December 17, 2012.
Day 2: Smith Rock and Painted Hills
We woke up to cold, wind and sun the next morning having survived our first night in the wild. After chowing down some hot breakfast we took a short drive to Smith Rock State Park. We had no intentions of hanging out, just taking a few quick photos and getting on our way. The parking lot was eerily empty. A magpie squawked loudly from a tree just above my head.
Why not stay? We had some driving to do. Besides, I’d been to Smith a million times, so I was happy to seek scenery elsewhere. We drove through Prineville and the Ochoco Mountains amid beautiful snowy mountains and sprawling ranches.
We made it to our first destination just after noon: the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds. Temperatures were chilly and the wind was still blowing quite furiously, so we got decked out in warm down jackets and wind protection, then headed out on the first of three very short trails. No one was here. The sun was shining through occasional clouds as we admired the bright colors in the hills.
My favorite hike here is the Painted Cove trail. This 0.2 mile loop is the prettiest little hike around. The boardwalk takes you right up against the colorful mounds, where you can truly appreciate the texture of the rock up close. These ancient hills were formed from a tumultuous volcanic history that deposited layers of ash, rock and minerals that have been eroded by wind and water.
The Christmas socks made a brief appearance in a sheltered spot on the trail out of the wind. I daresay this might have been the first Christmas sock sighting at this location in all the history of the fossil beds. I guess the dinosaurs couldn’t have celebrated Christmas. And I bet they didn’t mass-produce seasonal socks.
As we ate lunch, a light snow began to fall. It didn’t last long, but it did add to the beauty of the place. Reluctantly, we left and headed for the Sheep Rock Unit.
We drove through Picture Gorge and stopped at the Blue Basin trailhead for a mile of hiking. The sky had clouded over but the scenery was still spectacular. We walked along a creekbed, crossing several metal bridges, as we ooh-ed and aah-ed over the milky green water pooling beneath our feet. The blue-green rock on either side of us was crevassed, eroded, and sculpted into interesting patterns. It was late by the time we ended this hike, so we wouldn’t have enough time to see the last item on the day’s agenda: the Alaska Cedar Grove some 30-odd miles away.
We drove in that direction anyways, to camp somewhere near tomorrow’s destination. We ended up at Billy Fields Campground in the Malheur National Forest. There was about an inch of snow on the ground, but it was the dry, fluffy stuff that felt as light as air. We had a picnic table, fire ring, and outhouse here. It was a classy place to call home. The sky was clear and we could see hundreds of stars. We broke out all the down we had to sleep warmly on this cold night.
View all the photos on Picasa.