Sunday, May 31, 2009

Smith Rock State Park

Smith Rock State Park is probably best known as a world-famous rock climbing area, but actually offers some incredibly beautiful scenery as well. Here near the town of Terrobonne, the Crooked River meanders through this canyon at the base of Picnic Lunch Wall and the Smith Rock Group.

I awoke at 3:00 am and left my campsite near Painted Hills for the drive to Smith Rock State Park and the hope to catch sunrise.

Coming from the east in the dark of night was challenging at best as there were no signs. Even the entrance to the park is signed for westbound traffic only, and it was only after seeing a glimpse of it in my rearview mirror that I realized I had missed the turn!

I arrived in plenty of time for sunrise, and awaited the arrival of Long Nguen, whom I had met at Painted Hills. He had scouted the park the day before. For me, this was a last minute bonus addition to my trip, and I had no opportunity to scout it.

I set up for first light near the picnic area, and immediately noticed the full moon working its way toward the Smith Rock Group to the east. Being in a canyon, it was hard to sense where exactly the sun was going to come up and to understand where first light would hit. When Long didn't arrive, I knew I likely wasn't in the best spot.

After making the best of the situation, I jumped back in my truck to scout the park. As I pulled into the bivy area, I saw Long walking thru the parking lot on his way back to his car. He was glad to see me. He shared his sunrise spot with me and I headed out to scout it for a future trip, agreeing to meet up with him later down along the river. The spot was nice indeed. I returned back to my truck and drove back to the picnic area.

I descended down to the river, crossed the bridge, and enjoyed the scenic stroll along the trail in both directions. Rock climbers slowly began to arrive on the scene.

The park is well signed with warnings about rattlesnakes, and I stepped carefully - especially off trail and in tall grass. I didn't come across any.
After a while I retreated back across the bridge to wander the other side of the river. I figured I would likely run into Long again here as he had some pools in the river picked out that he hoped to get some reflection shots in. I took my time with a few more compositions as I made my way west. Soon, I found a Singh Ray lens cap on the ground and new Long must be close!

Sure enough, Long had found a nice composition of the Smith Rock Group at a bend in the river and was relaxing along the hillside, absorbing the scene as much as he was photographing it.

We hung out here for a considerable amount of time talking and enjoying the scenery before us. It was quite nice to know that in such a popular park it was possible to still experience some solitude - at least in the early morning hours it was!
It was time to wrap up our morning. Long had to catch a flight back to Seattle, while I had a long but scenic drive back home ahead of me. We said our goodbyes, and looked forward to looking each other up once we arrived home.

The drive home was very scenic under blue skies, and well worth it.

I do plan to visit Smith Rock State Park again very soon - maybe next spring? I highly encourage you to visit it too.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Steins Pillar

Found: 350 foot tall skyscraper in the Prinedale, Oregon vicinity.

Oh wait, that's not a skyscraper, that's Steins Pillar - a towering pink spire above Mill Creek in the Ochoco Forest!

Steins Pillar can be seen from a pullout viewpoint along Mill Creek Road where it rises from the hillside above the farming community. It's quite a site to behold from down below.

For an up-close personal view, hikers can do the 4-mile round trip hike to its base. I recommend it. The trail starts high (most of the elevation is gained on the road to the trailhead) and is only 680 elevation gained on a well groomed trail. It climbs through a forest of mostly Douglass fir and ponderosa pine. After several days in the dessert of Central Oregon, I found the aroma of the forest intoxicating!

My source for learning about this hike was Willaim L. Sullivan's book 100 Hikes/Travel Guide Eastern Oregon. I have found this to be an excellent guide book and well worth the purchase!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Painted Hills Unit - John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

The Painted Hills Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is one of the most popular subjects in Oregon for landscape photographers. It is also the most well known of the unique formations within the monument.

Located near Mitchell, Oregon, the Painted Hills are a photographer's dream. They are colorful, patterned, contrasting, unique and extremely fascinating. Their colors change throughout the day and with even the most subtle change in light. They consist of stratifications of yellow, gold, black, and red as a result of layers of fallen volcanic ash from ancient volcanoes.

