping up to be hot.

Carroll Rim Trail was the longest trail on our itinerary; it gently ascends the ridge directly opposite the Lookout Trail. After winding our way through a small pass and around to the other side of the ridge we continued upwards until we reached a nice lookout over the basin below. The position offered near aerial views of the strikingly colored hills and surrounding landscape, including the starkly contrasting bright green farmlands just off to the south.

The semi-aerieal views of the painted hills from the Carroll Overlook Trail.
The semi-aerieal views of the painted hills from the Carroll Overlook Trail.

When we arrived at the trailhead, there were already a good number of people on the Painted Cove Trail, which features a short boardwalk that winds between a few of the colorful hills that give this area its name. This was the closest we had gotten to the vivid sandy clay that draws over 150,000 visitors annually to the monument. The first interpretive sign invited visitors to contemplate the deeper meaning of places like this one; I was surprised and pleased to see this sort of “official” message posted for all visitors to read. The sandy clay of the hills was brick red, and stood in stark contrast to the blue skies streaked with clouds above. I found the Painted Cove Trail to be the most surreal part of our entire trip.


The deep red of the clay contrasted with the blue skies.
The deep red of the clay contrasted with the blue skies.

After the Painted Cove Trail, we drove down the dusty road to the Leaf Hill Trail. There an informational placard greeted us with an explanation about an extinct tree called Dawn Redwood that had inhabited this area, back when it was a subtropical forest 40 million years ago, and that living individuals of that species were recently discovered in China. The sign went on to say that the Oregon’s official state fossil (who knew states had official fossils) was the Dawn Redwood. The trail itself is a loop around a huge pile of fossil-ridden rocks. We read on another interpretive sign that in the 1930s Ralph W. Chancy a Paleobotanist (scientist who studies plant fossils) uncovered 1,237 different fossil specimens in this one spot. The fences and many signs along the trail encouraging us not to take any stones or fossils were a sad reminder of the nature of man.

A Rock Wren wanted to see what I was all about.
A Rock Wren wanted to see what I was all about.

Red Hill Trail was a short quarter mile stroll around one side of a huge mostly-red hill. This trail was cut right alongside the hill, and offered fairly close views, though they were nothing like the “reach out and touch” views we enjoyed on the Painted Cove Trail. I was struck by not only the immense size, but the seemingly perfect conical shape of Red Hill. The huge mass of red and cream seemed completely out of place, like it had been dumped there from space. I couldn’t help myself from wondering, “What is the deeper meaning of this?”

My existential pondering was cut short when I realized daylight was burning and I wanted to head back to the Lookout Trail for more evening landscape photos. Driving back to the trail, it started to rain.  I knew the possibility of a rainbow was very real and my eyes bounced between watching the road and scanning the sky. My hopes were fulfilled when a rainbow appeared stretching all the way across the sky. It was a mad dash to safely pull over and get the camera and tripod into position to capture it, but I did manage to get a few nice images with the rainbow and hills together.

A rainbow arcs across the sky above the Painted Hills.
A rainbow arcs across the sky above the Painted Hills.

After the rainbow passed we continued up the road to the lookout where I wanted to take more wide shots of the whole basin. The light was not as warm as it had been the night before, but I still managed to capture a few keepers. I continued shooting well after the sun had set, hoping to get some nice color in the sky. Just as I was beginning to notice the bugs buzzing around me for a meal and the dropping temperature the sparse clouds lit up with color. Making final adjustments to my camera and composition, I recorded a few frames before heading back down the hill to the van. We were soon sitting in another nice camping spot eating dinner, a cursory review of the day left both Marissa and I tired and satisfied.

The Painted Hills after the sun has set.
The Painted Hills after the sun has set.

Pulling back out onto Highway 26 the next morning, I reflected on my experiences and decided that the otherworldly scenery of the Painted Hills had completely exceeded my expectations. I was filled with wonder and awe that a place like this was even possible, and right in my own “back yard.” Once again I found myself thinking of the sign asking me to contemplate the deeper meaning of the place. There are a million possible answers to that question, but sitting in the driver’s seat on my way back home, I decided that feeling giddy and amazed like a kid again was good enough for me.

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