The Painted Desert in July...Oh Yeah!

Mitchell Travel Blog

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Mt. Hood - Notice the Green

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to take too many small trips this year and was getting a little down that the nice weather would soon end.  I hate cold weather and the summer weather in NYC has been very mild, which stinks.  All of June was a rain fest and July pretty much stayed in the 70’s and low 80’s.  Not good…

 

Due to the lack of warm weather, I came up with the idea of going somewhere warm this summer.  Yeah, it doesn’t make sense, but neither do I half the time, so I didn’t care.  While visiting some friends in Oregon, I decided to go to the Painted Hills in Mitchell, Oregon.

Like the Moon, But Totally Not!
  The Painted Hills are in Eastern Oregon which is pretty much a desert.

 

Now most people don’t realize that most of Oregon is not green and lush like the postcards show.  That is only parts of the state.  Much of the state is actually pretty dry and is surrounded by desert.  Surprise!  I have driven through Oregon a few times and have even been to Death Valley once, though I vaguely remember it.  So, after the disappointing summer in NYC mixed with the curiosity of desert terrain I decided to go to Central Oregon to see these so called Painted Hills.

 

I thought it would be difficult to get anyone to agree to go with me after all, it was the desert in July and the average temperature was around 95-105.

Bye Green Hello Desert!
  Well, at least there would be no humidity!!! Originally, I thought this would make a great father daughter trip, but then decided to ask my friend Angie as she appears to like my crazy ideas.  They both said yes without hesitation.  I was kind of shocked that nobody questioned this trip.  I explained to them that it would be hotter than hell because we would be going to the desert in the middle of July.  They didn’t even bat an eye, okay…so I guess it was set!

 

We left on a Tuesday to avoid any tourist traffic, not that I think there would be any because most people are smart enough to wait until the Spring or Fall, but still, there is something nice about a road trip on a day when you know most people are working!  I am not a morning person, but we knew we had to get up early as it was about a 4 hour trip.  Both Angie and I had packed some snacks and a small overnight bag.  My dad brought a bag and himself and climbed into the car.  After stopping by the local coffee joint, we were off!

 

We decided to take I-26 to pass by Mount Hood; we figured it would be a nice scenic route and nice and cool as it had been near 100 degrees everyday in Portland that week.

Leaf Hill Path
  So that is where my summer had gone!  The trip started out well, but towards the top of the trip up the highway, we were stopped by construction.  It kind of sucked because we were feeling our groove with Michael Jackson music, you could call it our belated tribute.  We thought it would be a quick stop, but soon Gotta Be Startin’ Something, Beat It and Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough had gone by and we hadn’t moved an inch.  We looked over to our right to see that a guy from the crew had been behind a tree for a while and finally emerged adjusting himself in the process.  So let me get this straight, you stopped traffic because one of your crew needed to use the restroom?  A few minutes later they began to let traffic flow again as they put some cones on the road.  I was happy to be finally moving again and even more thrilled that Thriller hadn’t been ruined as we sped down the road.

 

It is hard to explain my reaction to the change of landscape.  One minute you are driving through lush green Oregon foliage and then out of nowhere, BAM, it all disappears.

The Painted Hills
  I can’t even recall the exact moment when it happened, but all of a sudden we were surrounded by sage brush, flat land and dust.  It comes from nowhere!  What was cool about this route is that we were surrounded by mountains far in the distance.  To be honest with you, I don’t know which ones they were.  I think Adams, Bachelor and some other one, Mt. Hood was behind us. 

 

The trip was pretty uneventful, though we stopped at a gas station and got some Corn Nuts, so that was pretty cool as I’m a fan.  About and hour out of Mitchell, we had realized that we needed some major air-conditioning and we had lost cell service, that would be the last time we had it until we returned to civilization.  There was some lovely scenery on the way including a beautiful river, though I have no idea what the name of it was.

More of the Painted Hills
  Still, we stopped to get a few photos and broke into the snacks and continued on.

 

Soon we were heading into the town of Mitchell.  Before you get into Mitchell proper there is a woodshop on the right hand side of the road with a huge rocking chair outside.  It was probably twice my height, which is pretty impressive and took the owner 3 weeks to complete.  He is known for making furniture out of juniper and I have to say, his work was very good and very artistic.

 

We continued on…  Now, I am used to big city living so I was surprised at how small Mitchell was.  Mitchell has a population of 157, yep, 157 people.  The first time we drove through Mitchell, it took us about 30 seconds on the main road, we didn’t even know we had left until we were back on the highway with nothing but rock formations and sagebrush.

Big Ass Rocking Chair
  I turned my head around to see the sign telling us we had left Mitchell.  So, we turned around and entered the town again.  Okay, so it was smaller than we had expected, but we could make this work.

 

Our first priority was to find our motel.  We figured it would be easy to find and turned off the main road and up a big hill, at the top we came upon what appeared to be a school.  By the school there was a guy with a large truck, so I decided to ask him where the Sky Hook Motel.  His first question to me was why I would want to stay in Mitchell.  I was confused by this as that was not my question.  I turned to look back at the car where Angie and my Dad were watching.  I explained we were doing some site seeing in the area.  He wanted to know why we would want to stay in Mitchell as there was nothing to do and we would be happier in a large city like John Day.  That would be fine if John Day wasn’t an hour and a half a way and nowhere near the Painted Hills.