I had planned my trip for early May in hopes of hitting the flowers at their prime. But it has been a strange year with flowers running about two weeks late in many areas, and I missed out on the show. Next time!

I did not miss out on some special light and memories however. My first evening photographing the Painted Hills was under a cloudless sky. I was mostly alone. I focused on isolating various patterns and shapes in my compositions. It was a lot of fun!

My second night was not by design. I was actually photographing in the Sheep Rock Unit when clouds and scattered showers moved in. When late light looked doubtful, I jumped in my truck and raced back to the Painted Hills Unit in hopes of having dark storm clouds above my subject as rays of light breached thru. Well, the clouds had come and gone by the time of my arrival - it was a quick storm. But some clouds did linger and made the evening light very interesting. There were more photographers present, and all were fun to talk with.

I made friends with two photographers in particular; Jeff Chen and Long Nguyen. Jeff is a very successful medium format panoramic landscape photographer from San Francisco. Long is a local photographer from Seattle with big asperations and much talent. I hope to connect with both of them again in the future.

The small town of Mitchell is very close to the Painted Hills and offers gas, food and lodging. The locals were as friendly as could be to me and I made a point to gas up and do my shopping there rather than making the longer trip to Prineville. It feels good to know you are helping the local economy, as well as saying Thank You for their generous hospitality and helpful recommendations on the area.

Camping is available in the city park - which offers nice picnic tables and barbeques. Just pitch your tent next to the table you wish and you are good to go!

There are also several National Forest Service campgrounds in the area, though they are a bit longer drive and as such, not as convenient.

I found the best camping to be along the road to the entrance of the Painted Hills Unit. They offer nothing more than a fire pit (no immenities), but are convenient and relatively private. By the way, there is no camping allowed within the Painted Hills Unit - despite what some locals might tell you.

This is my last entry on my visit to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, though not from my trip (yes, there is more to come!). The John Day area is certainly a destination, not just a stop-over. Plan to spend 2-3 days there to get the most from your visit!

In closing I would like to give another shout to Greg Vaughn and his book Photographing Oregon. The book really helped me with my photography planning, and he personally volunteered additional information in hopes of making my trip even more successful.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Sheep Rock Unit - John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

The Sheep Rock Unit offers extremely interesting geological formations, mostly of volcanic ash that has turned to claystone. The main attractions can be found along OR 19, north of its junction with US 26.

Pictured on the left is Cathedral Rock, a prominent landmark to the west of the highway, just across the John Day River. Its multi-colored horizontal layers catch your eye in the early morning hours and is a sight to behold.

Further south is my favorite attraction of the Sheep Rock Unit - Blue Basin. The Island in Time trail is an easy 1 mile hike that takes you into an amphitheater of blue-green and pink claystone. Greg Vaughn describes it as "one of the most unusual geological formations I've ever seen" in his new book Photographing Oregon, and I would have to agree. It's an amazing place with colors I have never witnessed in a natural landscape environment before. Especially under neutral light, the colors appear as beautiful pastels.

I spent both an early morning and late afternoon here, and enjoyed every minute of it. People came and went during my visit, spending only a couple of moments to take group pictures and self portraits in front of the formations, then retreat back to their cars. With clouds in the sky, the light during my afternoon visit was forever changing. A bench at trail's end allows the visitor to sit down and enjoy the performance unfolding before them. And that is exactly what I did.

The Overlook Trail is a more strenuous option for those wishing for a vista of the landscape, as well as the John Day River Valley. Time did not allow me to sample this hike, unfortunately.

A funny thing about this trail was explained to me by a park service employee. The Overlook Trail is meant to be hiked in a clockwise direction. Technically, it is illegal to leave the Island in Time trail and ascend the Overlook Trail in a counterclockwise direction (and is signed as such).
The reason being? Well, it was stated to me that kicking steps into the sensitive soil to ascend the trail is more damaging than descending the trail. Interesting. I always thought plunge-stepping on the descent with gravity pulling all your weight was a higher impact.

