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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Nice! Thanks for the tour. I’ve been wanting to take a trip there myself–now even more so.

  2. Oh, it’s been so long since I went to the Painted Desert. You’ve inspired me to take another trip there. Lovely photos, lovely prose.
    Patricia Lichen

  3. Hi,
    What a beautiful landscape so surreal, the colors are magnificent. The wild flowers are gorgeous. I think it’s great when places like this have some sort of museum, and how interesting a fossil museum, that would certainly be of interest to a lot of people. Looks like a great place to go and see. Your photo’s are great, and really helps to give you a feel for this wonderful place.

    • I totally agree, I think even something as simple as interpretive signs are critical, and this museum is really outstanding. Especially for geeks like me. Thanks for your feedback on the photos, it’s greatly appreciated!! :)

  4. These are gorgeous photos! What an extraordinary place full of colour and unexpected life, a landscape best seen from afar and up close, to roam in and dive into. I’m captivated by your journey there to the point that if I’m ever in your part of the world a wander by the painted hills will be near the top of my wish list!

    • Oh Julian, you really know how to make my day. :) Thanks for the comments! The desert truly is an extraordinary place, with special treasures reserved for those brave enough to stay and look for them!

  5. I’m going for the first time this coming weekend. Can’t wait! Your writing about them is almost as moving as your photographs. Thanks!

    Have you found any American Indian stories about these hills? There must be some.

    • Thanks for the great compliment Kendall, I hope you enjoy your time there! And no, I’ve never heard any local indigenous stories about the area, but I would sure love to. Maybe check in with the Museum at Warm Springs? They have the best collection of First Nations history info for the area. Thanks for your comment!!

      • Thanks so much for that lead. I didn’t know about the Warm Springs Museum, but it’s on the way between Portland and the Painted Hills. I see they’re open seven days a week, so I’ll go there, ask my question, and if they have an answer for me, I’ll post it here when I return.

  6. ….Stolen from wikipedia Painted Hills is named after the colorful layers of its hills corresponding to various geological eras formed when the area was an ancient river floodplain.The black soil is lignite that was vegetative matter that grew along the floodplain. The grey coloring is mudstone siltstone and shale. 3 The red coloring is laterite soil that formed by floodplain deposits when the area was warm and humid..The weird thing is that the hills look so soft like velvet! Its actually kind of a crumbly rock or thats what it looked like in a video I watched that showed some close up and youre not allowed to walk on the actual hills.

  7. Kelly Haverkate

    Beautiful images!
    Where do you stay in the area?

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