Archive for the ‘Oregon’ Category

John Day Fossil Beds: To Clarno & Beyond   9 comments

Good day Central Oregon!

This is the last post in a series on the Painted Hills and John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon.  Be sure to check out the last two, which have tips for visiting the Painted Hills and Sheep Rock Units of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  It’s at Sheep Rock where we pick up the big counter-clockwise loop.

Just north of Cant Ranch on Hwy. 19 is a great hike.  Blue Basin is a fantastic section of blue-green sedimentary rock that rivals the Painted Hills.  It is the Turtle Cove member of the John Day Formation, some 30 million years old.  The blue-green color results from weathering of the volcanic ash in the rock to oxygen-poor iron oxide (green) and the clay celadonite (blue).

You can do a short in and out hike with interpretive panels, or a longer hike that takes you up and over the formations on a 3+ mile loop.  Make sure and take plenty of water, especially if it’s summer when this area can get very hot and dry.

Blue Basin with purple sage in bloom.

Blue Basin with purple sage in bloom.

Continuing north of Blue Basin, you’ll come upon an interesting geology stop.  A large lens of conglomerate is bisected by the road at Goose Rock.  The cobbles within the rock are perfect, like they had been plucked from a rocky stream.  But that stream flowed millions of years ago.  Continuing north you come to Cathedral Rock, which in the right light offers great photos with the John Day River as leading line.  Continue to the town of Kimberly, then follow the highway west along the John Day River to Service Creek, where lodging and camping is available.

Service Creek is a popular place for rafters and canoeists to put in for a float down the John Day.  In late spring, the river is perfect for this.  Rapids get up to class 3 but in general the river is quite mellow.  If you can handle a canoe through moving water, I recommend this over rafting, though both are a great idea.  It is an easy 2-night, 3-day float to the bridge crossing at Clarno.

Springtime brings green along creek bottoms in central Oregon.  Osage orange blooms on the right.

Springtime brings green along creek bottoms in central Oregon. Osage orange blooms on the right.

Keep on Hwy. 19 north through pine forests to the town of Fossil.  On the way, a detour can be made to the ghost town of Kinzua.  Two small forest service campgrounds are found along the route; they’re in pine trees not far south of Fossil.  Near these is Pioneer Park, which is perfect for a picnic.  A cold spring is one of its features, great for filling up with fresh clean water.  The creek running through is perfect for hunting crawfish.  If you have kids with you, this is a must stop for burning off some of that excess energy.

In the town of Fossil are two spots I recommend visiting.  One is the General Store, a very authentic old place that turns the pages back to a simpler time in America.  The other is the High School.  Why the High School?  Well, the hill next to it is one of the easiest places to find fossils I know of.  It’s an ancient lake bed that some 30 million years ago filled with sediments rich in volcanic ash.  Now perfectly preserved leaf fossils are revealed on dinner-plate rock surfaces.  The best part about it is you can dig your own fossils, and for a very small fee keep your favorites.  Recently established, the Oregon Paleo Lands Center here has a very helpful staff who will get you started and make sure your dig is successful.

A fossil leaf is perfectly preserved in lake-bed sediments rich in volcanic ash.

A fossil leaf is perfectly preserved in lake-bed sediments rich in volcanic ash.

From Fossil, take Hwy. 218 west toward Clarno.  Along the way an old homestead on the right makes a great photo stop.  When you begin to see tall cliffs on the right, you have arrived at the Clarno Unit of the National Monument.  There are a couple hikes here worth taking.  One, which takes off from a parking lot with bathroom, follows Indian Creek up to a shallow cave with pictographs.  This gives you a great feel for central Oregon’s ranching country.  Beautiful flowers bloom in April.

Another short hike takes off from the same parking lot, heading along the highway a short way before following a couple steep switchbacks up to the base of the cliffs.  You may see birds of prey hunting here.  The spectacular cliffs, called the Palisades, are made up of the Clarno Formation.  The Clarno, Eocene in age, is the oldest major formation in the Monument.  It is most famous for its fossils of huge mammals, along with one of the world’s premier fossil nut beds.  Very near here is an exposure of rocks where perfectly preserved nut fossils weather out like marbles.  It’s amazing:  some look as if you just reached into a bowl of walnuts – except they are heavier and made of stone.

A diorama depicting life in central Oregon when the area closely resembled modern Panama, but with early mammals prowling the forest, many now extinct.

A diorama depicting life in central Oregon when the area closely resembled modern Panama, but with early mammals prowling the forest, many now extinct.

A rare nearly complete skull of Eusmilus, a saber-toothed pre-cat of the John Day Fossil Beds.

A rare nearly complete skull of Eusmilus, a saber-toothed pre-cat of the John Day Fossil Beds.

If you want to visit the nut beds you can keep going on the trail up Indian Creek, but ask a ranger (back at Sheep Rock) for detailed directions.  There is also a fossil tree along the way that is upright and even includes traces of the roots!  But be aware that this area is shared by a science school.  In season (April – October) there are sessions taking place, with schoolkids getting a great field-based science education.  It’s best to give groups of kids and instructors their space and not attempt to hang out with them.

Following 218 west you cross the John Day River and climb over a pass to the tiny town of Antelope.  This was the base for a bizarre chapter in Oregon history.  In the 1980s a man from India, the Baghwan Shree Rashneesh, bought a ranch near here.  Having started his own religion, he brought a large group of followers and moved in.  The quiet ranching atmosphere was changed overnight, caravans of luxury cars and strangers running around.

It soon became clear that this was a cult.  The followers turned into a problem after several strange incidents and standoffs with local and state government officials.  It came to a head when they were caught poisoning the salad bar in a restaurant in the nearby town of The Dalles.  The Baghwan had also been dodging taxes.  The cult soon collapsed and broke up, and the Baghwan deported.  The ranch remains; I have toured the place and it is creepy-fascinating.  There is an old crematorium tilted over and rusting away in the sagebrush.  The followers included many talented engineers and other skilled people.  And they had not been idle.

