Exploring Oregon: Painted Hills

After running the Oregon Coast 50k in late October, I had a few days to spare before taking off to Argentina, and I took a little detour on the way home. From Florence, I drove east towards Eugene and Sisters, taking the McKenzie Highway (OR 242) to see Dee Wright Observatory, and then the ultimate destination – Painted Hills unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, near Mitchell.

Yachats, Oregon

As with most high mountain passes, the drive over McKenzie Highway is beautiful. Decideous trees with fall coloured leaves in lower elevations slowly give way to alipne medows. The alpine flowers are still blooming here and line the rough edges of lava beds, as they become more prevalent and take over majority of the landscape. I hoped to shoot the sunset at Three Sisters viewpoint, but the clouds had a different idea.

Three Sisters viewpoint, McKenzie highway, Oregon

I was shut down on the sunset shots, but fortuntely the clouds started clearing for the night and gave way to clear skied as the everning went on. I had enough time to check out Dee Wright Observatory before it got dark. It is a shelter built out of lava rock at the summit of McKenzie Pass, offering panoramic view of the Cascades.

Milky Way at dusk, Dee Wright Observatory, Oregon

As the dusk settled in, few photogs arrived to take advantage of the clear skies. The Milky Way popped up shortly after dark. I stayed behind as everyone left, waiting for even darker skies.

Star trails above the Deschutes National Forrest. Mount Washington, Three Fingered Jack, and Black Butte are peaking on the horizon.

Time for a quick dinner, and I’m off on my way to Sisters and ultimately Painted Hills. Because I wanted to get to Painted Hills in time for sunrise, I pushed on, finally stopping in Ochoco National Forrest for some sleep. It was still dark when I woke up, and driving down Ochoco Pass, I caught the first rays of sunrise.

View from Ochoco Pass, Ochoco National Forest

Shortly after I turned off the highway onto Burnt Ranch Road, which leads to Painted Hills. You can spot some red and yellow coloured hills even as you drive into the park, but shortly after you turn into the park you can see hills smeared with all kinds of shades of yellows, reds, greens, and even lavenders.

Sunrise over Painted Hills, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

First things first, I hiked short way up Carrol Rim Trail to check out the promising sunrise that was just about to happen. Further up, at about half way point of the trail, you get a nice overview of part of Painted Hills (the part you can’t walk into).

Looking over Painted Hills from Carrol Rim Trail

From top of Carrol Rim, you can see most of the Painted Hills area and far beyond. It is quite easy to spot the colorful hills way far into the distance, outside of the park boundaries.

Driving past Carrol Rim Trail, you get to Painted Cove Trail. This is a short, self-guided loop on raised walkways, allowing you to next to the coloured hills and see them up close.

Layers of coloured claystone

The geology around Painted Hills looks very alien and out of this world, but looking just past the hills you can see grassy meadows and mountains, reminding you you’re still on earth.

It is worth noting that for photography, Painted Hills is an afternoon/sunset kind of location, as some of the most interesting hills and features are in shade in the morning, and in direct sun by 10am.