Eastern Oregon Adventure Part #1: Blue Mountain Hideaway
One of Oregon’s biggest kept outdoor secrets is the Blue Mountains. Located in Central Eastern Oregon, the “Blues,” as locals affectionately refer to them, are not spectacular snow-capped mountains, but instead are much less conspicuous than their towering Cascade Range cousins. Rising up off of the wheat growing plateaus above the Columbia River, the Blues are a dark line on the horizon, and as the plateau loops up and up into the Blues, one suddenly realizes that you’ve escaped the sun-filled plains and are now emerging into ponderosa pine forests and mountain streams.
Brad and I had set our sights for Eastern Oregon for our summer vacation, with the intent of camping, hiking and exploring the final corner of the state that we had not seen yet. The forecast called for clear and hot weather- the perfect recipe for outdoor camping!
We loaded up the dogs and headed east. First, we stopped at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument – Painted Hills Unit outside the town of Mitchell, off of US Hwy 26 (approximately 13 miles). This treasure is a much-smaller but equally amazing version of the Badlands of South Dakota. Deposits of ash over millions of years coated what is now Central Oregon. The weathering of the ash and minerals has created amazing hues, ranging from dark magentas to light yellows, and the hills look like someone artfully dashed watercolors across the summits. Other units of this Monument include one of the largest and richest fossil beds in the world, which also serve as a record of the extreme changes this planet has undergone – what is desert today used to be an ancient lush rain forest!
We hiked around, and took numerous photos to capture the stunning beauty, accented by brilliant wildflowers still blooming in seemingly arid land. However, the temperature was climbing and we decided we’d better start heading for the cooler reaches of the Blue Mountains soon!
Oregon is the seventh largest state in the United States, and by the end of this day, we had been on the road about 10 hours (including stops) before we finally crept onto a forest road near the mountain hamlet of Austin, Oregon. The nearby Middle Fork of the John Day River burbled nearby and we were in search of the perfect camping spot. We found it, after searching out Forest Service roads and then subsequently following a track for several miles. Tall trees towered over us, and rich green grass rippled in the cooling air. It was apparent that no one had been down this road for quite some time. In fact, our progress was stopped entirely when we came upon a tree blocking the road, and that made for the perfect excuse to stop for the night.
Nary a human being was in sight, and only the wind sighing in the pine trees above created any sound, other than our setting up camp. We were so tired that it was only moments after grabbing a quick bite to eat for dinner that we were in the tent and asleep.
The next day, we planned to stay for another night, so we decided to hike past the downed tree and explore where the road went. It was shortly after we passed the tree that the main part of the road ended with a large earthen berm. But continuing past that was a very old road that was mostly overgrown, so we decided to see where it took us. The skies were boldly blue without a cloud in sight, and the wildflowers including the lupine were blooming mightily. For about an hour we hiked in near silence, just listening to the woodpeckers rap on nearby dead snags, and Western tanagers warble in the treetops. Finally, a view peeked through the trees, and far above, snow still lingered on the mountaintops.
Words cannot describe the solitude one can find in a place like this. Just the wind sighing in the treetops and the birds singing to keep us company. When we made it back to our camp, Brad and I spent literally hours just sitting in the shade, either reading or staring off into the woods enjoying the peace we found here. The cooling breezes were delightful, and we reveled in them, knowing that shortly, the next leg of our trip will be taking us to the much hotter desert plains of Eastern Oregon very soon. That story will be in the next posting for this blog!
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