Turning north at Antelope and staying on Hwy. 218 through a series of tight curves takes you up onto the plateau, to a ghost town named Shaniko.  Though a few people live here (which to me means it isn’t a ghost town), it is a shadow of once it once was.  You can get some good pictures wandering this little town.

Shaniko was once one of the busiest centers of sheep-ranching in the west.  This is the historic Shaniko Hotel.

Shaniko was once one of the busiest centers of sheep-ranching in the west. This is the historic Shaniko Hotel.

From Shaniko, if you follow Bakeoven Road, you come to the little community of Maupin, straddling the beautiful Deschutes River.  You can go white-water rafting or kayaking.  Continue west on Hwy. 216 back up out of the sagebrush and into the forests near Mount Hood.  You’ll hit Hwy. 26.  This is the fastest (and most scenic) way back to Portland.

I hope you enjoyed this little tour of central Oregon.  You may have heard that Bend is central Oregon, but it’s really not.  This large region, the John Day Basin, is both the geographic and cultural heart of central Oregon.  It is much more than the Painted Hills.  If you want to explore a fascinating and non-touristy part of the west, a region with great photo opportunities and interesting human and geologic history, you can’t do much better.

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John Day Fossil Beds & Climate Change   4 comments

An old dairy farm along Bridge Creek in eastern Oregon near the town of Mitchell, it appears to have once been a going concern.

An old dairy farm near the town of Mitchell, Oregon appears to have once been a going concern.

As mentioned in my last post on the Painted Hills, this area of Oregon is about so much more than some colorful formations.  A little preview at the end of that post last Friday was a short description of the old dairy farm near Mitchell (see above).  And it’s from there that we’ll continue our road trip through John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon.

Travel east from Mitchell on Hwy. 26 toward the monument headquarters at Sheep Rock.  You will first come to Picture Gorge, a spectacular cut through stacks of basaltic lavas.  The Picture Gorge Basalt is a southern outlier of the great Columbia River Basalt flows to the north.  The gorge is named for ancient Native American rock art found on the walls.

Since I can't find any very good images of Oregon rock art, here is a pictograph from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

Since I can’t find any very good images of Oregon rock art, here is a pictograph from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

To see and photograph some pictographs, drive to the east end of the gorge and park alongside the John Day River.  Look up to the walls across the road.  From here, if the river is low enough, you can get a much closer look at great rock art alongside the river.  Just drop below the road and walk a hundred yards or so upriver, looking for short, smooth walls to your right.  A rare pictograph of a salamander can be found.

Midway through Picture Gorge you’ll turn north on Hwy, 19 and drive a short distance to the Sheep Rock Unit.  There is a great museum that explains the areas rich fossil heritage.  This is an important region of the world for paleontologists.  Along with Wyoming’s Green River area, it is where well preserved fossils of ancient mammals, plants and other creatures can be found.  These remains, preserved within colorful sedimentary rocks shed off  ancient volcanoes that were eroded away long ago, document the explosion of mammalian diversity in the Eocene (56-34 million years ago).

The typical bloom you find near water in eastern Oregon is monkeyflower.

The typical bloom you find near water in eastern Oregon is monkeyflower.

Mammals started off very small, literally in the shadow of dinosaurs.  Once the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, mammals slowly evolved and diversified until an inevitable point.  Just as happened with dinosaurs near the peak of their diversity, mammals began to evolve into huge forms.  This is well documented in the John Day.  In fact, the region has abundant mammal fossils all the way up through the Miocene (23-5 million years ago).

One of the largest mammals of all time was the huge rhino-like brontothere.  Enormous ground sloths roamed here as well.  Other mammals of the John Day:  early horses the size of dogs, camels, a large variety of canids, cats (including early saber-toothed varieties), rodents, even early primates.  And it’s not just mammals:  huge fossil turtle shells are found.

A very important part of the John Day fossil beds is the amazing variety of plant fossils.  This allows the environments in which these animals once lived to be worked out in detail.  A period of global warming is documented here, followed by a long slow cooling and drying trend that has continued to the present day.  Nowadays of course humans are busy driving the climate in the opposite direction, toward a climate last experienced by those now-extinct mammals of ancient North America.

The old homestead  Cant Ranch, with Sheep Rock in the background.  Click on image if interested in it.

The old homestead Cant Ranch, with Sheep Rock in the background. Click on image if interested in it.

An Aside:  Climate Change – The Debate?

I recall having a group of high school science students at the museum at Sheep Rock.  I was showing them the fossils and how they told us the ancient climate was lush and subtropical.  On the wall was a chart that showed the estimated CO2 levels in the atmosphere during that period, and how they coincided with the types of plant and animal fossils.  A man and his wife were listening off to the side.

Later I heard him telling his wife, “see, what did I tell you?  Global warming happened in the past and was natural.  We don’t have anything to do with it, even if it was actually happening.”  Or words to that effect.  I wanted to correct his misinterpretation of the meaning of the evidence but realized it was not a good idea for several reasons.  For one thing, a person who uses faulty logic certainly missed something early in their upbringing/education.  When they got older they internalized this way of thinking, so that any faulty interpretations they make are perceived to be merely “common sense”.  Very difficult to explain anything to such a person.

Though it’s true that a warm, tropical climate is very conducive to a diversity of life, it is the change to those conditions that poses the risk.  And that’s especially true for very rapid changes like the one we’re entering now.  A transition to an ice-free world is upon us, and we can only pray that it will only be accompanied by a drowning of our coastal cities and dramatic changes to agriculture and water supplies.  The worse-case scenarios are much more dire.

Scientists are much too conservative to talk about these darker scenarios with the press.  But trust me, they aren’t pretty.  Picture enormous clouds of poison hydrogen sulfide gas spewing out of stagnant oceans, killing everything that breathes unless it is hidden underground.  There is evidence that this happened during past mass extinctions.

