29 Aug 2016

Road-trip in Oregon - Painted Hills & the Blue Basin

Day 11 of our road-trip in Oregon saw us doing a rather long day-trip from Bend, into the desert to the east, in search of colourful 45-million-year-old fossil beds. When researching and planning the trip I'd hoped to visit a desert in the far south-eastern corner of the state, but again it was slightly too early in the summer, with some roads (and therefore views) not yet open. The other area of interest I noticed, though, was about a 250 mile round-trip from Bend - the John Day Fossil Beds state park. Quite a long way, but just doable as a day-trip.

 We set off relatively late, picking up some extremely disappointing pastries in a bustling café in town, La Magie (maybe we're just spoilt for choice with decent pastries in London, but these were terrible!). We ate the crumbling pain au chocolat and apple turnover in the car as we drove. It looked like an easy route - up to Prineville to connect with the Route 26 that took us all the way there; that was until we discovered the road works. There was a 30-or-so mile section where the road had been or was being resurfaced, and for most of that section the speed limit was 30 mph. Not fun. Eventually we passed it and reached a little pull-out at Mitchell, not far from the turn-off to Painted Hills. We wanted to get to the Blue Basin first, and then visit the Painted Hills on the way back, but stopped here for lunch. There was a tiny roadside café (Bridge Creek Café) that was already full at midday; there's not much else on the road for about 50 miles in either direction, so I guess this wasn't surprising. We ordered a couple of sandwiches and were told that they'd "just run out" of fries and pastrami. We heard the same thing a few more times as others ordered. The food took forever to come - it was just a woman doing the cooking and her daughter serving. It was pretty tasty and cheap, and there certainly weren't many other options around (although we did realise that there was a "downtown" Mitchell just off the road on our way back that might have had other food options).

We continued on, still with a way to go to get to our first destination - the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. The John Day Fossil Beds is a strange state park spread out over a few locations in the centre of Oregon. In 1864 it was discovered that there were layers of different material deposited from different periods in history, and each of which contained a fantastic record of animal and plant species that lived during that time (between the late Eocene, about 45 million years ago, and the late Miocene, about 5 million years ago). Paleontologists had discovered a whole new variety of animals that hadn't been know about before. We had a slow wander round the fascinating museum, learning about all sorts of animals that lived in those eras, including some early horses and camel-like mammals.

Keen to move on and see some of the fossil beds we drove a few miles north to the Sheep Rock Unit, where the Blue Basin is found. We took a short walk up a boardwalk trail that led us through some weird blue-green rocky badland structures. The light was dreadful - early afternoon, with grey/white, overcast skies, so the photos weren't exactly stunning. We could have taken a longer walk that took us around the edge of the basin for a better view, but neither of us really had the energy, so we stuck to the short, relatively flat path.

Some of the detail in the rock was fantastic, and it was strange to think of other fossilised remains of animals and plants from millions of years earlier still trapped within the rocky cliffs. The hillsides surrounding the Blue Basin were covered in pretty wild grasses and there were some decent basalt columns on the hills nearby.

I drove back towards Mitchell, through a windy canyon, pulling over to photograph a strange tree I'd noticed on the way, totally covered in shoes - who knows why! I certainly wasn't going to add to it. We eventually got to the Painted Hills area at around 4.45pm. The light was getting a little better; although the clouds were still pretty dense the odd patch of sunshine appeared.

We parked up by the first viewing point (aptly named Painted Hills Viewpoint) and walked up the hill to see the rolling orange and red hills in the distance. It was extremely windy, which it hadn't been at the Blue Basin, reminding me almost of Icelandic winds!

The angles of the hills from that viewpoint weren't great; I preferred the view from the road as we came in, which we'd stop at on our way out. We walked back down to the car and drove on a little way along Bear Creek Road to the trailhead for the Red Hill Trail. This was a short trail to see a stand-alone red hill (the clue is in the name in these places!). I loved this triangular hill - the patterns in the rock were wonderful, with colours streaking down the sides. At the foot of the hill were some picturesque dead trees and shrubs. I could've spent days there photographing it from every angle (although this wouldn't be possible as its protected and you can only go on a few trails on one side). The sun came out from time to time, which was welcomed, intensifying the red colour momentarily.

Behind the Red Hill was a white and maroon one - the colours were just bizarre!

We stopped at a couple more viewpoints before it was time to take the long drive back to Bend, already 6pm, just as the light really was getting richer. The patterns were incredible and the view just near the entrance really highlighted the rolling and stripey nature of the hills. A couple of people at the foot of the hills would've been good, for scale, but as I said before, people were restricted to the paths, so that wasn't possible.

The drive on the way back was still slow with the new road-surface slowing us down. We drove with the roof up, which was far more pleasant when it was a little chilly outside. Murray fell asleep, and I had to concentrate on not doing the same (I was driving back). The sky had now turned incredible with weird clouds everywhere, including some lenticular ones. Had I been on my own I probably would've taken a detour to Smith Rock State Park to capture the sunset, but hubby had beer on his mind (when he woke up).

We got back to the house, left the car and headed down to a little industrial area to the south of the centre that had been redeveloped.

We ate in a newly opened brewery - Immersion Brewing, with me nipping outside from time-to-time to check the sky and take a couple of iPhone shots (I was quite grumpy about missing this amazing sunset).

The food was pretty tasty - if a little pricey (the special of Thai Prawns was $20 and contained only 4 king prawns!). The short rib on a black bean cake was delicious. The beer was okay, although a little lacking in oomph.

After supper, at 9.15pm, we wandered along the road to the Crux Fermentation Project, which very disappointingly was closed, even though their entry on Google Maps showed them open until 10pm on a Monday night (hubby emailed them and they've now updated it, to prevent the disappointment of others!). We walked back into town and the only place open (yes!) was the Deschutes Brewery - a huge bustling place. We sat at the bar and had a flight of tasters, trying not to pick the ones we'd had the previous week at the Pearl on Pint festival in Portland. After the long drive we were both a bit knackered so we headed back after that for an early night.

Map of the day's drive

Click here for my blog on Crater Lake to Bend
Click here for my John Day Fossil Beds blog

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