Winter at Oregon’s Painted Hills: A Hidden Gem

Winter at Oregon’s Painted Hills: A Hidden Gem

It’s no surprise that I love photographing the beauty of winter; it’s one of my four favorite seasons, after all!  I make a deliberate effort to get out and shoot each year, and I’m seldom disappointed.  This year, we couldn’t quite make it to a national park as planned, so we settled for a national monument instead: Oregon’s mysterious Painted Hills.

The banded landscape of the Painted Hills in Central Oregon | LotsaSmiles Photography

The national park craze

Two years ago, I had a phenomenal visit to Yosemite National Park for a long weekend with some photo friends during one of the worst snowstorms Portland has ever seen.  I was lucky to have even made it out!  Aaron’s car was in the shop and our city’s light rail (my intended ride to the airport) was shut down due to a derailment.  A lone (expensive) Uber shared with a few other stranded travelers saved the day, and I went on to discover the magic of national parks in the wintertime.  Now, I have many reasons to love these chilly pilgrimages, and we’ve made it an annual tradition.

Last year, we flew to Utah for some winter photography, and we learned the hard way that Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks are much closer to Vegas than Salt Lake.  There, we photographed sunrise in the rain, hiked the famed Angels Landing trail, and marveled at the spectacular rust hoodoos dappled in snow.  As a photographer, I was in heaven, and I already can’t wait to go back.

Where to go this year?

Enter year three.  This year was a bit challenging, mostly because we have another very large trip planned for this summer (I might have mentioned it before, but I’ll talk more about those incredible plans in a later post), so the expense of flying anywhere didn’t make a lot of sense.  We considered keeping it drivable, which limited us to parks like Crater Lake, Mount Rainier, Olympic, or maybe Redwoods.

Gnarled tree on the rim at Crater Lake National Park | LotsaSmiles Photography

However, we’ve been to Crater Lake many times, and you can often find snow there much of the year.  During the winter, it’s just deeper, to the point of being almost impassible.  Rainier is almost entirely closed this season, so that wouldn’t really work.  Olympic was a possibility, but that’s starting to get a bit far, and we thought it unlikely it would look much different this time of year.  The same was even more so for Redwoods.

The alternative

Therefore, we made a compromise.  To keep it local, we opted instead for a national monument that I’ve always wanted to check out: the Painted Hills.

The banded landscape of the Painted Hills in Central Oregon | LotsaSmiles Photography

I’ve seen pictures of these banded hillocks, and I’ve longed to shoot them since.  And in the winter?  The thought of the reds dusted in white brought back the excitement of Bryce.  It’s a bit out of the way to get to them, so they really require a dedicated trip.  Our trusty photo group agreed this was a good destination idea, so we ran with it!  Since we were going out there, we decided to tack on Smith Rock State Park, Blue Basin, and Clarno; we’d make a long weekend of it.

It’s quite difficult to plan for weather.  Ideally, I wanted a dusting on the hills.  Too much, and they’d just be nondescript white mounds.  Snowless, and they’d be no different than during the summer.  But we had to book hotels and plan the PTO, so we just had to hope for the best.

Smith Rock

Smith Rock was lightly dusted, so it made for good photographs.  However, treacherous patches of ice thwarted in our attempts to hike our standard route around the main rock.  We turned back twice, ultimately giving in and racing back to the parking lot to capture a beautiful sunset.  We even tried to catch the bald eagle, but by then it was too dark.

I was happy to encounter few others in this popular park.  I even espied a blue heron chilling on a rock that likely would have been scared away by larger crowds.

The Painted Hills

Waves in the soil at Oregon's Painted Hills | LotsaSmiles Photography

The next morning, we set out for the Painted Hills: the main attraction!  It was quite a drive from our hotel in Redmond, and we had to cross two snowy passes.  But the beauty of these hills were well worth the drive.  As I had hoped, the hills weren’t completely covered in snow, but they did feature some white accents.  I wouldn’t have minded perhaps a touch more snow, but the thin layer set off the reds wonderfully, and the recent moisture really enhanced the saturation of the colors.  Much like Bryce, I couldn’t get enough of the natural beauty around me.

The banded landscape of the Painted Hills in Central Oregon | LotsaSmiles Photography

At the main lookout, I walked out along the quarter-mile path for a better view.  I found the optimal vantage about 3/4 of the way to the end, at a bend in the trail.  There, I just stopped and let it all soak in.  The remarkable tantalizing views… the almost silent pat-pat of new snowflakes gently coming to rest on my jacket.  I closed my eyes to just listen to the space around me but quickly opened them again to take in the unique beauty of the landscape once more.

We then made our way down to the boardwalk to take some more pictures.  The details of the cracked dirt and the red and green soil simply fascinated me, seemingly poured side-by-side into a single pile.