Old homestead in central Oregon.

Old homestead in central Oregon.

Leaving aside all these sunny thoughts, it’s amazing to think this semi-arid region of grassland looked like present-day Panama in the early Eocene (about 50 million years ago).  It had active volcanoes and the coastline was closer.  With no Cascade Mountains, there was no rain-shadow effect.  The warm Pacific Ocean sent abundant moisture over a lush river-laced landscape dotted with volcanoes.  Many of the animals (e.g. camel, rhino & elephant) that during present times are found only in Asia or Africa roamed (in early form) the jungly American wetlands of the west.

Animals like horses and camels evolved here in North America, then migrated across the Bering Land Bridge to Asia and eventually Africa.  They went extinct here.  Many other now-extinct animals, like brontotheres, oredonts (large & pig-like), creodonts (looked like a cross between a hyena and cat but more heavily built) and nimravids (a sleek & agile saber-toothed pre-cat) all lived, died and eventually went extinct here.

A mural depicting life in Eocene Oregon.

A museum mural depicting life in Eocene Oregon.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time out here teaching science.  After a time, I got to where I could experience that ‘other’ Oregon.  Believe it or not, for paleontologists or anyone who sees enough fossils, absorbs enough knowledge, and then quiets themselves while out in the places where the fossils are found, it is possible to time-travel with your mind.  You can bring up vivid images of that other world in the silence that surrounds you during semi-meditative states.  You actually start to feel the humidity and hear the buzzing of tropical insects.  Very cool.

So check out that museum!  Right across the road lies the historic Cant Ranch and picturesque Sheep Rock.  This is a great place for photos, with the old barns, the John Day River and Sheep Rock begging to be part of your compositions.  The rangers run tours of the historic ranch, giving you a picture of the old homesteading days when the west was first being settled by whites and their livestock.

The last part of this series covers the northern part of our loop, including the Clarno Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  Thanks for reading!

Sunset, John Day River Valley, central Oregon.

The Painted Hills   13 comments

The foothills of the Ochoco Mountains rise to the west of the grasslands near the Painted Hills, Oregon.

The foothills of the Ochoco Mountains rise to the west of the grasslands near the Painted Hills, Oregon.

It has been way too long since I’ve done a travel-oriented post.  It’s really my favorite kind!  So in place of photography advice this week, I’m going to recommend a photo destination:  The Painted Hills!  They are known by landscape photographers across the west, and even across the country and world.  Perhaps you have seen pictures of them.

Lying in a remote area of central Oregon near the small town of Mitchell, the Painted Hills are a series of colorful formations with photogenic textures.  This post will give some tips on visiting and photographing them, and also some background information on the area’s fascinating geology.  It is the first of two.

The Painted Hills are part of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  National Monuments, if you don’t know, are sort of like National Parks lite; they’re protected federal land that is not as high profile as parks.  This national monument is made up of three main areas (units) separated by drives of 2-3 hours.  It is a very scenic area worth exploring outside of the Painted Hills themselves.

The three units – Painted Hills, Sheep Rock and Clarno Units – form a rough triangle that can be explored going either clockwise or counter-clockwise.  You’ll need a car, no 4×4 is necessary.  There is easily obtained camping and lodging scattered through the area.  It is definitely not touristy.

Morning light hits the Painted Hills in Oregon.

Morning light hits the Painted Hills in Oregon.

Home on the range in central Oregon near the Painted Hills.

Home on the range in central Oregon near the Painted Hills.

Directions

If you want to hit the Painted Hills first, drive east from Portland on Hwy. 26.  Follow it across Mount Hood and through an Indian reservation.  Then, just after passing through the town of Madras, turn left to stay on Hwy. 26.  It will take you through the cow-town of Prineville, up and over the beautiful Ochoco Mountains, and down into the huge basin where the Hills sit.

If you’re coming from Bend, first drive north to Redmond, then east to Prineville to pick up Hwy. 26.  The signed turnoff for the Painted Hills, Bridge Creek Road, is not far after you finish descending off the Ochocos.  The Hills are about 6 miles north of Hwy. 26 just off Bridge Creek Road.

In the Painted Hills, a family of geese makes its way across a rare stretch of water in this dry area of eastern Oregon.

In the Painted Hills, a family of geese makes its way across a rare stretch of water in this dry area of eastern Oregon.

Layers of fossil soils form colorful bands in Oregon's Painted Hills.

Fossil soils form colorful bands in Oregon’s Painted Hills.

What are the Painted Hills?

The Painted Hills are formed by exposures of sedimentary rock belonging to the Big Basin Member of the John Day Formation.  In the Oligocene epoch, some 34 million years ago, volcanoes to the west sent ash clouds over the area, and streams deposited more layers of ash-rich sediment in a subtropical river basin.  The sediment weathered to deep soil before being buried and turned into rock.  Because they are rich in volcanic ash (tuff), the rocks weathered to a clay-rich material.  Volcanic ash has a lot of silica and aluminum; just add water and you have clay.

You will not think of rocks when you first see the Painted Hills.  They look like they’re made of soft fluffy sand or dirt.  But if you could take a shovel and dig down into this stuff, you’d soon hit solid rock.  It is merely rock that has been heavily weathered, not just under today’s climate but under the ancient wet climate it was originally deposited in.  Don’t go digging though, take my word for it!

The frequent wet-dry cycles of today’s semi-arid central Oregon cause these clay-rich “fossil soils” to crack in a fascinating pattern called alligator cracking.  It can easily take years for the clays to crack in this way, so if you walk on them you are ruining the scene for countless photographers and other visitors who come behind you.  Please heed the signs to stay off the bare earth.