Just What the Doctor Ordered
  That and 1500 people would not be regarded as a “large” city by most people standards.  I explained that we were in Mitchell to see the Painted Hills.  He asked why, there is nothing for young people to do, his eyes kept a steady gaze on me never doing the obligatory shift to make me feel comfortable.  I explained that there was if you were into looking at the Painted Hills which is why we were there, if I wanted the big city, I would have stayed in NYC.  Finally he explained that the hotel was across the street on the other hill.  I slowly walked to the car keeping one eye on this guy.

 

I won’t lie, the exchange with this guy was a little unnerving.  Angie asked what he had said and I told her just drive a way as fast as you can, which she did gladly.  On the way down the hill, I explained what had happened which creeped out both Angie and my Dad and let you tell you, it takes a lot to creep out my Dad!  Angie suggested we drive past the motel to see what it looked like, so we crossed the street and went up the hill.  It appeared to be nice, but I still couldn’t shake my feeling of unease.

Motel
  The guy made it seem like we were staying in a town run my Norman Bates.  We decided to eat lunch in town and discuss the situation. 

 

There are not a lot of options as far as food goes in Mitchell from what I could tell.  There was only one restaurant open at the time we were there; The Little Pine CafĂ©.  We originally took a seat inside, but were soon surrounded by flies.  Most flies you swat at and they fly off, but these guys were brazen!  You would swat and they would bring back reinforcements and keep dive bombing your face.  Now, I am not going to blame the cafĂ© for this, it is summer and nobody in Mitchell has air-conditioning, which means the only way to air out a place in 100 degree weather is to open the door.  So, I understand why there were so many.  They were so bad though that one table was using a fly swatter while they waited for their meal.  We asked if we could move outside which turned out to be a much better solution.

 

I have to say, I was pretty happy with the lunch.

Mitchell Kitty
  If you are looking for health food, this is not the place as it is mostly burgers and fries.  I had the chicken strips.  It also was expensive, but when you are in the middle of nowhere with no other options, you pay what you have to.  It was interesting to see the people of Mitchell interact with each other as everyone knows each other.  They even watch each other kids and teenagers, which would suck if you are a teen because everyone knows your business, but on the other hand, you know there is always someone there for you; the sense of community was refreshing. 

 

After lunch we decided that we would stay in Mitchell.  It made no sense to change our plans because of some strange dude.  So far, the people had been very nice and everything seemed normal for a small town.  I have to say the hotel was fine.  The couple who ran it let us choose between two rooms that would hold all three of us which was nice.  There was no air-conditioning, but there were fans which was good enough for me.  The decor was a little kitschy, which I liked.  It was almost like going back in time, but it was clean and comfortable and had a kitchen which was nice as there was nowhere to eat after 8PM.

Downtown Mitchell

 

We all ended up taking an unintended 45 minute nap on the couch and chairs as the heat had drained us.  That and we had been up since 5AM.  After the nap we decided it was time to check out the Painted Hills but not before stopping at the local store to get some groceries.  They actually had a decent selection and everything was fairly priced.  The best part was the owner was playing banjo.  At first, we thought it was a recording, but when I looked behind the counter, I could see that it was the real deal.  He was pretty good and it added to the ambiance of the experience, though the deer head was disturbing…

 

After shopping, we began our journey to the Painted Hills.  Word of caution, to get to the Painted Hills you have to leave the main road and drive down a gravel road, being that it is gravel, there are a lot of rocks and I can see how it would be easy to mess up your paint job.

Kudos to The Painted Hills!
  That and there is the possibility that you might get a few dings in your car.  We had no problems, but there is a possibility so I wanted to put it out there.

 

There are a few places you can visit when you go to the Painted Hills, there is the Overlook Trail, The Leaf Hill Trail, The Red Hill Trail and the Carroll Rim Trail.  Just to clarify, none of these trails are very difficult.  I think the most difficult trail is the Carroll Rim Trail which is only about a half a mile and the last ÂĽ mile is uphill, but was pretty easy, as least for me.  The other thing to consider is that the park is pretty small.  There are only a few formations to see, but it kept us busy for several hours as we took everything in and appreciated the landscape.  There are also two other units to visit Clarno Unit and Sheep Rock Unit, the problem is that one is 30 minutes away and the other one is 1.5 hours a way, so they are not close.  Still if you have the time why now?

 

A little background, The Painted Hills are a beautiful display of colors representing different geographical eras.

Red Hill
  The layers were formed when the area was once covered by an ancient river.  Beside its great beauty, the area is a hot bed for fossils which you can see when you take the Leaf Hill Trail.  It is pretty impressive.