Detail of the red cracked soil at Oregon's Painted Hills | LotsaSmiles Photography

I was surprised to find the hills to be loose soil instead of solid rock or colored by bands of vegetation.  They felt fragile, and much like newly fallen snow, I wished to protect them and preserve their untouched state.  To photograph them unmarred by footprints.  It’s remarkable to know such a place exists.  How could anything top this?

Boy, was I in for a surprise.

Blue Basin

I didn’t really know what to expect with Blue Basin, our next stop.  I was in this mostly for the Painted Hills, and I had gotten that much.  The rest was just frosting.  With Blue Basin, I had pictured a single butte with soil that, in certain lighting, took on a bluish hue.  I’m not sure why I pictured that, but sure, that could be cool; let’s check it out!

The Blue Basin area has both a spear and a loop hike.  The former is obviously much shorter, so we opted for that to pop in, have a look, and then turn back.  I raced ahead right away, knowing I’d likely be slower with the pictures, so I wound up alone in front of everyone else.

Green water flowing through Oregon's Blue Basin | LotsaSmiles Photography

The first thing I noticed was a highly unusual milky green stream trickling alongside the trail.  I resolved to ask the others about it when they caught up; what minerals could cause the water to turn that color?

The trail wound its way up between two walls of rock, periodically crossing the stream on metal grate bridges.  I took pictures, of course, both ahead and behind to the valley below.

Then I came around a bend, and whoa!  The entire wall ahead of me was the most bizarre alien green!  I’ve never seen rocks that color; there was definitely an audible “wow!”

A metal bridge in Oregon's Blue Basin | LotsaSmiles Photography

As I continued, more green walls rose around me, until I was surrounded.  It took my breath away; it was unlike anything I had witnessed before.  More metal bridges crisscrossed the green creek (and now I knew why it was green) and led to the end of the spear, which dead-ended in a bowl of green.

I’m not quite sure why it’s called Blue Basin, as the hue is an unmistakable green, but it is certainly a gem of Central Oregon.  And the best part: it was completely unexpected!  The surprise of it boosts it to the top experience on this trip, despite my anticipation for the Painted Hills.

The snowstorm

On our final day, we packed up and checked out, with the intent to hit up the Shaniko ghost town and the Clarno fossil unit on our way out.  However, as we got up into the high-elevation pass, snow hit full-force, and we decided it wasn’t worth the trek.  At least that gives us a reason to return!

Jumping a stranded car on the snowy highway in Central Oregon | LotsaSmiles Photography

We passed by a couple of poor souls who got stuck in a snowdrift on the side of the road, so our troupe stopped to help, pulling them out and jumping their dead battery.  They were grateful to not need to wait for the AAA tow truck that was en route.

White River Falls hugged by snow | LotsaSmiles Photography

We made one final stop before hitting the road officially: White River Falls.  The state park was officially closed for the season, but we hiked through the snow down to the lookout.  Waterfalls cocooned in snow is a truly beautiful sight, and it was the perfect way to end our weekend.

Perfect timing

As it turned out, we got out of there just in time.  Immediately following our departure, the entire area was simply hammered with snow.  Seeing pictures now of Smith Rock, I’m sad I can’t shoot it all buried, but I’m also glad we didn’t get stranded out there.

The banded landscape of the Painted Hills in Central Oregon | LotsaSmiles Photography

Interestingly enough, the same was true with Yosemite.  The park was closed entirely the week before we were there due to flooding.  And a snowstorm struck shortly after we left.

And we also dodged an incoming snowstorm last year in Utah that hit the day after we flew out.  I suppose we’ve just been really lucky with our winter trips!  Good thing the photos are worth the risk!


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Winter at Oregon's Painted Hills: A Hidden Gem | LotsaSmiles Photography | Marvel at some of Oregon's natural wonders, hidden away in plain sight! Click to read all about our winter discovery! | #centraloregon #photoblog #paintedhills #bluebasin #wintertime #travel #photography


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5 thoughts on “Winter at Oregon’s Painted Hills: A Hidden Gem

  1. Very beautiful. Your photography is wonderful. When Chris and I came out for your wedding we stayed up at Crater Lake. I had been there many years before. It was as beautiful as I had remembered. Hope you and Aaron are well. Have a wonderful and exciting trip. Christie

    1. Thank you, Christie! Yes, the beauty of Crater Lake amazes me every time, and we recommend it to all who pass through. I just love discovering Oregon has even more hidden beauties 🙂

  2. That’s such a nice post about your trip. I went through the Painted Hills once a few years ago, but the light was awful that day. Your photos really capture the deep colors. Thanks for the great post.

    1. Thank you, Tim! I’ve always wanted to visit, but friends told me I’d be disappointed that I drove all that way for such a small thing. Totally worth it! 🙂

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