In closing, I found the Sheep Rock Unit to be the most fascinating portion of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. In my opinion, the camera really does not do the area justice. I would encourage you to find time in late April or early May to experience it for yourself and discover what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

The Clarno Unit in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Central Oregon is located near the town of Fossil. The area is very desert like, with vegetation consisting of a variety of grasses and sagebrush. In his new book Photographing Oregon, Greg Vaughn advises his readers to also consider rattlesnakes part of the fauna! (I ran into Greg at Stonehenge - very nice guy with a wealth of knowledge about his home state - I encourage you to buy the book!)

The Palisades are the main attraction in the Clarno Unit. They were formed over 44 million years ago by a series of mudflows called lahars. As a result, a great variety of fossils were preserved. The Trail of the Fossils is a 1/4 mile trail that offers viewing of fossils in the rocks.

Pictured here are images from the Clarno Arch Trail, a 1/4 mile trail that climbs up to the base of The Palisades and the natural arch. Above the trail in the rocks are petrified logs. No rattlesnakes were seen on this day, likely because it was nearly noon on a very warm day.

To get to the Clarno Unit, follow Highway 218 east from Highway 97 towards the town of Fossil. Highway 218 is a very scenic route and worth the drive all on its own!

Friday, May 15, 2009


On a recent trip down to Central Oregon, I found myself driving past the town of Maryhill on the Columbia River and had to stop to visit their famous landmark.

Stonehenge sits on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River and the small town of Maryhill. It's a full-size replica of the more famous English Stonehenge, and is nearly identical.

The American version was built by Sam Hill, a local road builder, as a memorial to those who died in World War I. It was dedicated in 1918, but not completed until 1930. Sadly, Hill passed away soon after he saw this memorial completed. He was burried at the base of the bluff. But don't bother trying to look for it; Hill was a private man and wished to be left alone. There is no easy path to his resting place.

The project actually began as the result of a misunderstanding. Hill was incorrectly informed that the original Stonehenge had been used as a sacraficial site. Hills message was that "humanity is still being sacraficed to the god of war". And it was with this message in mind that he constructed this replica.

If you find yourself traveling down Highway 97 towards Oregon, don't miss visiting this amazing site. Follow the highway as it descends steeply from the town of Goldendale to the Columbia River and the town of Maryhill. The memorial is well signed and easy to find. In fact, you can't miss seeing it from the highway.

Sam Hill's Mansion, as well as the concrete American Stonehenge, are part of the Maryhill Museum of Art. This museum also includes monuments to our beloved soldiers of Klickitat County who died in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

There is no admission fee to visit the memorial; however donations are welcome and appreciated.

These funds are used for maintenance funding.

Also an attention getter is the view from the bluff down to the Columbia River and the Biggs Rapids-Sam Hill Bridge (see above). On a clear day, views extand all the way to Mt. Hood!

So do yourself a favor. Get out and see some of our state's rich cultural history. And make sure that Stonehenge is on your list of places to visit!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Washington State Capital

Our State Capital in Olympia is a wonderful place to visit in all seasons, but was especially spectacular recently with both the daffodils and cherry blossoms in bloom.

I arrived early in the morning before the crowds and enjoyed walking around the campus taking in all the wonderful sights. The few people I did run into went out of their way to be friendly. It was truly a memorable experience.

The grounds are kept immaculate, as some of these images should attest to. What a lot of work it must be!

To get there from the Seattle area, take I-5 south to the 105A exit and go west for 0.8 miles. Continue on 14th Ave. for 0.4 miles to the Visitor Information Center. There is plenty of parking to be found, especially if arriving early.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

New Postcards

Last winter I enjoyed a quiet morning down on a pier in Seattle with my daughter. We arrived well before sunrise in temps barely above freezing, and waited for the sunrise. Dang it was cold!

Sunrise came and it was quite nice. It caught the low lying clouds over Elliott Bay and helped me capture images such as this one of the state ferry's coming in and out of dock.

We finished our morning with a warm breakfast and a hot cup of cocoa before retreating. It was a pretty special morning, and one that she still remembers to this day.

So it is with a special pleasure that I get to announce a new line of postcards featuring an image from that memorable morning. They are now available at a store near you!