And The Hills Bleed Paint

The rainfall grew, starting softly to moisten the dried dirt and clay, then growing to create rivulets of water, streaming down the hills. But it was not a simple muddy brown runoff; yellows over there, maroons there, ochers, reds, oranges, greys, shades of brown from light tan to dark brown ran and collected. It was as if a giant Jackson Pollock had one too many drinks, and in his drunken stumble kicked over all the cans of paint in his studio.

In the late summer of 2014 my wife and I thought it was time to explore Central Oregon. Western Oregon gets most of the press.  With ocean shores, lush forests, waterfalls, and fertile valleys, if you were to ask the average visitor to describe Oregon in one word they’d likely say “green.”  But Oregon is almost like two states: the well-watered, more densely populated green state on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, and the sparser deserts to the east.  As the Cascades run down the east edge of the western third, Central Oregon falls into the dry zone.

Except when it rains paint, of course.

Click on any picture for a larger view.

Our day of departure started off with an inauspicious start. The wife woke up with an attack of vertigo, and for a time we thought we’d need to abort.  Fortunately, it eased up, and we were off to the Painted Hills.


The Painted Hills are in north central Oregon, about 9 miles northwest of the little town of Mitchell.  We arrived in the early evening, but hopes of seeing the hills at their best were dashed. Rather than the glowing light of a golden hour embracing the warm colors of the hills, the stormy greys of a cloud deck threatened to add more mud to the prior night’s storm residue.

This wasn’t your usual mud either. Made from the silt of a very fine clay, if you were to walk in it, rather than simply getting a little dirt on your shoes you’d accumulate it in clumps, with the load growing on each sticky step.


Although rain threatened and the light was waning, we did make it to the main viewpoint.


Colors were subdued, but the spectacle remained. Sure, it wasn’t bathed in golden sunlight, but it left promise for the day to come.

We spent the evening in Mitchell.  Being such a small town, the only place I’d found to stay was the Oregon Hotel. Originally built in the late 1800’s and rebuilt in 1904 after a fire, it’s best described as more homey than fancy. But it was clean and relatively inexpensive, and did the job nicely.  It also gave us the chance to meet a few fellow guests.


Nope, not this guy,  we encountered him on the trail.

But there was a couple older gents, folks who’d grown up in the region and came back periodically for reunions and to do a bit of fishing. They’d brought enough food for a regiment and invited pretty much everyone to join them for a steak dinner, cooked on a hot plate.  We wanted to check out one of the restaurants in town, but after our return we did join them for a drink – seems one of them was a homebrewer.  I can’t say for certain, but it’s possible that tasty brew was a factor when I bid on a homebrewing starter kit at a silent auction a couple months later, setting me on the path of yet another hobby.

The threat of rain had dissipated somewhat the following day, so we returned to the hills and explored their trails.





You may wonder by now, what caused all these strata of colors?

35 million years ago this area was a tropical floodplain.  Covered with vegetation, decomposition, time and changing climates laid different layers, augmented with ash from the occasional volcanic eruption. These muddy layers also made for good fossil territory.  About 35 miles east of Mitchell is the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, where scientists actively study the region’s 50 million years of plant and animal evolution through a massive collection of 40,000 fossils.


And if you think I exaggerate, speaking of hills bleeding paint, creating a new palette of colors, check this… DSC_1241_HDR-600

56 thoughts on “And The Hills Bleed Paint

  1. This is great, I never heard of these Painted Hills before, it really does look like a massive paintbox – – the last shot really reminded me of Art Day in primary school, only neater. It’s a pretty neat planet we’ve got, always up to something, maybe a bit temperamental — hard to believe this was a tropical floodplain.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hard to believe ocean fossils in the Rockies too, but they’re there. It’s an amazing planet, and sometimes folks forget how old it is and that we’re likely just a relatively short, passing phase.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved our trip to the Painted Hills last November. They’re one of the more stunning attractions east of the Cascades, that’s for sure. We did not stay in Mitchell but opted to continue on to Pendleton instead. Sounds like we missed out on some interesting local flavor!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. J.D. Riso

    So true that most never hear of Oregon’s desolate regions. I’d rather explore this area than the coast. I also like the stormy skies. True it dulls the colors, but it adds to the sinister beauty of the landscape.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t get many dramatic stormy sky pictures. Around here the rains are usually accompanied by flat grey skies – no texture or lightning. I don’t know that I’d rather explore the desert side, but I really do need to explore more of it.