The different minerals within the original rock – iron, magnesium, etc. – stain this clay with a variety of rich colors.  Iron mostly weathers to red & orange but in oxygen-poor environments can weather to green.  The dark bands are mostly horizons of organic-rich lignite that trace ancient oxygen-poor stream bottoms.  Manganese-rich clay can form this ash-black color too.  The most obvious colors, the red-orange horizons, mark the ancient soil horizons that were deeply weathered to laterite.  Iron oxide (rust) is responsible for the color.  It’s the kind of thing happening in deep soils of tropical regions in the world of today.

Painted Hills meets Funhouse!

Painted Hills meets Funhouse!

The countryside around Mitchell, Oregon.

The countryside around Mitchell, Oregon.

Visiting and Photographing the Painted Hills

As you head into the area on Bridge Creek Road, you’ll pass some teaser exposures of painted hills.  Turn left at the sign and drive a short distance to a parking area on the left.  You have arrived at the most popular viewpoint in the Painted Hills.  They are to your east, so in late afternoon the hills can yield great photos in wonderfully warm frontlight, with the dark bulk of Sutton Mountain behind.  The sun sets behind the Ochoco Mountains here, so arrive early for sunset.

From the viewpoint, look up and to the left.  A dark band tops nearby Carroll Rim.  This rock band is a “welded tuff”, the Picture Gorge Ignimbrite.  About 30 million years ago a scalding hot wave of dense ash flowed across the landscape, killing all in its path.  You can hike a short trail up to Carrol Rim for a higher vantage point.  From the viewpoint, walk further up the ridge from the parking lot to get good views down into the colored layers.  Use a long focal length lens to get abstract images of the colored patterns.  Please stay off the exposed (cracked) earth.

Drive a little further in from the overlook to a T-intersection.  Go left for two short nature hikes (Leaf Hill & Red Hill).  If you keep going on this gravel road, just after you exit the Monument, you’ll come to a small area on the right where you can free-camp.  Just be quiet and respectful; leave it cleaner than you found it.  Back at the T intersection, turn right to go to Painted Cove, another short nature trail.  This place is great for close-up views (and pictures) of alligator cracking.  You also have a view of the only water in the area, a reservoir that is full and ringed with pretty yellow flowers in springtime.

Back out towards the main entrance there is a picnic area with wonderful green grass.  If you head left out at the turn off Bridge Creek Road, you’ll traverse south on a gravel road for about 6 miles to the John Day River.  This is one of the river’s largest rapids, and you can camp here.  Along this road there are a few spots where you can just park and head off  on a hike into the hills.  Get a map and make sure you are not on private land.  There is plenty of public land here.  In May keep an eye peeled for the wonderful mariposa lily.

Gopher Snake

Meeting a local in the Painted Hills

Deer don't heed the signs not to walk on the Painted Hills.

Deer don’t heed the signs not to walk on the Painted Hills.

 Mitchell

If you keep going east on Hwy. 26 past the turnoff to the Painted Hills you will quickly come to Mitchell, where lodging and camping (in the city park) is available.  Mitchell is a tiny town, but has a restaurant and bar, along with a great bed and breakfast.  Even if you don’t stay, stop for breakfast or have a beer.  Meet the locals!

On the west side of Mitchell, just behind and below the state highway maintenance station, is an old homestead.  Once a dairy farm, this is a fantastic and little known place to photograph.  Be very respectful and low-profile; don’t climb on fences or try to drive down there.  Park near the highway and walk down.  The buildings and barns are in good condition.  In late afternoon or early morning light they offer very good image potential, very different from the landscape shots you just got of the Painted Hills.

So that’s the Painted Hills.  Great pictures abound.  If it has recently rained the colors are that much richer.  You will also find the remains of Oregon’s geologic and human histories.  It’s very quiet and peaceful, a great getaway.  Stay tuned for the next installment, which visits the other two units of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  Thanks for reading!

The Painted Hills in central Oregon take on subtle hues as dusk arrives.

The Painted Hills in central Oregon take on subtle hues as dusk arrives.

The Alvord Desert, Oregon   7 comments

The Trout Creek Mountains in southeastern Oregon bask in last rays and the desert prepares for night.

The Trout Creek Mountains in southeastern Oregon bask in last rays as the desert prepares for night.

When I need some wide-open space, I come to this corner of Oregon that we call the state’s “outback”.  I drove through on my way to the Rockies recently and revisited a few old haunts.  But this was the first time I had actually camped on the playa of the Alvord Desert.  While this region is indeed technically a desert (averaging 7 inches/yr. precipitation), I’m not sure why they chose to call this particular place the Alvord Desert.

The Alvord part is predictable, named after a general from the East, from the Civil War no less.  But the desert part is curious.  The whole region is classified as a cold semi-arid desert.  It’s dry and it’s high (4000 feet/1220 meters).  But the area named the Alvord Desert is actually a large playa, a dry lake bed.  So why not call it the Alvord Playa?

Venus sets & the stars come out as night comes to the Alvord Desert in SE Oregon.

Venus sets & the stars come out as night comes to the Alvord Desert in SE Oregon.

Early morning reveals the Pueblo Mountains to have been dusted by snow overnight.

Early morning reveals the Pueblo Mountains to have been dusted by snow overnight.

Climate & Geology

The region’s aridity is caused by the rain shadow of the Cascades and other mountain ranges.  The Alvord itself is in the very dramatic rain shadow of Steen’s Mountain, which rises directly west.  (The Steen’s is also a very spectacular destination in it’s own right.)  The Alvord is a spectacular example of a playa, so dry and flat in summer and fall that you can easily drive and land a plane on it.  In fact, it’s been used to set land speed records, like the Bonneville Salt Flats down in Utah.

The salty playas of this region of North America form because erosion from surrounding mountains dumps fine sediment into the bottom of the basin and the shallow water that collects there cannot run out.  (This isn’t called the Great Basin for nothing.) The water evaporates, leaving behind salt flats and quickly drying muds.

