Archive for the ‘Painted Hills’ Tag

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.

Single-image Sunday: Abstracted Earth   4 comments

I visited the Painted Hills last week.  This is a beautiful area in central Oregon that is part of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  The excuse for my trip was to see the lunar eclipse.  Well, the clouds rolled in just in time for the eclipse, so that was a bust.  A quick reminder to please check out my campaign to get back on track to making images.  Please share and help me get the word out, whether or not you can contribute right now.  Here’s the link.  Thanks!

Camping in the Painted Hills was very peaceful, lonely even.  I just had my little point and shoot camera of course, so there were some opportunities missed (especially low light and night sky images).  But I did catch some nice light on the hills.  I’ll do a post on the Painted Hills this week & explain why they look like this (it’s been quite awhile since I’ve talked geology here).  I hope everyone is enjoying their Easter Sunday!

Painted_Hills_4-15-14_S95_022

 

Spring in the Pacific Northwest – Part I   8 comments

Portland, Oregon's Tom McCall Waterfront Park in springtime features blooming cherry trees.

Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park features blooming cherry trees in springtime.

Springtime in the Pacific Northwest can last a full 4 months!  That’s right, 1/4 of the year for a season that doesn’t even exist in some places, and in others (the far north for example) it is a couple weeks of melting snow and ice – it’s called breakup not spring in Alaska.  This is the first of a two-part summary of recommended times to visit and photograph the different destinations in this corner of the country.

The two years previous to this one we’ve had very long, cool springs, starting in fits sometime in mid- to late-February and lasting through the July 4th holiday weekend.  Clouds, storms, cool weather, sun, hail, snow in the mountains: you know, spring!  And well over 4 months of it!  But this year it didn’t really start until March and it appears to be over now.  We had some very warm weather (for May), then one more spate of cool, wet weather, then May went out and left us with gorgeous dry summer-like weather.  It looks like it wants to stay too.

The beautiful Falls Creek in Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Beautiful Falls Creek in Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

For photography around these parts, you want to time it so that starting in mid-spring you are out as much as humanly possible.  That’s because a bunch of things happen one after the other.  So here is a brief summary of where to go and when during glorious spring in the Pacific NW.

EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS

East of the Cascade Mountains early flowers bloom beginning in March.  The weather and light is often interesting in early spring too.  But by mid-April, the flowers really start to peak in the drier eastern parts of Oregon and Washington.  This includes the eastern Columbia River Gorge, a dramatic landscape.  Perhaps you’ve heard of or seen images from a place called Rowena Crest (I call it Rowena Plateau, ’cause that’s what it really is).  Fields of yellow arrow-leaf balsamroot abound!

The sunflower-like balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) blooms in profusion along the dry rocky terrain of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

Sunflower-like arrowleaf balsamroot blooms in profusion along the dry rocky terrain of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

A grass widow blooms in the eastern Columbia River Gorge.

A grass widow blooms in the eastern Columbia River Gorge.

Also check out the Washington side of the eastern Gorge for great flower displays and sweeping landscapes – places like Catherine Creek and the Columbia Hills.  The flower bloom gradually moves west and up (in elevation) through May, with purple lupine and red/orange indian paintbrush joining the party.  One of my favorite flowers of the east is the beautiful purple grass widow.  It is very early (March) in eastern Oregon but a little later in the Gorge.  Another favorite of the dry parts, the showy mariposa lily, blooms rather late, throughout May.

Oregon's Painted Hills are made up of repeating layers of colorful and ancient volcanic ash.

Oregon’s Painted Hills are made up of repeating layers of ancient and colorful volcanic ash.

A small fry gambles in the spring pasture near the town of Fossil, central Oregon.

A small fry gambols in the spring pasture near the town of Fossil, central Oregon.

The Palouse of Washington state is a beautiful rural area of quiet farms.

The Palouse of Washington state is a beautiful rural area of quiet farms.

It’s worth trying to hit the dry, eastern parts of the Pacific Northwest (our steppe) sometime in April or May.  This includes the popular landscape photo destinations of the Palouse in Washington and the Painted Hills in Oregon.  Photographers should try to time a visit with some weather if possible, since clear skies are the rule out there.

I visited the Palouse this year in late May.  That was a bit late but really only for the flower-bloom in a few areas (like Kamiak Butte).  I had an injury and could not go when I originally wanted to, but it happened to work out perfectly.  The weather & light conditions at the end of May were superb.  For the Palouse, really anytime in spring through early summer is a good time to visit; any later and those famous rolling green fields lose their sheen.

Driving the rural roads of the Palouse in eastern Washington.

Driving the rural roads of the Palouse in eastern Washington.

The Palouse in eastern Washington is a region of wide-open spaces.

