Oregon’s Painted Hills…A Jarful of Colored Artwork

The Oregon Scenic Byway sign read:  Journey Through Time. My camera’s shutter button and right index finger worked overtime at the John Day Fossil Beds  Monument found in the canyons of Wheeler County, Oregon.  Painted Hills is one of the three units of this national monument, totals 3,132 acres, and is named after the colorful layers of its early existence.   Clay soil type, climatic cycling, and the amount of oxidized iron present have given this colorful, rugged landscape a presence in its now semi-arid surroundings found in a series of north central Oregon Badlands.

Layer color corresponds to the various geological eras, formed when the area was an ancient floodplain.  The black soil is lignite that was vegetative matter that grew along the floodplain.  The grey coloring is mudstone, siltstone, and shale.  The red coloring is laterite soil that formed by floodplain deposits when the area was warm and humid.  There is an abundance of fossil remains of early horses, camels, and rhinoceroses in the area. (Internet)

The Trail Sign Read:

Changing Colors—The colors of the Painted Hills constantly change.  After light rains, the hills darken greatly from their normal color.  During very wet periods, the clay absorbs so much water they saturate.  The clay then expands and seals the surface of the hills.  This causes more light to be reflected, changing the red and yellows to a sheen of pastel pink and gold.

When the hills dry, the clay contracts, producing surface cracks that diffuse the light and deepen the color.  Add sunlight, time of day, cloud shadows, and the color of the hills constantly changes.

The Trail Sign Read:

Nothing Grows Here—These hills are inhospitable to plants.  The surface clay particles absorb rain water so well they saturate and seal so moisture cannot penetrate, and hold water so tightly most plants cannot draw it out.  Beneath the surface the clay is hardpan, which is impenetrable to plant roots.  Also, the loose surface provides a poor foothold for roots, making it easy for plants to wash away in heavy rains.

All this, combined with poor nutrient conditions and hot, dry summers, keep the Painted Hills barren, much to our visual and photographic delight.

I felt like I was trekking through a box of crayons, squeezing through colors of ancient Oregon, wringing the vivid geological and climatic histories through my camera lens. For two hours drenched in a timeless palette of color brushed by the Master’s hand, passing through swaths of vibrant mounds of undulating history.  Each creative stroke of the Artist, a saturated pattern of reds, golds, blacks, and yellows, dripping with just a touch of green sagebrush and other wildflower diversity.  Claystone hues and tones continually varying with the ever-changing light and moisture levels as gleaned through the eye of  the Capturer of Light.

Remember the jars of sand art so popular in the 70’s and so painstakingly designed by those little fingers.  The Painted Hills unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument resembles a jarful of colored sand never to be disturbed by human hands.

My pass through Oregon’s high desert secret—a refreshing drink from the Kool Aid stand—a quiet, quenching moment in timeless geological history, layer upon layer—a satisfying, scenic journey…with my camera.   Color me (it) beautiful!

Thanks for journeying through time with me and marveling at this gift from above, tenderly wrapped in heavenly colors.  More Painted Hills images can be seen at www.corinthrose.com  under Travel.


About corinthrose

Born again Christian, helpmate of 42 years, domestic engineer of two children, GRANDmother of six darlings, professional volunteer, fanatic photographer, and a wanna be writer. Occasionally, infatuated with family history, flower photography, and traveling with my hiking buddy.
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4 Responses to Oregon’s Painted Hills…A Jarful of Colored Artwork

  1. Lew and Marlene says:

    Beautiful photos! I always learn a lot when you and Don go places. Thank you, Cheryl! Lew

  2. I love the last photo. Very cool.

  3. Pat Trainum says:

    It’s hard to imagine there are places like you photograph! Thank you for your diligence and the beautiful photos you share.

  4. Nancy says:

    Thank you for letting me explore The Painted Hills. It truly is a giant jarful of colored artwork.

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