The playa of the Alvord Desert in Oregon attracts a group of "wind-riders".

The playa of the Alvord Desert in Oregon attracts a group of “wind-riders”.

Even a light wind can propel these guys at quick speeds across the Alvord.  I can't imagine the speeds in heavy wind.

Even a light wind can propel these guys at quick speeds across the Alvord. I can’t imagine the speeds in heavy wind!

The Alvord lies near the northern extent of the the Basin and Range province, a term geologists prefer over Great Basin.  Extending down through Nevada and eastern California, and over into western Utah, it is a series of linear mountain ranges and adjacent basins formed by block faulting.  Huge sections of the earth’s crust rise up while on the other side of the fault the adjacent basins drop down.  It happens this way because the crust just below is being stretched and rifted apart, much like the Great Rift Valley in Africa. Since this shallower part of the crust is brittle, faults form.  Earthquakes along these faults still happen, so it is an ongoing process.

Fall-flowering shrubs dot the "pediment", the transition from basin to range, in this case from the Alvord playa to Steen's Mountain.

Fall-flowering shrubs dot the “pediment”, the transition from basin to range, in this case from the Alvord playa to Steen’s Mountain.

Reasons to Visit

I hope you get to visit this region one day.  Other than the glorious skies and wide-open spaces, it has a lot to offer.  It is a fantastic place for bird-watching in springtime (March/April).  Just northwest of the Alvord are huge & temporary, shallow lakes, which attract large flocks of migrating birds.  The area around Steen’s Mountain is home to Kiger mustangs, wild horses that are known far and wide for their spirit and strength. You’ll probably hear coyotes every night you camp.  And you might see a few buckaroos working cattle from horseback, as has been done here ever since white settlement in the 19th century.  The area is dotted with the remnants of old homesteads and ranches.

Hope you have a great week.  Thanks for reading!

View out onto the Alvord Desert at dusk, where recent rains have left small pools and channels of water.

View out onto the Alvord Desert at dusk, where small pools and channels of water from an early fall storm try to make their way out onto the playa.

The Trout Creek Mountains lie just south of the Alvord Desert near Oregon's border with Nevada.

The Trout Creek Mountains lie just south of the Alvord Desert near Oregon’s border with Nevada.

Single-image Sunday: Camping on the Playa   7 comments

No trees for miles around, but it was still a very fine place to camp for the night on the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon.  After a drive of about five or six miles across the impossibly flat & smooth playa (dry lake bed), I had my pick of spots.  The only other campers within miles were the wind riders, who were back on the other side of the playa.

Of course, how do you pick a spot when everything looks the same?  Actually, I did choose a spot near some water from recent rain pooling among the desert shrubs at the edge of the playa.  In the morning, I saw birds, who were drawn to the water.  I half-expected a visit from coyotes as well.  I heard them that night, but they never showed up.  The stars were intense that night.  In keeping with the theme of last Friday’s Foto Talk, this is a wide angle shot (19 mm.) that I hope shows the insignificance of my presence there.

Hope you all are enjoying your weekends.  Happy shooting!

 

Camped under the stars on the large playa that makes up most of Oregon's Alvord Desert.

Camped under the stars on the large playa that makes up most of Oregon’s Alvord Desert.

Peter French’s Round Barn   17 comments

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This is a somewhat famous barn in southeastern Oregon, in an area we like to call the state’s “outback”.  It dates from the late 1800s, when Peter French, a cattleman from California, drove a herd from California into the open spaces of the Oregon Territory.  His ranch eventually covered some 800 square miles!  He became one of Oregon’s so-called cattle kings.

He built a round barn so that his buckaroos (what cowboys are called in this country) could train horses while sheltered from the harsh high desert winters.  The barn has been partly restored, but most of it is original.  The beams are quite stout and the barn extremely well built, which is probably why it has stood up to the fierce winds and snow that hits this region every winter.

It was long ago that I first visited this barn, and it was in much poorer shape then (though the structure was very sound).  In recent years, money for its restoration has been made available, and a small visitor center/book store was built nearby.  I photographed it at night and then again the next morning, with the light pouring in.

On that quiet morning, with only the sound of the wind, I thought about the life here in the 19th century.  The life of Peter French, his leadership, his drive to make it in this lonely outpost.  The lives of the buckaroos, working hard every day, making just enough to get by, and occasionally being able to spend some of it in saloons.  Were there ghosts roaming the hills still?

I hope you enjoy the pictures, and also that your week is going well.  Happy shooting!

Part of the interior of cattle king Peter French's round barn.

Part of the interior of cattle king Peter French’s round barn.  You can see all the boards that have been replaced with recent restoration efforts.

The clouds move in but don't block out the stars over the French Round Barn.

The clouds move in but don’t block out the stars over the French Round Barn.

Single-image Sunday: Smith Rock State Park   12 comments

This is Oregon’s favorite place for rock climbing.  The routes are rated up to 5.14, which is extremely difficult and for experts only.  But there are plenty of climbs suitable for novices as well.  A series of trails wind through the park, allowing hikers to watch these spider-men and women practice their sport.  The Crooked River zig-zags its way around the hard formations of volcanic tuff, a dense flow of ash dumped here by an ancient volcano.  Sometimes tuff can be fairly soft and friable, but this one is very strongly cemented.

I woke very early, and worried that the cloudy weather would prevent a good sunrise.  Rain moved in after sunrise, but at dawn the skies cleared enough for very pretty light to make its way into the canyon.  The cascading song of a canyon wren echoed its way up to me from the canyon as I captured this shot.  It was very quiet and beautiful, and the recent rains gave the sage and other desert vegetation a lovely scent.  Thanks for looking.  I hope your weekend is going well!

Dawn breaks at Smith Rock State Park in central Oregon.

Dawn breaks at Smith Rock State Park in central Oregon.

