It will take about 3.5 hours of driving to get to the Painted Hills. Now it’s 13:00 so I should be able to get there well before sunset and this clear blue sky can result in beautiful colors.
I arrive at 16:00 and it’s completely clouded. Hmmm not what I had in mind. I really would like to have an actual weather chart including an accurate forecast for the next few hours, but that’s not an option with current mobile rates.
It will take a few hours before the sun will set, so who knows whats in the cards. Everything can happen.
I start exploring the park. It consists of 33 million years old hills of red and yellow clay. This used to be an ancient forest that has been destroyed by a lahar (hot cloud of ash from a volcano) and contains lots of fossile leaves, about 21000 per cubic meter. These leaves look much like the leaves of todays’ trees but they do differ.
I follow a road and arrive at a spot where I can take a short walk and can come very close to the colorful clay. The red clay is red because of iron while the yellow color is because of a combination of iron oxide and magnesium oxide.
The black spots are manganese compounds. The clay can absorb lots of water and is virtually impenetrable by plants. When the clay dries up it becomes more loose like now and the colors become more dull (because the light is scattered much more). When the clay is saturated completely after rain then the surface becomes smooth and the colors much more vivid. In some places I do see it now as well if sun light falls on it in a particular way like with this one:
I continue deeper in the park and then I spot a beautiful hill in the distance that just screams for a couple of photos. Leaving the car behind I try to find the best composition on foot. The clouded sky scatters the light and this provides for beautifully saturated colors.
I can barely withstand the urge to try and find better compositions in the area but it occurs to me that a narrow band has appeared between the clouds which the sun will pass shortly. This could deliver beautiful light. For a moment I’m in doubt whether it’s better to stay here or to drive back towards the large hills more closer to the entrance. The sun will shine through the clouds only briefly and once I start driving back there’s the risk that I will arrive too late. On the other hand it will be much easier overthere to grab a couple of good photographs because it’s much higher than where I’m now. The only thing I don’t know is whether the hills overhere are high enough to block the sun.
I’m out of time to consider the options further and jump in the car to drive back as fast as possible. Arriving there, they are beautifully side lid with reasonably vivid colors and proper relief caused by the shadows. Gambled right! I get out of the car, grab my stuff and then the light has gone. Huh, how did that happen so fast? Looking back I notice that meanwhile another cloud has shifted in front of the sun. That is really pityful! This was just so beautiful. To have something, I shoot a couple of photographs, but this is not what I had in mind.
The sun reappears briefly but is already to low on the horizon to illuminate the clay hills.
Almost immediately, everything is back into shade. It doesn’t look like the sun will show another time today. So I guess, I better shoot some photos of what is left. Maybe I can try again tomorrow. There are nice pastel hues which are good enough for photos but uncomparable with what I just saw.
The moment, the sun drops under the horizon, clouds are set on fire, but there’s a lot of contrast between light and shadow.
I shoot another couple of the clay hills, where the pastel hues become softer and softer.
Completely unexpected some alpen glow falls on the mountains in the east.
Walking back towards the car I encounter Jay, a photographer from Portland. We chat for a bit and he tells me that the colors are more intense normally. The weather disappoints him too. The forecast has been blue sky, but a lot of bad weather is coming in. For tomorrow, lots of rain is predicted for the west. Great! He stays here for a bit and will try to shoot star trails. I return to my hotel, an hour driving from here. The sky is clouded for about 85 percent and I can’t imagine that it will clear, now the temperature starts dropping.
Just before getting in the car I see this!
And then it’s really over. This is an evening location, tomorrow morning the sun will rise behind the hills and it will take at least until 11:00 before the light will hit the hills. Maybe tomorrow night but after giving it a bit of thought I think I want to do something else.
Maps, Charts & Downloads
GPS Map with color coded altitude information
Color coded distance/altitude chart
Download the original gpx file here.