July 07, 2023  •  Leave a Comment


This week I would like to take a look at the highlight of our trip to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Central Oregon. I would say that I would argue that the Painted Hills are the highlight of anyone's trip to John Day. While the other parts of the park are certainly worth a visit, it is the Painted Hills, one of the "Seven Wonders of Oregon", that makes a four-hour journey to the middle of nowhere a must for any traveler to the state.  It is one of those places, like the Grand Canyon or Crater Lake, that you just don't believe you are seeing when you catch your first glimpse. And while there might be a tendency to treat this incredible geological formation as a one-trick pony, changing lighting conditions, points of view, and seasonal variations reward repeat visits. Not to mention that upon a repeat visit, even on the next day, most will still gasp in wonder.


This first image is pretty much that standard "Oh My God, what am I looking at?" introduction to the Painted Hills, which suddenly appear without warning after yet another twist in the lonely road from Mitchell, Oregon, where we stayed for three days last month. Mitchell is home to about 150 souls, and the nearest real (small) city, Prineville, is about an hour away. This overview of the hills takes in only about a third of the formation, which is why it is very useful to take along a wide-angle lens. Photographers like myself who don't like and/or own such a lens can now use software to "stitch" together several shots to achieve a wider than wide-angle perspective on such a site. Once you get used to the technique it is not that hard, but it does hearken back to the"old days" in the sense that you don't really know what you've gotten in the field. I have not had a chance to put together some of these panoramic images that I took at the Painted Hills, so they will have to wait until next week. These images are all examples of what I could achieve in a few hours with my standard to telephoto zoom lens. It is pretty hard to get closer to the hills because they are very fragile and would quickly disappear if people were allowed to get close enough to touch what they shouldn't touch. On this trip I didn't find any of the trails that I have taken through the hills along boardwalks through the dunes, and I do not know whether I just didn't go the right way or that the park has closed them since I last visited with Benjamin many years ago. When you realize that you are looking at millions of years of sedimentary deposits that one idiot could ruin in minutes, it is easy to accept that it's OK that you are required to keep your distance.


                                                                VERTICAL WITH FOREGROUND INTEREST

The different colors come from the different chemicals present in the different rocks that were deposited at the bottom of Oregon's inland sea over the course of millions of years, and then were exposed for our viewing pleasure by volcanic shifts in the land coupled with more millions of years of erosion by the wind. If you dug down below the sagebrush for many miles around you would probably encounter similar layers of sediment - and there are several smaller hills and gullies around this famous ridge that suddenly pop up and show off their geologic colors as well.


A photographer has to hope for some luck on a trip like this beyond the privilege of getting to visit at all. Cloudy skies that interrupt the interminable desert blue will improve any image of the hills, but you can adjust by including less sky or even no sky at all. If you can arrange for one or several thunderstorms then the baked colors will really come into their own. The rare rainy Spring will sometimes yield strings of desert flowers in many of the gullies on the cliff face. I brought out the polarizer filter, which is sort of like sunglasses for your camera, to try to bring out the colors, but found that arriving at sunset was a much more fruitful strategy. The trouble with a polarizer is that it really only works when you are near 90 degrees to the sun, and you might get blotchy skies when trying to get wide angle shots that are wide enough to encompass the Hills. Skilled astro photographers can probably achieve beautiful composite images of late day on the Hills combined with amazing star scapes at night in what must be one of the darkest landscapes around. While we saw a moon rise while we there, we didn't stay around to see if the moon could like up the hills. It is very dark out there, and that ten-minute drive back to Mitchell would probably stretch to a half hour.


There are other photographic opportunities around if you stop staring at the main cliff face, although that can be hard. There are smaller outcroppings with different colors, and even the "grayer" colors can exhibit a lot of interesting patterns of gullies formed by the rare presence of water.

                                     FLOWERS AND ROCKS OF THE HIGH DESERT

As the sun goes down you can turn your attention to the High Desert surroundings and concentrate on vegetation, flowers, and the details of boulders in the environment. If you show up near sunset you will get deeper colors on the cliff face but you will have to use graduated filters on the foreground which is going near black as the sun sets behind you. You might even get your own shadow intruding on the scene the closer you get to Sunset. At least you don't have to worry about missing the show by sleeping-in in the morning, since the cliff faces West and thus is in shadow until mid-day.


The intrepid landscape photographer can thus finally avoid waking up too early. Enjoy your breakfast!