Roaming in the Painted Hills, Oregon
roam: verb - To move about without purpose or plan; to wander.
I love to roam.
I recently made the trip out to a spectacular spot in Oregon’s “high desert” region called the Painted Hills. The Painted Hills are one of three spots in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, which includes the Sheep Rock Unit loaded with fossils and an AWESOME fossil museum, complete with a glass wall where you can watch paleontologists chipping away at the remains of some million-year-old-something. *drool*
The Painted Hills were an ancient floodplain home to small, ancestral horse species and other early mammals. Erosion has wiped away the more recent layers of soil to reveal this amalgam of clay and minerals, which, true to its name, looks like it was painted with a big red brush.
The hills are a mixture of mustard yellows and iron reds. Much of the actual soil making up the formation is a popcorn-textured clay, which is extremely delicate. In the photo above, you can see that one small trail has been turned into a boardwalk so that visitors can get close to the hills without actually touching or damaging them. As you can imagine, mixed together with a blue sky, the colors are overwhelming to someone who could watch screen savers for an easy 45 minutes.
One of my favorite things about the Painted Hills is the unexpected. When you’re driving to the park, it’s all sagebrushy wilderness, and then all of a sudden you come around a bend and BAM! There’s a huge red hill out in the middle of nowhere and I almost veer off the road. It happens at the end of the park as well, as in the photo pictured above. This hill sits across from some of the yellowest soils I’ve ever seen and I have to just stop the car and stare.
The landscape out here is so utterly desolate, it’s a shock that anything survives, much less thrives. And yet, the amount of plant life and animal life here is incredibly diverse. Pronghorn antelope, the fastest land mammal on earth next to the cheetah, roam here in herds. Their unique coloration and pattern gives away the ancientness of their species; they certainly don’t look like deer. Meadowlarks twitter their beautiful songs from jagged juniper branches or the fenceposts that keep out neighboring cattle. Lizards scuttle between rocks and rattlesnakes seek the sun on warm boulders. Raptors spin lazily in the skies, watching for ground squirrels and jack rabbits.
The plants are hardy: they live in a mixture of sand, ash, and clay, get less than 15 inches of rain a year, and are subjected to a blazing sun all summer long. Some, like the sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) in the photo above, have evolved fuzzy leaves for retaining moisture and reflecting harsh sunlight. The Prickly Pear cactus (Opuntia spp. pictured below), on the other hand, swells up with water and protects its cache by stabbing anything that so much as looks at it funny. (Or goes charging through a patch of it. Like my dog.)
One of the biggest attractions of the Painted Hills Unit is its springtime wildflower display. Talk about spectacular – yellows, oranges, purples, pinks, and more! I can’t remember what this species of wildflower is that grows in between the crevices of the hills where spring rain flows, but it’s yellow and it is amazing – like glowing embers collecting in the cracks. The photo doesn’t do it justice.
Other species include my personal favorite, Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva), Scarlet Globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea), and Lupine (Lupinus spp.), all pictured below (in order) from the Painted Hills Unit. The Bitterroot has a very shallow growth habit and is almost invisible against the gravelly soil it grows in. Finding it is a bit like a treasure hunt! Bitterroot stores water in a fat root tuber and in its succulent leaves. Globemallow has an orange that I can’t even describe – the blooms are like tiny, brilliant setting suns. The lupines are a beautiful lavender color that refreshes your eyes after all those hot colors.
What an awesome time. On this last trip, a big, gray storm rolled in over the mountains while we were high up on an overlook trail and pelted us with hail (which is when my dog turned to me and asked with doleful eyes, “Why, momma? Why would you let this happen to me?”). After bolting back down the hill, my friend and I sat in my car with our two happy, desert-covered dogs and listened to the life-giving rains as they washed into the soil. After a few minutes the storm passed, leaving the red clay a little brighter and the cactus a little fuller.
A friend of mine once said that the desert has a beauty that needs to either be viewed standing far back, so you can get the whole picture, or up-close, so you can see the intricate details that contribute to its whole.
The Painted Hills is just such a landscape.
Posted on April 15, 2011, in Roaming and tagged adaptations, adventure, bitterroot, cactus, clay, desert, exploration, globemallow, hardy plants, John Day Fossil Beds, landscape, lupine, minerals, National Monument, National Park Service, nature, nature photography, oregon, outdoors, Painted Hills, photography, roaming, sagebrush, Sheep Rock, wildflowers, wildlife. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.