  4. This post made me feel homesick for the red earth when the first rains come after a long dry spell in Africa. Something that remains as one of my favorite experiences and definitely my favorite smell. Your photos are glorious. They give the feeling of being submerged into a huge earth toned painters palette.

    What a glorious place to visit.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dramatic skies and a unique landscape – what more could we ask for?

      I’m a little surprised some movie company doesn’t use it as a backdrop. However the hills themselves, at least the ones without any growth, are a bit fragile so access is limited. I hear rattlesnakes like to hang out off path as well…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Had to look up plein air painting, amazing how much changing one little letter in a word will do. You could probably still do it, but you’d need to pay attention to your nearby surroundings as well as the subject.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I enjoyed this, Dave. Your writing just flows along…. We went to explore central OR last year, in May, and stayed at an airbnb outside Mitchell. I love your story about the men and their reunion – easy to picture, having been through the area. We loved the small towns in that area. Everyone was preparing for the eclipse onslaught – that was a little scary, imagining thousands of people in those tiny towns. Apparently it all went well though. We didn’t have rain – that was bad luck! – but it was overcast. Still, the Painted Hills were amazing. Your final photo is fantastic! Have you ever been to the Kam Wah Chung Heritage Site in John Day over in John Day? We were floored by that place.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lynn. I just started looking into AirBnB last year, I suspect it’ll be a regular option going forward. I imagine the hoards descending on those towns would both a sight to see and avoid. I haven’t been to the Kam Wah Chung site, but saw a feature on it on our local PBS station a while back. I haven’t actually been in John Day since I passed through moving out here in ’77 – guess I’m due.


      1. I guess it would be more than a day trip. 🙂 If you try airbnb, stick with 5 star only, because everyone is overly generous with their ratings. Read reviews carefully to tease out what you want and don’t want. I think I’ve stayed in airbnb’s over 20 times, and only one or two were less than satisfactory, and many were great.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s one thing about doing a post on these sort of sites, folks suggest similar amazing ones: Artist’s Palette, Painted Desert in AZ, etc. Guess we’ll have to do something like your van trips. Is your rig prebuilt campervan style, or did you customize?


      1. The Southwest is the place to go. 🙂
        We bought it all set up, Dave. Pleasure Way, Roadtrek and other companies produce them. I understand that there is a company in your neck of the woods that does conversions, however. –Curt

        Liked by 1 person

  6. What a bummer about the weather, can you imagine how it’d have been with the sun, or some puffy clouds à la Windows 98 wallpaper? I’m afraid you’ll have to go back Dave…

    It’s incredible how a ‘freak accident’, at least geologically speaking, created such a wonderful colour palette.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Fantastic post, Dave. Really a pleasure to see Central Oregon in all its glory, I had no idea they had this stratified landscape, the Painted Hills. Your photos were really lovely, capturing the many colors in the land and sky. I chuckled at hearing about the inspiration that prompted you to start the home brew hobby. Thank you. I would love to see this landscape and will keep it in mind next time I’m heading north.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jet. It’s always nice to discover a new interesting place, especially if it’s in driving range. The homebrew thing was something I’d dabbled with at U-Brews in past years, but the reminder of homebrewed beer quality followed by the serendipity of a beer kit at a fundraiser gave me that last little push.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Beautiful description of the other half of Oregon ~ the one I grew up in, dry high-desert country of Eastern Oregon. Loved the opening paragraph and description of the scenes, which you then photograph so well throughout this post. Great writing and photos to begin this morning, thank you and enjoy the weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I imagine growing up on the dry side would tend to give a whole different perspective on Oregon, and what constitutes beauty. I’m happy to get your day off to a good start, hope it finishes well too.


  9. The geology lesson was fascinating. I hadn’t realized Oregon had such landscape. The place reminds me of the Painted Desert region of Arizona. Despite the gloomy conditions you have managed to bring out the colors in all their nuance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s probably more desert country than green country in Oregon. I’ve barely explored central and eastern Oregon, and much of what I’ve seen was years ago. It’s not all like the Painted Hills of course, there are other geologies and ecosystems as well. Guess I need to explore some more.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, it’s not all painted, but there is a lot of desert, more mountains, and on the border with Idaho a canyon as deep as the Grand Canyon. There’s much of the state I haven’t seen, especially in the southeast.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow! I loved the changing colours of the hills and the sky looks equally amazing. This place reminds me of ‘Rainbow Mountains’ in Danxia Landform Geological Park (China). It’s been on my wish list for a while. We couldn’t make it there in 2015. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

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