Road Trippin’ – The Painted Hills of the Oregon Heartlands

By Ryan Loughrey

The first leg of our trip took us 323 miles, having left late last Thursday night, spending the night in Talent, Oregon, then arriving at the Painted Hills in mid afternoon Friday.

At our most pessimistic, we thought that we might see the Painted Hills at John Day National Monument covered in snow – that the banded hills of red and tan would be painted only the white of freshly fallen snow. Or, at the very least, the skies would be dark with rain and thunder clouds pouring on us and turning the roads to mud.

Instead, we were lucky and had dark and moody skies, but without any rain or snow. We could tell that there had been rain, as our hikes left our shoes covered in mud.

The being said, the Painted Hills were gorgeous. We could sense coming into the valley that the very landscape was changing around us. It was as if by driving north we could feel the rivers carving down the landscape and the layers slowly being exposed to the elements. It was my first time to this place, and perhaps it is that newness that caused such a sense of wonder.

There were a few people around, but it felt like we were the only humans here, standing on an alien landscape.  It truly did feel like we were walking along the surface of Mars.

From the Painted Hills Overlook, we next drove to the Painted Cove Trail. This often photographed area is ADA accessible, meaning there is a well maintained wooden walkway for part of it. The human made object stands as a muted contrast to the red hues of the hills that it surrounds. There was one other family here with three generations represented: a grandmother who was not a fan of the mud, a father with casual clothes and wild hair, and his daughter who seemed to be quite a fan of the mud.

We followed the short walkway until it ended, and followed the rest of the loop trying to avoid sliding in the red mud. It caked under our shoes, adding inches to our height. (As a height-challenged person, I did not mind this). We were both in awe of the area, and frustrated at the footsteps that would too often dapple the surface of the hills (some plainly behind the signs advising hikers to stay off to preserve the natural beauty of the area). The sky still rumbled and we knew we were fighting an oncoming storm and a waning sun. Without much light left, we stopped at Red Scar Knoll Trail to do the short hike there. Here, we were the only ones in sight. We followed the short trail and returned back to the car.

We spent the night in our little AirBnB in Bend. It was a cozy studio apartment above a garage, in a nice neighborhood on the west side of the city. Our dinner was from an Asian/Mexican fusion restaurant called Spork. It was quite busy, but we took our food to go, picked up some Silver Moon Brewing beer from the local grocers, and spent the night in, relaxing.

The next place on the agenda was Smith Rock. We’d gone before, 11 months ago after ringing in the new year. The land was frigid cold, and we had only jeans and jackets to protect us. This time, we brought snow pants, heavy jackets, and gloves – only to find that the snowy season had not yet come. It also seemed to be the weekend of a trail race, and the parking lot was nearly full.

Finally, after finding a parking spot, scrounging up all of our cash and spare change to pay for parking (only to find it took Debit card), we started on our hike.

Misery Ridge is a .68 mile hike with a 600 foot elevation gain. It ends atop a 3,360 foot summit that continues and snakes across the top of Smith Rock. Since this day was cool and sunny, we passed many rock climbers. This area is renowned for the number of routes and varying levels of difficulty. We pledged to one day return to actually rock climb, but for now, we were content following the switch-backed trail.

The view from the top is incredible. We were looking down on the Crooked River, which meandered and looked as if it was indecisive in its route. We saw the exposed rock faces that had been carved by eons. The trees at the top withstood the wind that threatened to blow us off. Once again, we had arrived as the sun was drooping in the sky, and we were lucky enough to watch it set from the top.

After we headed back to Bend, the last thing on our to-see list was the Bend Ale Fest. We didn’t realize that it ended at 8, so when we arrived at 6:30 around half of the vendors had ran out of beer! (There were a few individuals we saw who may have had a large part to do with that…). Still, we bought some tokens and did a little tasting. The beer came from various local brewers, but the highlight of the night was just standing around this large, metal fire pit enclosure.

It is hard to describe, but it seemed to a round fire pit with a gear shaped. There was a kind of ledge where we could put our drinks down. There was a food truck with street tacos, and although they were a little pricey, they were a nice addition to the beer. If we ventured away from the fire, the cold night tugged at us through our jackets. We sampled as much as we could, then headed back to our cozy home for the night.

Sunday, we woke up, cleaned up our little place, and spent the morning in the downtown area. We got coffee and bagels, went to the Oregon store for small gifts, and walked the streets on the sunny morning. We decided to see the Columbia store before leaving, which was a mistake because of the huge sale they had going on. We ended up spending some cash buying cold and rain gear.

We got some lunch to go, and started the long drive back. We essentially followed 97 through the heartlands of Oregon, through small towns and expansive forests. We listened to podcasts, books on tape, and playlists we had curated. I don’t mind driving, but these long drives can take it out of me. Still, we had covered miles and seen incredible sights and packed our weekend chock full. It was a weekend we would one day look back on and remember the feeling of standing under moody skies and watching the expansive and colorful painted hills. The tiredness of our hike but the rewarding sunset at Smith Rock as the cold wind whipped us. The cold beer, warm fire, and spicy tacos. The memory of the long drive would probably pass, but the rest would remain. It was a trip for the books.

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Telling the Stories of Northern California

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