The Palouse in eastern Washington is a region of wide-open spaces.

Self-portraiture in the Painted Hills, central Oregon.

Self-portraiture in the Painted Hills, central Oregon.

THE VERDANT FORESTS

Anytime in mid- to late-spring (April or May), during or just after rains, visits to your favorite waterfalls and cascading creeks are very worthwhile.  This is because the warmer weather and intermittent sunshine, along with abundant moisture, really amps up the already green forests and fields of the Pacific Northwest.  The almost electric green of mosses and ferns, the thundering fullness of the countless waterfalls, all of this results in photographers snapping many many images of a kind of green paradise.

The rugged Salmon River Canyon of western Oregon is mantled in clouds and dusted with a late-season snowfall.

The rugged Salmon River Canyon of western Oregon is mantled in clouds and dusted with a late-season snowfall.

Oregon's highest waterfall is in springtime flood:  Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge.

Oregon’s highest waterfall is in springtime flood: Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge.

The Columbia River Gorge is the most common destination (and features the most in pictures you’ll see), but really any forested area laced with creeks and rivers will do.  The Salmon River Valley near Mount Hood, the Lewis River Valley near Mount St. Helens, the North Santiam and Little North Santiam east of Salem, they’re all good!  In mid-spring (April into early May), look out for our signature forest flower, the beautiful trillium.

Dogwood Blooms along the trail in western Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Dogwood Blooms along the trail in western Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Ferns and a waterfall thrive in a dim grotto deep in the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon.

Ferns and a waterfall thrive in a dim grotto deep within the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon.

Stay tuned for the second part on this subject.  If you’re interested in any of these images, simply click on them to access purchase options for the high-resolution versions.  Then click “add this image to cart”.  It won’t be added to your cart right away though; you need to make choices first.  Thanks for your interest, and please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions or comments.

A small creek in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge rolls through a mossy forest.

A small creek in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge rolls through a mossy forest.

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

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

Friday Foto Talk: Shooting at Sunrise & Sunset – Part I   7 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.

I moderated a discussion last night with my photo club, all about photography at sunrise and sunset.  Not surprisingly, I found it difficult to narrow things down so we could avoid talking all night.  Photographing at sunrise and sunset covers a lot of ground: things like technique, equipment and style, along with issues like safety and locations (including avoiding over-photographed subjects).

In this first part of a two-part post, I’ll go through some important things to think about when planning and setting out to shoot at sunrise and sunset, things I’ve learned over the years, and equipment to bring along.  Tune in next Friday for Part II, which will cover what types of things to shoot when the sun is low, plus tips on how best to capture them.

Sunset is not just for landscapes: Portland, Oregon's street fair known as First Thursday.

Sunset is not just for landscapes: Portland, Oregon’s street fair known as First Thursday.

Tips

      • Planning – The Photographer’s Ephemeris:  Google and download this free application (there is a charge for mobile versions) so you can see rising and setting times for both sun and moon, along with a map-based view of rising and setting directions for any location you specify.  
      • Planning – Research:  While you’re traveling about your local area, be aware of where the sun has risen and will set, and whether it offers some opportunity for nice shots in good light.  Read about nice viewpoints on hiking websites or guidebooks.  Talk to friends.  But don’t stress on planning things to a tee; get out and see what happens (see Location below).
      • Planning – Timing & Scouting:  For sunset, when the light builds in quality and then after sunset slowly transitions to the subtle beauty of blue hour, it’s okay to not have a specific location picked out.  Pick out a general area and see how things shape up light-wise when you get there.  But leave plenty of time, arriving up to a couple hours before sunset time.  For sunrise, it’s important to scout beforehand (the day or weekend before).  You want a more specific idea of where you’ll shoot from compared to sunset.  Still, arrive anywhere from a half hour to an hour before sunrise.  The progress of the light is the reverse of that at sunset, so things happen more quickly to start out, with blue hour being first to appear and the light quality fading more slowly.
      • Location – Where?  I’ve found this to be something many photographers have trouble with – where to go?  Although you can certainly get recommendations from photog. friends as a way to start out, I recommend finding your own spots.  Drive out to areas you know are scenic late in the day towards sunset.  Stop and take pictures at places you find compelling or beautiful.  While you’re doing that, try to imagine if it would be good for sunrise too.  Go anywhere you know has a relatively clear horizon towards the east and/or west, someplace scenic.  This is winging it I realize, but it works to get you away from over-shot locales.  Use others for inspiration or information of course.  And there’s nothing wrong with photographing a popular spot in great light.  But you will benefit in the long run to find your own compositions.
      • Location – General:  For me at least, bodies of water nearly always help a picture, especially at sunrise or sunset.  Because of its reflectivity, water helps with contrast, and it can also act as a beautiful mirror.  Also look for relatively un-vegetated areas (such as desert or grassland).  As with water, the bright, reflective nature of these landscapes help with contrast, especially when shooting into the sun.  As you get better at exposure and use of filters, go for darker landscapes.
      • Location – Elevation:  An elevated position (your classic viewpoint) is always worth looking for, though shooting from lower down, next to water or down the length of a valley framed by trees for example, is also a good plan.
The sunflower-like arrowleaf balsamroot blooms in profusion below a darkening dusk sky in the rocky terrain of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

