Painted Hills Oregon
Every year I go to Bend, Or for a conference meeting. I always go with my friends, and every year car groups get made then broken and rearranged. This year I was in one then it changed. And changed again, so I decided to just go by myself. Everyone was concerned but I’ve always wanted to do it at least once. Even though I hate to drive and it’s one of the most boring road trips you can take. But I had just learned of one of the “7 wonders of Oregon. ” The Painted Hills. I went via Hwy 206/Hwy 19 because it seemed the faster way…. and I ended up getting lost countless times. Stick to the MAIN HWY, especially if you are by yourself. There is nothing like driving around, thinking, “Am I going the right way?” “Am I there yet?” “Is that…it? Or is it further?” “WHERE AM I GOING?!” And the very scary thought, “What if I blow a tire?” And please, make sure if your going on some crazy out of the way trip to make sure that you have a full tank of gas. I thought, “I’m good.” Till my tank went past halfway and I had already gotten lost once. But thankfully, there was a town with a gas station. Condon. I wish I could have gotten out and looked around, but the gas station lady laughed when I told her I was going to the Painted Hills and was hoping to make it in an hour or so. On that grim note I trudged on.
It was fine, till I reached Rowe Creek Rd/Twickenham Rd. I was thinking, awesome almost there! Yyyaaahhh, no. I kept driving and was now on dirt roads. With no previous car tracks. How could this be named one of the 7 wonders of Oregon and not have any traffic? Why was there no paved roads? I kept seeing random signs that mentioned nothing about painted hills, and was hopelessly lost. Plus, driving to fast cause I was desperate to get SOMEWHERE before sunset. Finally my GPS told me I was 2 miles away. “I don’t think so.” I thought. But all of a sudden, I turned on to a paved roadway. And there were SIGNS. And other cars! I had gone the back, back, back way. Was it worth it?
It was beautiful. The first hill was a dark green with lines of red. Then another hill, brown with red stripes. It was so beautiful and even though I was alone, it was one of those moments where being alone was the perfect thing. I walked around and drank in the sights. My friends had been worried about the risk of me being there alone. It was very safe, and had park rangers present. Plus, sign in sheets at the multiple sights so that they could see if you were still there. The first sight had multiple people around, but the next three sights I was the only one there between visitors. Here are some facts:
The colors of the Painted Hills constantly change. After light rains, the hills darken greatly from their normal color. During very wet periods, the clay absorbs so much water they saturate. The clay then expands and seals the surface of the hills. This causes more light to be reflected, changing the red and yellows to a sheen of pastel pink and gold.
When the hills dry the clay contracts, producing surface cracks that diffuse the light and deepen the color. Add sunlight, time of day, cloud shadows, and the colors of the hills constantly change.
One sight felt like I was walking on Mars.
Nothing Grows Here
These hills are inhospitable to plants. The surface clay particles absorb rain water so well they saturate and seal so moisture cannot penetrate, and hold water so tightly most plants cannot draw it out. Beneath the surface the clay is of hardpan, which is impenetrable to plant roots. Also, the loose surface provides a poor foothold for roots, making it easy for plants to wash away in heavy rains.
All this, combined with poor nutrient conditions and hot, dry summers, keep the Painted Hills barren.
Amongst the colors is a small white hill. I initially overlooked it because it’s so small. Then I spotted this sign and I learned something new.
What is that white hill?
An unusual white color stands out amid the tans and reds, indicating a cataclysmic eruption that changed this landscape forever. Thirty-nine million years ago, a super-heated cloud of volcanic ash and gas flowed across the land, hastening the end of the tropical rainforest that dominated this area for millions of years.
Today, these white rocks mark the spot where the older Clarno Formation lies buried under the younger John Day Formation. Fossils in the younger layers indicate a dramatically changing climate with cooler temperatures, distinct seasons and a new plant community-grasses!
There is also a site that is a small hill full of plant fossils.
As I drove away, on the CORRECT road, I expected it to be a normal drive. But as the sun set I came across more and more painted hills which were made even more beautiful by the setting sun. A beautiful ending to a fun, even if terrifying, drive.