Quick Trip to the Coast: Part II   8 comments

Low tide at the Oregon Coast

Low tide at the Oregon Coast

This is the second of two parts on a section of the Oregon Coast between Cannon Beach and Depoe Bay.  It’s a part of the coast where you can make a sort of loop from Portland.  Just take Highway 26 west from town and head all the way over to Cannon Beach.  Then travel south on Highway 101 through Tillamook (did somebody say “cheese tour”?) and on to Lincoln City.  Past this large town is a beautiful stretch of coastline to Depoe Bay.  From here you can backtrack to Lincoln City then take Highway 18 back to Portland.

Perched Gull

On the way south to Depoe Bay, a beach stop I can definitely recommend is Fogarty Creek.  This state park has two access points about 1/4 mile from each other; turn east off the highway.  Either one takes you to a large grassy and treed area where you can park and picnic.  But the real show is out on the beach.  Walk the short trail along the pretty creek to a wild beach where you can explore for fossils and agates.  It’s easier to walk north; southward you’ll soon be blocked by a headland in all but very low tides.  The fossil clams and other concretions are very easy to find in the rocks along the beach.

Exploring somewhat inaccessible rocky areas of the Oregon Coast is my favorite thing to do there.

Exploring somewhat inaccessible rocky areas of the Oregon Coast is my favorite thing to do there.

Depoe Bay is one of those little towns that make the Oregon Coast popular with those who like cute towns and plenty of gift shops.  It has an excellent little whale-watch museum/station where volunteers are very eager to show you gray whales if they are visible.  There are also whale-watch tours that leave from the snug little harbor.  You can see them year-round, but spring and late fall are probably best.

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Boiler Bay is a great place to explore.  You will see a sign for it on the left as you drive out of Depoe Bay heading north.  You can pull off and get a view of the bay.  This is a good place to watch for whales.  But to access the shore of the bay for its excellent tide-pooling and exploration you’ll need to do a little more work.

Working your way down this is the first sight of Boiler Bay.

Working your way down this is the first sight of Boiler Bay.

Boiler Bay

Boiler Bay

 Access is impossible from the viewpoint, but if you’re adventurous enough to handle the slippery rocks, you can certainly handle finding the access.  So I won’t spill the beans here (I might anger a local!).  This is the second time I’ve explored down here.  There were a healthy number of tourists up above, but despite the fact they could see me from the viewpoint, I had the bay to myself.

Tidepooling!

Tidepooling!

I see you sea anemone!

I see you sea anemone!

The rocky coastline at Boiler Bay is really only navigable during low tide, and my timing was good in that respect.  Making my way over slippery rocks, around small headlands and into coves where you never know exactly what you’ll find, peering into tidepools at sea-stars, anemones and crabs: this is what I love best to do on our coast.  The old rusty boiler for which this place is named has been sitting in this spot since 1910 when the ship it came from exploded and sank.  For me it made a good subject despite average light for photos.

Boiler Bay

Seastar not starfish!

The old boiler in Boiler Bay is used as a perch by seabirds.

The old boiler in Boiler Bay is used as a perch by seabirds (murres I believe).

What a spectacular place and day!  A couple gray whales were spouting just offshore of the bay mouth.  I watched them for awhile but they were too far for pictures.  This is a fine spot to go tidepooling, and I want to come back for sunset pictures someday, hopefully when we have unusually low tides.  All in all a great foray to the Coast.  Hope you enjoyed the pictures and story.

Edge of Kiwanda

Quick Trip to the Coast: Part I   8 comments

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I rarely go to the Oregon Coast during summer, since it tends to be too busy and also because other times of year (especially early Spring) are generally better for photography.  Recently it’s been on the brain, however, so I decided a quick trip was in order.  I went during the week, but it was still as busy or busier than I like it.  The weather was sunny but windy and a bit on the cool side.

Haystack Rock and Cannon Beach.

Haystack Rock and Cannon Beach.

The typical summertime weather pattern for the coast is morning clouds breaking for brilliant sunshine by mid-day.  The closer to the ocean itself you get, the cooler it is.  Drive inland for 20-30 minutes and the temperature jumps a good 15-20 degrees.  On the beach itself the wind makes it a little chilly but hide behind a dune and you can be in shorts with no shirt and not feel cold.  The highs adjacent to the beach were in the mid- 60s to low-70s (Farenheit) during the day.  At this very same time much of the rest of the U.S. was suffering through incredible heat.  And even Portland just over an hour away was in the mid-90s (but with low humidity).

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In other words, our coast was the place to be, despite the fact that it would have been perfect had it been 10 degrees warmer.  I’d rather be someplace where you need to move it out to feel comfortable in shorts and T-shirt than be where you make any movement whatsoever and you’re drenched in sweat.

I only spent two nights, heading over to Cannon Beach for sunset then down the coast to the Depoe Bay area before heading back.  This section of our north-central coast includes some great natural sights along with several cutesy towns for strolling.  Cannon Beach is scenic but a bit too popular for me.  I headed down to the Manzanita area to spend the first night.  This is not far south of Cannon Beach yet is less crowded and with a bit more of a natural emphasis.  The huge bulk of Neahkahnie Mountain guards the north side of the little town of Manzanita, where you can rent a house for a weekend or week and enjoy a super-wide beach.

Coarse Sand

The hiking here is among the best on the Oregon Coast.  You can do a short but fairly steep hike up Neahkahnie Mountain from either the south or north.  The south side access is up a little dirt road just south of Highway 101’s high point as it traverses up and over the mountain.  The north side trailhead is on the highway across from a pull-out.  You can also hike the opposite way from this point toward the high sea cliffs and down a switchback trail that eventually leads to spectacular Short Sands Beach.

A pond just inland from the coast has abundant water lilies.  Or are these lotus flowers?

A pond just inland from the coast has abundant water lilies. Or are these lotus flowers?

