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.

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