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Painted Hills/Blue Basin/Clarno, March '24

Posted: March 23rd, 2024, 5:30 pm
by sparklehorse
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It’s been thirty years since I last visited the Painted Hills in central Oregon. I've been contemplating a return trip for eons, but just hadn't gotten around to it. For me, spring is arguably the best time of year to visit 'The Hills', so that stretch of amazing weather last weekend finally inspired me to grab some camping gear and head the heck over there.

In case you hadn't heard, the Painted Hills are pitched by Travel Oregon as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of Oregon’. Apparently that designation has increased the popularity by a fair bit in recent years. But here in mid-March I practically had the whole area to myself.

The Hills are just one of three parts of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The other two ‘units’, as they’re called, are not exactly close by. The three units are strewn across the John Day River basin, and lie thirty to forty miles apart. The famous Hills seem to get most of the attention, but all three units are amazing and worth a visit if you haven't already. It'd be tough to visit all three in one day though I'd think, unless of course you live over that way. I planned on three days of camping and exploring, and that seemed just about right (for me).

My dog Kola and I arrived on Sunday afternoon and made camp at a small BLM dispersed camping area not far from the Painted Hills unit. After setting up camp we headed up to the Painted Hills overlook for some sunset action...

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The red and tan layers are ancient clay-like soils that formed during very different climatic conditions. The hills began to form roughly 40 million years ago. In fact, much of the landscape around this part of Oregon is between 40 and 16 million years old. That's pretty incredible when you consider that Mt. Hood is less than one million years old.

Camp the next morning...

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After breakfast we headed back up to the overlook for some morning photos...

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Back at camp we had some lunch, took a lovely nap, and then it was off to the John Day Fossil Beds Sheep Rock unit to visit the incredible spot known as the Blue Basin...

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Kola surveys the strange amphitheater as we approach, the daylight rapidly fading...

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A quick cellphone pano of the Blue Basin amphitheater...

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The next morning we headed back to Blue Basin to see what it's like in the morning...

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The blue-green rock formations are are clay-like material that was formed by volcanic activity. They were then heavily eroded. This particular material is called the Turtle Cove member of the John Day formation. The blue-green color is caused by the presence of a mineral called celadonite.


That evening we headed back to the Painted Hills for one last look-see...

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On the way home the next day we stopped briefly at the Clarno unit. Here we find the stunning rock formation known as The Palisades...

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This formation is also made up of hardened ash and mudflows from volcanic activity, which also eroded over millions of years to its present form.

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I'm not really a fossil guy, but I should mention that if you are one this place is for you! Apparently this area has proved to be one of the richest fossil producing areas in the entire US. You can't remove fossils from any of the units, but there are many fossils on display at the Thomas Condon Visitor Center in the Sheep Rock unit. As well there are many displays featuring fossil replicas throughout the monument. I plan to spend more time engaging the fossil aspect of this area the next time I visit.

Fun trip!

Gordon
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Re: Painted Hills/Blue Basin/Clarno, March '24

Posted: March 23rd, 2024, 7:05 pm
by Splintercat
Nice report, Gordon! Love that area -- I get over there most years in early May, before the place gets quite busy from Memorial Day into fall. Your photos have me champing at the bit... :D

Thanks for posting!

-Tom :)

Re: Painted Hills/Blue Basin/Clarno, March '24

Posted: March 23rd, 2024, 9:22 pm
by teachpdx
Late April is my go-to for the region. There are some dispersed camping areas that only open up after April 15 so I try to go lock one of those down for a weekend before it gets too busy or too hot.

Next time hit up Tiger Town Brewing in Mitchell. It’s a hidden gem.

Re: Painted Hills/Blue Basin/Clarno, March '24

Posted: March 24th, 2024, 5:02 am
by retired jerry
nice photos, thanks for report

where did you camp?

Re: Painted Hills/Blue Basin/Clarno, March '24

Posted: March 24th, 2024, 8:10 am
by sparklehorse
Hi Jerry.
It’s a small BLM undeveloped campground about 4.5 miles south of the entrance to Painted Hills. It’s easy to miss, there are no signs for it, but it’s visible in Google satellite view. There’s no potable water there, no restroom, no garbage, but it’s free. It’s right by a creek, and other than a few cow pies and a bit of a rough road in, it was lovely. Only one or two other campers there each night. There’s room for maybe a dozen camps. I’d bet it gets pretty busy on summer weekends.