A much shorter trail to Short Sands starts from a bigger and busier parking lot not far north along the highway.  In either case, a trail continues from Short Sands a couple more miles out onto Cape Falcon.  This is a fantastic hike, well worth it.  Short Sands, which has become quite popular with surfers in recent years, occupies a rocky cove marked by dramatically tilted layers of sandstone.  In summer the beach is plenty wide for standard beach goings on.

I like to combine Neahkahnie and Cape Falcon in a longer hike.  A car or bicycle shuttle makes it a very feasible dayhike.  Leave a car at the main Short Sands parking lot then start at the south trailhead for Neahkahnie.  Hike up and over the mountain down to the north trailhead.  Cross the highway and continue down to Short Sands Beach, then out to Cape Falcon.  Return to the Short Sands parking lot where you left your shuttle vehicle.  This  9- or 10-mile hike gives you an outstanding taste of the wilder side of the Oregon Coast.  It’s just the ticket if you have spent too much time wandering through gift shops in Yachats, Seaside or Cannon Beach.

Gray volcanic rocks are smoothed and polished by the surf.

Gray volcanic rocks are smoothed and polished by the surf.

I drove part of the wonderful Three Capes route, a detour from 101 that takes off from Tillamook & rejoins 101 further south.  For photos, I think Cape Kiwanda is the best of the three.  But Cape Lookout certainly has a lot going for it, including a hike out to the tip of the cape and a great campground & beach.  At Kiwanda, I hiked over the big dune marking its south side, where it’s two steps up and one step down.

The view south from Cape Kiwanda on the Oregon Coast.

The view south from Cape Kiwanda on the Oregon Coast.

I scrambled down to the two rocky coves incised into the soft rock of the cape.  This “almost-sandstone” is buff and orange in color, which is partly why this place is so popular with photographers.  In the largest (and most difficult to reach) rocky cove, a spectacular tall archway is only visible if you walk all the way to the northern tip of the cape.

A nice sunset captured earlier this past spring down in one of Cape Kiwanda's rocky inlets.

A nice sunset captured earlier this past spring down in one of Cape Kiwanda’s rocky inlets.

Your reward is a running and hopping descent of the huge dune on the south side of the cape.  A real return to childhood it is, and since it faces the beach you’ll have an audience!  A further reward is had adjacent to the beach, where friendlies at Pelican Bay Brewery are ready to pour you a mega-pint of IPA (the p standing for pelican not pale).  This little travelogue of the Oregon Coast continues next time with the second of two parts, so stay tuned.  Thanks for reading!

The sea stacks just offshore of Cannon Beach, Oregon are set against a peaceful summer sunset.

The sea stacks just offshore of Cannon Beach, Oregon are set against a peaceful summer sunset.

The Cascades I: Volcanoes Give and Take Away   16 comments

Sunrise on the north side of Mt Hood from the pastoral Hood River Valley, Oregon.

Sunrise on the north side of Mt Hood from the pastoral Hood River Valley, Oregon.

This is the mountain range I’m most familiar with, my home range.  I’ve climbed all of the high Oregon Cascades and many of the bigger Washington ones as well.  So I have personal experience and knowledge of these peaks.  Named for the many waterfalls that tumble over their volcanic cliffs, the Cascades are essentially a northern analogue of the Andes in South America.

The waterfalls for which the Cascades are named occur all through the range, including here at Toketee Falls.

The waterfalls for which the Cascades are named  include Toketee Falls.

GEOGRAPHY

The Cascades are volcanoes that still erupt from time to time, but with the exception of a single mountain are not the most active volcanic chain in the world by any means.  More on the exception below.  The Cascade Range, which stretches for 700 miles (1100 km.) in a north-south direction from Mount Garibaldi in Canada to Mount Lassen in California, is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire (see below).  This whole region of the western Pacific Northwest is often called Cascadia.

The Cascades are dotted with beautiful mountain lakes.

The Cascades are dotted with beautiful mountain lakes.

The dramatic and beautiful mountains that make up the Cascades in most cases exceed 10,000 feet (3000 meters).  The high peaks are generally well-spaced, with many miles of forested lower mountains and hills between each snow-capped peak.  Oregon’s Three Sisters area (which actually includes 5 big volcanoes) is an exception to this wide spacing.  The bunched-up and much more rugged North Cascades in Washington are a whole different range geologically, one that happens to coincide in space (but not time) with the volcanoes of the Cascades.

A wet meadow in Crater Lake National Park blooms with pink monkeyflower, among other flowers.

A wet meadow in Crater Lake National Park blooms with pink monkeyflower, among other flowers.

GEOLOGY

The highest peaks in the Cascades are quite young, most less than 100,000 years old – a moment in the earth’s 4.5 billion-year history.  They are built upon a much older eroded volcanic range, arranged along an axis situated slightly to the west of the present locus of volcanic activity.  These older volcanoes began erupting some 37 million years ago.  It’s lucky for life (including us) that these older, heavily eroded volcanoes are around.  It’s the reason we have those lush forests, those cold streams that nourish the region’s great fish runs, and the habitat for the region’s other wildlife.  And let’s not forget the many waterfalls!

From high on Cooper Spur at Mount Hood, Oregon, the view north includes Mount Adams in Washington.

From high on Cooper Spur at Mount Hood, Oregon, the view north includes Mount Adams in Washington.

The older ancestral Cascades are also responsible for the region’s enormous timber resources plus the very rich soils that drew settlers west along the Oregon Trail.  Volcanoes combine with ample rainfall to make rich soil for farming.  By the way, many often wonder why so many people, worldwide, live near dangerous volcanoes.  It’s simple:  the rich soils around volcanoes, the productive farmland.  There is really not much choice.  We must eat, and so we must live near volcanoes.

While the Western Cascades are responsible for many of the Northwest’s assets, let’s not totally dismiss the younger High Cascades.  Their snowpack, lasting well into summer, gives farmers and ranchers (especially those to the east) water for their crops through typically dry summers.

