Sometimes there’s no better cure for a case of restlessness than to just go out and be a tourist in your own backyard. I am fortunate to live in a place where people spend their whole year planning and saving to visit, but it can be easy to take for granted the things that others love so much about Central Oregon.
Justin and I were feeling a little adventurous recently, so we decided to hop into the Jeep and take a day trip about 80 minutes east to the Painted Hills and John Day River, which are part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. This area of Oregon holds a lot of special memories for me, as my grandparents lived a few miles past the hills for many years (they still own property along the John Day River) and I grew up spending summers and holidays fishing the John Day and exploring the endless miles of hills and desert terrain. It was also my dad’s favorite place to spend quality time with his family, and after he passed we spread his ashes along the river and up in the vast hills where he so loved to be.
After a beautiful drive over the Ochoco Mountains, it’s not long before you turn onto a smaller paved road that weaves along the hillside and parallels Bridge Creek. It only takes about 10 minutes before you pull up to the Painted Hills lookout and are surrounded by layers of colors that make you believe you might have landed on another planet. Who knows, maybe you have.
“The unique colors that streak the clay rich hills and mounds were formed over 35 million years ago by different volcanic eruptions and changing climate patterns. Once this area was a river flood plain with a warm tropical climate and an abundance of plants forming lush forests with exotic animals such as prehistoric horses, elephants, camels and saber tooth tigers roaming freely. Over time the landscape transformed again and again responding to the powerful forces of nature. Layers of ash and different types of soil mixed with minerals and plant material and eroded causing the unique coloring of the Painted Hills landscape we see today.”
Really? Tropical forests in the deserts of eastern Oregon? And camels and elephants and saber tooth tigers? Oh my. Justin and I explored one of the short trails that heads out from the overlook before venturing up the longer and more strenuous trail to the top of Carroll Rim. Longer is a relative term, as this trail is barely two miles round-trip but worth the small amount of effort. And it’s amazing how many people a “small amount of effort” weeds out, as we had the trail largely to ourselves. Along the journey you will likely see a variety of rocks and terrain, wildflowers, and views/perspectives of the landscape that will make you stop in your tracks.
Despite the fact that it was spring break and I had never seen so many people here during previous visits, viewpoint atop Carroll Rim all to ourselves. This allowed for some photos ops and quiet moments to look around and take in the scenery. Anyone notice the baby bump?
On a side note that is of particular interest to me as a psychologist, there is a small kiosk containing a hiker registry at the start of the Carroll Rim trail. When we arrived at the registry close to noon, it was obvious that many people had already been on the trail that day, but nobody had bothered to sign in. My husband being the little “Ranger Rick” that he is, of course signed us in. On the way back down we passed several groups of hikers on their way up, and when we checked the registry back at the trailhead ALL OF THEM had signed it. It’s funny what a society of conformists we are, whereby people are often reluctant to do something until someone else goes first, and others are then quick to follow.
There are a number of smaller trails around the area that allow you to explore and learn about the significance of the region. We decided to take the scenic loop on foot around the Painted Cove (where we were also first to sign the trail registry, but didn’t get a chance to go back and see if we had started another trend!) and read more about the hills with an up close and personal experience.
There were moments of questioning whether I was on Earth or on Mars. The clay hills were so vibrantly red and colorful. It had rained the day before and apparently the hills have a tendency to change colors depending on the moisture, cloud cover, and time of day. I’ve heard the best time to see them is right before sunset.
By the time we were finished hiking our stomachs were hangry, so we made our way down to the family picnic area, sat at a picnic table, and inhaled the Subway sandwiches we had picked up on our way out of town. My options at Subway (or pretty much at any restaurant for that matter) are somewhat limited these days due to the extremely small but very real chance of contracting listeria from deli meat, and the subsequent risks that would pose to the baby, but thankfully the oven roasted chicken breast is heated and that removes the risk.
The large grassy picnic area also has restrooms and an information center where you can learn more about the area and take a few brochures/maps with you on the road. It was the perfect way to refuel before heading down to the river and taking a dirt road “scenic loop” back to the main highway.
There were three extra special things that happened throughout the day to make it more memorable.
1) On our way out to the hills, we drove by an Erickson Air-Crane sucking up water from the local reservoir, probably training and prepping for the upcoming fire season. It’s been a record dry year, so it’s good (and it bit scary) to see them out there so early. My husband is a bit of a nerd when it comes to aircraft (seriously, who in their right mind watches shows called Mighty Planes and Mighty Ships on the Smithsonian Channel?), so naturally we pulled over to watch it hover over the water and fill its tank before flying off into the hills. Yep, I married that guy.
2) While driving the scenic dirt road back around to the highway after lunch, we drove through a narrow, winding canyon that was surrounded by tall, steep, rocky cliffs covered in various shades of mossy green. Because it had rained in the days prior, there were countless waterfalls trickling down the sides of these cliffs for a couple miles.
3) This is yet another story from the “Yep, I married that guy” file. I had mentioned to Justin that my grandparents had once told me about an old cemetery hidden somewhere along the roadside near the Painted Hills. Let me just say, if you reference anything old and historical to my husband, he will make it his mission to find it. Rather than heading straight home after completing our scenic loop, we doubled back toward the welcome center once again in hopes we would luck out and come across it. We were running out of road when two things happened at the exact same time: I spotted a barely visible dirt road leading off into the scrub brush, and Justin noticed something white off in the distance. Turns out that road lead to that white thing (which was actually a grave monument) and we found the Carroll Cemetery, which was established in 1870. It was quiet, peaceful, and surreal, and I could go on and on about the experience but I think Justin summed it up best in this Instagram post:
“The Painted Hills are always amazing, but I learn something new every time I visit. Today @kristenyaxphd and I discovered this little cemetery off the beaten path, where generations of the Carroll, Wilson, and Helms families and a few others have been laid to rest. Among them, Stephen Carroll, who was born in 1793 and fought in the War of 1812, several people who perished in a flood on June 2, 1884, and a headstone labeled simply “Foster Boy – A Neighbor, 188?” It filled me with gratitude for the people in my life, and reminded me that off the beaten path is a great place to find yourself when you #traveloregon.”
I might make fun of Justin from time to time for his nerdy tendencies (one day it’s going to make him a great contestant on Jeopardy), but it’s really just a by-product of his curious nature and desire to learn anything and everything he can. That desire to learn, see, and do more, along with our shared passion for adventure and exploration, not only makes us a great fit for each other, it allows us to experience things – like the Carroll Cemetery – that most people never see.
If you are ever in the Central Oregon area, I highly recommend taking the time to explore this little hidden gem out east. You won’t find a place like this anywhere else in the world, and I’ll even draw you a map to the cemetery.
If you were going to be a tourist in your own backyard for a day, what would you do?
What is the most “touristy” attraction where you live?