The sunflower-like arrowleaf balsamroot blooms in profusion below a darkening dusk sky in the rocky terrain of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

      • Light:  This is of course one of the two most important things that will determine how good your photos turn out (the other being your subject/composition).  Clouds and unsettled weather are good for a number of reasons.  But when the sun sets into a thick bank of clouds well before the light gets good, I don’t think you’ll tend to agree with this wisdom.  I always consider clouds better than a clear sky, but whether this turns out to be the case for any given sunset or sunrise is another thing.  One thing is certain: when the sun peeks out from beneath gorgeous, colorful and dramatic clouds just before setting, putting forth beautiful crepuscular rays (a.k.a. Jesus rays), you will thank yourself for ignoring the threatening weather or rain earlier and heading out.  Clouds can also turn outrageous colors after the sun sets.  But good luck predicting any of this hours before sunset.  Believe me I’ve tried.
      • Composition – Elements:  Picking out silhouettes is a great idea when shooting toward the sun.  They must be recognizable and nearly black to work (expose for the bright sky behind the silhouetted object).  Also worthwhile during iffy weather is keeping an eye out on the scene away from the sun.  Golden light and rainbows are not an uncommon reward.  Reflections are also worth looking for, either in water or (in the case of cityscapes) on buildings.
      • Composition – Depth:  As any photography 101 book will tell you, try to find beautiful or interesting foreground elements to put in the bottom or at the sides of your frame, and get close to them (a few feet is not too close!).  Try for a photo with great depth, your aperture at f/22 or similar.  But never think this is always the best choice.  Other types of compositions, say with the closest elements a hundred or more yards away or even an image that is all background and sky, are not “amateur” or the lessor image in any sense.  They will provide variety to your pictures, and often have more impact (and sharpness) than photos with a lot of depth.
      • Composition – Your Frame:  You’ve heard of the rule of thirds, and not centering elements in the middle of your frame.  When you’re shooting at sunset or sunrise, the sky and landscape often contrast greatly with each other.  Unless you have strong subsidiary layering (such as a strong line of hills or trees, a reflection), it’s usually not a good idea to center the horizon line.  Decide which is more interesting, above or below the horizon, and shoot with that taking up roughly 2/3 or more of the frame.  If your decision here wasn’t a slam-dunk, quickly raise or lower the camera so you’re emphasizing the opposite section.  There’s nothing wrong with hedging your bets!
The Painted Hills in central Oregon takes on deep hues at dusk.

The Painted Hills in central Oregon takes on deep hues at dusk.

      • Equipment:  

Bring a good solid tripod with ball-head.  And use it!  If you don’t like using your shutter-delay mode, also get a cable release.  

A wide-angle lens, offering a focal length no longer than about 27 mm. (35 mm equivalent) is really necessary for most landscape photography, including sunset and sunrise.  A focal length on the order of 15 mm. or so will give you an ultrawide view and help to make everything in your frame sharp from front to back (if you use a small aperture – f/22 for example).  Don’t leave your normal or long focal-length lenses home however.  Many of my best sunset and sunrise photos were taken at focal lengths of 50 mm., 100 mm., even 200 mm. or more!  

For filters, bring a graduated neutral density filter or two, the rectangular (not screw-in) type.  Singh-Ray makes an excellent one, and a 3-stop grad. is a great first purchase.  Also I highly recommend a circular polarizer.

Bring a flashlight or headlamp whether doing sunset or sunrise.  There’s nothing worse than dropping an item and not being able to search for it in the grass because of low-light.

Totally optional but nice to have are knee pads for getting down low near your foreground without denting your knee on a sharp rock.  Also if you’re anything like me and love to get very near to a watery foreground, bring or wear rubber boots (“wellies”).  Some photogs. even bring hip waders.  Or you can do what I often do and simply wear warm wool socks, old sneakers and quick-drying pants.  It will toughen you up getting your feet and legs wet, and you can then claim that you “suffer for your art”.

The sun goes down with a show of glory along the Redwood Coast, northern California.

The sun goes down with a show of glory along the Redwood Coast, northern California.

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