The older western Cascades are very different in character than the high Cascades.

The older western Cascades are very different in character than the high Cascades.

The Cascades are stratovolcanoes (aka composite cones).  These are the steep-sided, conical volcanoes you drew as a kid in school.  They are made of alternating layers of lava-rock and pyroclastic (ash) deposits.  The volcanic rock is characteristically lighter colored than the basalt which covers the region to the east of the Cascades.  A typical volcanic rock for the Cascades is andesite (named for the Andes), which flows over the ground in a somewhat stickier manner than more fluid basalt (Hawaiian volcanoes erupt basalt).  The Cascades do have their share of basalt too, along with dacite and a few other types of volcanic rock.

An uncommon volcanic rock of the Cascades is obsidian.  It is very rich in silica (SiO2), which is also what quartz is made of.  In liquid lava, dissolved silica acts to make it stickier, more viscous.  Water does the opposite, makes lava less viscous – more fluid.  Obsidian is so rich in silica and erupts so dry that it literally squeezes out of the ground like thick toothpaste, heaping up into mounds and ridges.  Once cooled, obsidian is a beautiful natural glass, normally black, that can be sharp enough to serve as surgical instruments.  Obsidian arrowheads left along old American Indian trails and hunting grounds can still be found throughout the Northwest.

Admiring the view while on a climb in the Cascades.  That is Mount Adams in Washington.

Admiring the view while on a climb in the Cascades. That is Mount Adams in Washington.

THE RING OF FIRE AND PLATE TECTONICS

The Pacific Ring of Fire is that huge circle of volcanoes and earthquake activity that circles the Pacific ocean basin.  Some of the world’s most spectacular eruptions and devastating earthquakes happen along the Ring of Fire.  Truly an enormous geologic feature, it exists because the earth’s tectonic plates rub against and collide with each other (see addendum below if you don’t know about plate tectonics already).  Although they act slowly, the forces are gargantuan.  And something has to occasionally give.

The big snow-capped peaks of the Cascades are classic strato-volcanoes.

The big snow-capped peaks of the Cascades are classic strato-volcanoes.

One example of the power and beauty of the Ring of Fire lies in the remote Aleutian Islands and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.  Here the huge Pacific Plate dives under the North American continental plate (plus a smaller one called the Okhotsk Plate) along a so-called subduction zone.  The plate partially melts as it descends, because of the heat of course – but also because of it is loaded with water (which acts as a flux).  Plumes of magma rising from the descending and melting plate eventually erupt into some of the world’s most active (and thankfully remote) volcanoes.  In the Southern Hemisphere on the opposite side of the Ring of Fire, the oceanic Nazca Plate subducts under the South American plate to form the longest volcanic range in the world, the Andes.

Crater Lake in Oregon fills the collapsed caldera of Mount Mazama, which blew its top about 7000 years ago.

Crater Lake in Oregon fills the collapsed caldera of Mount Mazama, which blew its top about 7000 years ago.

All throughout the Ring of Fire there are earthquakes.  Some of the largest happen as a result of subduction and are called megathrust quakes (how’s that for a name!).  The earthquake that caused the destructive Japanese tsunami of 2011 was of the  megathrust variety.  This enormous earthquake happened where the Pacific Plate subducts beneath Japan’s Honshu Island.  The Pacific Plate moved as much as 20 meters (66 feet) west during the minutes-long quake.  Honshu drew closer to America by about 2.5 meters (8 feet).  The equally destructive Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was also generated by a megathrust quake along a subduction zone.

Other earthquakes happen when two tectonic plates slide past each other.  The San Andreas in California is the most famous example of this so-called transform boundary.  Because these earthquakes happen on land and have fairly shallow epicenters, they can be very destructive.  This is despite the quakes being generally smaller than subduction-zone, megathrust earthquakes.

Climbing in the Cascades.  Mount Adams (right) and Rainier are visible.

Climbing in the Cascades. Mount Adams (right) and Rainier are visible.

ADDENDUM: PLATE TECTONICS

The crust of the earth (plus some extra beneath it) is broken into enormous semi-rigid plates.  Over time, the plates move across the planet’s surface, on average about as fast as your fingernails grow.  That’s an average; during big quakes they can move up to a hundred feet!  But overall it’s a very slow process.  It can take over a million years for a plate to move 50 miles.  They ride atop enormous convection currents in the semi-molten part of the upper mantle.  The mantle is that layer that lies directly beneath the earth’s crust.  The weight of tectonic plates as they descend into the mantle along subduction zones (like the one that lies just off the Pacific Northwest coast) helps to pull the oceanic plates along.

Why do we have tectonics while the other planets don’t seem to?  For one thing the energy that drives the convection currents comes from heat given off by the still cooling interior of the earth.   Mars is too small to have much heat left.  For Earth, much of the core is still molten, and our fast spin sets up complex circulation patterns (which cause our magnetic field).  Combined with heat from the decay of radioactive elements, this gives rise to huge, slowly rising zones of heat.  When they hit the colder, more rigid upper parts of the earth, the crust, the currents spread outward horizontally.

Silver Star Mountain in Washington, after a heavy snowfall.

Silver Star Mountain in Washington, after a heavy snowfall.

But there’s another reason for plate tectonics.  It is because we are a water planet that all this partly molten rock is around.  Venus is much too dry for plate tectonics to get going.  Without water the pressures deep below would not allow enough melting.  Water essentially lubricates the earth’s tectonic system.  And without plate tectonics complex life would most likely not be possible, yet another way water is crucial to a living earth.

This series will continue.  If you are interested in any of the images, just click on them.  They are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks for reading!

Sunset over the Western Cascades, as viewed from Mount Hood in Oregon.

Sunset over the Western Cascades, as viewed from Mount Hood in Oregon.

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