Just when you think you have seen it all by sheer luck you find an incredible new road virtually unknown to the general public. Just outside of Bend, Oregon located in Central Oregon is a road that took us by surprise. It’s a photographer’s dream! We planned on visiting the Painted Hills a colorful sandy mountainous area layered in deep reds, gold and yellow colors. A very rare geological wonder that is hard to find anywhere else in the world.
We knew it was going to be a long day so with the alarm set for 6 a.m. we were off and running. A short drive from Bend along Highway 97 is Smith Rock. This well known and rock climbers paradise stands like a sentry overlooking the high desert. The crags of the rock give character to this park as you walk the small trail above for a grand view. For a longer trek with a little more effort take the trail to the bottom of the small canyon along the Crooked River. We didn’t have enough time but if you are a hiker you could spend the whole day hiking trails at Smith Rock.
Back onto Highway 97 we drove to Madras. Taking the winding almost uninhabited road to Antelope we only saw 2 other cars along the way. Once a small historic pioneering village in the ’1980’s Antelope made headlines when Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh over took the town with his cult followers. Thousands infiltrated the area and ran out families who had been there for generations. Antelope was a popular stagecoach stop for travelers making their way to the Columbia River. That was until the Columbia Southern Railway started service around 1900. At one time Antelope had a population of thousands but today there are only about 46 people living there permanently. Talking to “Fred” a local resident I asked if there are any original families living there at this time. He said unfortunately only one is left. She is a 96 year old lady who purchased her house back after Rajneesh left. She actually lives in the room she was born in to this day.
Antelope and the Palisades a photographer’s dream
After an hour walking around the old town and talking with the friendly locals we hopped in the car to continue our journey. This is where it got really good! About 15 minutes from Antelope we came around a bend in the road and were hit by the most incredible rock formations anywhere. It was so great I yelled at John “Stop the car now!”. We were almost speechless at the beauty and intriguing sight. Craggy towering rock spires stretching up into the perfectly blue sky had us undone. Evidently the few other travelers on this road had the same experience. Everyone stopped in the small parking area and started climbing up the rocks to have a look. The trail may have taken all of 10-15 minutes but I just had to make the climb. The Palisades at the Clarno have this amazing way of looking like faces are etceched into the rocks if you look carefully. John on the other hand saw some old wooden buildings across the road and decided to venture out that way instead. Meanwhile talking to the other climbers we enjoyed sharing our thoughts and out of the 7 other cars only one was Oregon. Six out of the seven were from California and all were in Oregon to find land to buy. Due to the drought and over population they are all moving to Oregon. The other couple were from Japan and wanted to get a glimpse of the Wild, Wild West!
Interestingly as John was checking out the old homesteads from the mid 1800’s he found the doors were open and all that the residents had owned were still in the homes completely intact. This area has a few remnants left from the past sheep herding days.
We found this drive is part of the John Day Fossil Beds with 3 separate sections referred to as “units”. This one here at the Palisades is named the Clarno Unit. You can find fossils with feathers, shells even some prehistoric bones if you have the time to explore. The second is the Sheep Rock Unit where millions of years of ash and particles create green rock formations. And finally the Painted Hills Unit, again millions of years creating layers of earth with reddish, blacks and golden tones. Definitely a photographer’s dream!
Up the road a couple minutes is an old sheep herding station. The corrals for the sheep are made out of tall thin tree stalks. The pioneers of the time had to use whatever wood they could find as the ride to town by horse and wagon could take a couple days. The view from the station of the rugged half butte is what you expect of the old west. You can imagine the hard working farmer’s fixing fence with sheep spread out throughout the deep valley.
The town of Fossil is a short drive from there. Its not a large town with maybe about 500 residents. We stopped long enough to take a quick look. The buildings have old time rustic charm with a few restaurants and shops. What put this place on the map is the ancient fossils you can find here, hence the name of the town. To see what they have dug up visit the high school for the small museum of interesting artifacts.
From Fossil its about a 1 hour drive to our next stop Mitchell. The time went by quickly though with pine trees and rugged mesa’s leading the way. Again we had an unplanned “WOW” factor as we came around a bend in the road and saw another crag formation but this time it was green. Never before have we seen green mountains! This is not an unusual sight in this area though, at Sheep Rock the layers of blueish-green hues dominate the landscape. Why you might ask? With millions of years of volcanic ash as the sediment layered it created this colorful strata. Although we didn’t have time to make it to Sheep Rock if you have two days in this area it would give you plenty of time to visit. There are some wonderful hikes along this range. The fossil beds here have found evidence of Woolly Mammoth’s and Saber Tooth Tigers. As ridiculous as it sounds rhinoceros bones have been found here too.
Arriving into Mitchell was like going back to the 1900’s. False store fronts with old equipment straddled along the small road. The town is very tiny but due to its close location to the Painted Hills it stays busy. When you talk about the old west this town was the perfect example, saloons, houses of ill repute, and a livery stable. As a stage coach stop gold miners would come here to replenish their supplies and have a day of drunken revelry. Today Mitchell is the gateway to the Painted Hills and draws small crowds throughout the year. What really makes Mitchell is the hotel, its a great stopping point if you decide you want to take your time touring this route.
The Painted Hills
Finally the reason we took this trip, the Painted Hills. With camera’s ready we drove the few miles to the sight. Taking a small road with a few teaser’s of painted hills along the way we were amused with the loose cattle and calves we had to drive around. One little calf was quite curious as to what were those human beings doing inside that car?
Passing by the ranger station a skinny dirt road takes you to the first and probably most photographed spot for the Painted Hills. It was busy so we parked along the road and walked up to the trail. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was surprised that these hills were more sandy than rock. You could see footprints of animals who climbed up the smaller ones and hiker prints where they should not have gone.
The hills were smooth with rounded peaks and domes. It looks like someone painted red and brown pin stripes throughout the landscape.
The Painted Hills was enjoyable and took about an hour or so to see what we wanted. The drive took us about 10 hours for the whole day. We left from Bend then returned to Redmond for the night. We would have stayed in Prineville but the hotels were sold out for the night and traveling with a dog makes it difficult to find a room last minute. Other than hotels, gas and food this route is completely free. We carried our Oregon State Parks parking pass just in case but never had a need for it.
This “dream” route was one of our favorite drives of all time. And our question is, after living in Oregon for over 25 years why did we not know about this exotic little gem?