Revisiting John Day: Painted Hills and Clarno

January 3, 2010.

The last time I came through the John Day National Monument I had just undergone knee surgery and could barely walk a quarter of a mile, so I didn’t get to do much sightseeing beyond what was outside the car window. I was really excited to get out onto all the scenic trails and get a better feel for the cool rock features present here. There are three units to the National Monument. I would visit 2 today. All are located way off the beaten path. There’s no reason to come out here, really, ever…but I didn’t mind the hours of driving through remote, beautiful country, to visit in the off season.

Painted Hills

I began the morning with a trip to the Painted Hills, located just outside Mitchell. I parked at the Painted Hills Overlook Trail lot and walked 1/4 mile to its terminus near a giant clay hill. The hills are truly magnificent, colored in rich golds, reds and rusts, streaked with black and sometimes green. This trail was pretty mediocre, save for the cool icy foliage I saw along the way.

From here I walked back to the road and crossed it to begin walking up the Carroll Rim Trail. This trail switchbacks up the adjacent slope, giving a much greater view of the area. There is even a little bench along the way if the 3/4 mile hike up knocks the wind out of you. Near the bench there was the broken end of an animal long bone. There were lots of tracks on the trail, but most were likely from man’s best friend. The rocks along the trail are really interesting to look at, and a keen geologist would be able to retell a great story of Oregon’s ancient past just by observing them. I just like taking pretty pictures, so that is what I did. Upon reaching the top I basked in the sun a little bit as I looked down at the awesome scenery below. A ranch sat nestled near a lake to one side and the monument’s hills sprawled out on the other side. A quick jaunt downhill brought me back to my car, and I headed to the next stop.

The Leaf Hill Trail, or Lame Hill Trail, as I’d prefer to call it, encircles a tiny bump where some geologist collected a lot of fossils. Well, that’s all good for him, but there’s nothing to see here now. And the trail is barely a quarter mile long. There is a nice view of a golden brown hill in the distance from here, and there were some interesting ice crystals forming in the clay, but I would recommend skipping this one if you ever make it out here.

I saved the best for last with the Painted Cove Trail. This is the most bang-for-your-buck 1/4 mile hike anywhere in the universe. The boardwalk and carefully placed trail puts you face to face with these awesomely unique hills. You can see the popcorn-like texture of the clay, tiny braided streams running off from the hills (at least this time of year), and incredibly diverse geology from time periods spanning millions of years. What fascinated me the most on this trip was the unusual orange-colored runoff that was partially frozen. It created this surreal paint-like stuff that trickled along the base of the clay mounds. I bet this place holds secret seasonal gems that change frequently throughout the year. It was truly incredible.

And the views don’t stop. I was glad no one else was on the road as I weaved my way back to the highway, gawking at the scenery and trying to take pictures through the window. It’s too bad so much of the place is off-limits for human travel. But, I suppose, that is how they are able to keep it so pretty and pristine.

Clarno Unit

Another 2 hours on the road and I found myself at the Clarno Unit of John Day. Actually, before I reached my destination I pulled off the road to photograph some random green cliffs and banded rock that caught my eye from the highway. One day I will get that Oregon Roadside Geology and figure out what’s going on out there. One day…

There are two parking areas at the Clarno Unit and they are connected by the Geologic Time Trail. I began at the east end, reading the little signboards along the way. The trail terminates at the Trail of the Fossils loop, which is also punctuated with interpretive signs. All along the way there are fossil imprints in the boulders beside the trail. The well-placed and well-written signs explain the story of how the fossils got there and how to identify them.

The final trail on my journey was the Clarno Arch Trail that climbs up the hillside to the base of the Fort Rock-like structure reaching into the sky. There is a warning sign instructing hikers to be prepared with sturdy boots and to be careful not to slip off the trail and perish from tumbling down the steep drop off. I wonder what kind of yahoos come here that require the land manager to come up with such ridiculous signage. The 1/4 mile trail is well graded, easy to walk on, and is completely non-threatening. After a few switchbacks, the trail parallels steep rock walls that look like they’ve been eroded by water, another Fort Rock-like feature. The rock surface is studded with knobs and pockets; it looked like it had the potential for some enjoyable rock climbing, which is prohibited according to posted signs. This place has lots of signs. At the top of the trail there is a rock arch. More interesting, in my opinion, are the folds of rock underneath it that look like they were sculpted by a waterfall. On the way back down, I passed by two hikers, the first people I’d seen on a trail all weekend.

I loved this trip. I loved the solitude. I loved the rocks. I loved the animal tracks in the snow. I loved the quirky little towns I drove through and the people I met there. It required a lot of miles in the car but I feel they were totally justified. Anyone repeating this drive should bear in mind that many of the towns found on the map house approximately two buildings and a stray dog each, and should not count on them for gas, food, or anything else. Fossil, Clarno, Antelope, and Service Creek. I bet at least one or two will turn into ghost towns before long. According to the woman at the cafe in Mitchell, Wheeler County is Oregon’s poorest, and I got that impression by just passing through.

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