 

Just to be on the safe side, they do warn visitors to stay on the trails and to be prepared that you may run into a snake or two.  Though most of the snakes that reside in the park are harmless garter snakes, there are Rattlers running around.  That freaked me out a bit.  Okay, the reality is that all snakes freak me out a bit, but Rattlesnakes are my nemesis.  Yes, I am judging them even though I have never met one.  Wrong, I know, but there it is.  I can report back that we never spied a snake anywhere so it may be pretty rare, but I am not an expert, so just be aware of it.  Though, I think there is more of a chance of getting dehydrated than running into a snake so bring plenty of water and remember sunblock is your friend.

 

The landscape was beautiful and the sun was beginning its descent which made the heat dissipate which was nice.

Young Buck
 Walking around was very comfortable as it was probably only in the mid 80’s.  Having never really walked in a desert before, the whole experience was pretty cool.  There are not a lot of places to walk and hike per se, so a lot of the time is spent in the car going from trail to trail.  While going towards one of the trails we did spot some wild life.  There was a very young buck eating the freshly watered grass that was near by, though he didn’t really trust us so much and hopped off into the next pasture.  A few feet down we came upon a family of cows too, though I guess that wouldn’t be wildlife, especially because they were tagged, but still, they were fun and I got a nice family portrait.

 

We checked out the hills for about three hours before it started to get dark.  Depending on the light source, the hills will change color, so even within the time we were there the colors of the hills had changed significantly.  By the time I got to the top of the Carroll Rim Trail it was pretty dark, so my photos were darker than I had wanted, but it was amazing to see the sunset on the desert.

Cow Family
  One thing that struck me was that there was no sound in the desert in the evening, the only thing that I could hear was the whistling of the wind every few minutes.  I never really understood the phrase: “Silence is Deafening” until the Painted Hills.  It was so quiet that my ears began to ring and after the ringing, I could hear my heart pounding in my ears.  It was trippy and made me kind of want to spend the night out there, though that would probably be a stupid idea as the cows might carry me a way to their lair or wherever they go at night.  Heading back to Mitchell we were treated to a beautiful sunset and we ended the trip to the Painted Hills in silence.

 

Once we reached the motel we decided to prepare the spaghetti and sauce we had bought, it was so warm inside the motel, we decided to let the breeze in and cool it off a bit, especially after cooking.  We ate outside at the picnic bench, but were surprised to see that the other couple in the motel and the owners were already asleep, it was around 9:30.  So, we knew we had to be quiet so we made the educated choice not to drink more than one Mike’s Hard Lemonade apiece so as to be kind to the neighbors.

Evening
  The night was beautiful and it was great to see my old friends the stars again, I miss them in NYC!  At around 11PM we decided to go to bed to get up early the next day.

 

The motel actually was pretty comfortable and we all had a great nights sleep.  Our plan was to get breakfast which we did at the Little Pine CafĂ©, as I said there aren’t any other places to eat.  But before we left, we knew we had to do one more thing, visit Henry the Bear.  I don’t know too much about the history of Henry the Bear, but he was owned by someone who had him declawed, the officials wanted to put him back in the wild, but knew that he would not survive  His now owner, Hugh, offered to take him in and he has been there ever since.

 

I am happy to say I have never been close to a bear before, which is usually a good thing as they are prone to rip your face off, but Henry is a gentle giant.  When we saw him he was a very hungry boy and began grunting when he saw Hugh show up because he knew it was time for vitals.

Henry!!!
  It was amazing to see Hugh feed Henry.  You could tell that he was well taken care of and well loved.  The first thing Hugh did when he got the in the morning was clean and disinfect the cage.  This guy I amazing!  We took a few photos which is hard to do with the mesh fence and also taking a photo with the flash seemed cruel to poor Henry, so the photos were a little on the dark side, but humane.  Henry was definitely a highlight to my trip to Mitchell.

 

As we began our trek home after grabbing a coffee from the local coffee kiosk, the three of us decided that we were so glad that we stayed.  Even though the creepy guy tried to talk us out of it we had a really great time and it was nice to get away and to take the time to do nothing but enjoy ourselves on our own timetable.  On our way back to Portland we had decided that since we had been past Mt.

The Desert at Dawn
Hood the first time, that we would take I-84 and ride along the Columbia Gorge.  You have to keep life interesting.

 

We had originally thought about going to Clarno Unit which was on the way, but decided against it as it was supposed to be hotter than the day before hitting around 105 and we weren’t fools, it would be noon by the time we got there.  Instead, we decided to pay a visit to Shaniko, which even though it has a population of 26 is considered a ghost town.  I find it a little odd as I thought a ghost town had to be deserted to get the title, but whatever, I’m flexible.  If you want to read about it go here: http://www.travbuddy.com/travel-blogs/59366/Shaniko-Oregon-Fun-Ghost-Towns-1, though I have to warn you, it is pretty short, how much can you write about a town with a population of 26?!?

 

In the end, the trip to the Painted Hills was a big success.  It really was beautiful and quite relaxing despite the heat.  I would suggest going in the Spring or Fall for most people as that is when it is cooler.  Many people suggest going in the Spring because the flowers are in full bloom and add to the scenery of the desert; it all depends on what you are into.

  Also, there are other things to do in the area so you can make a full weekend.  If you go near the John Day area, there is more hiking, fishing, fossil hunting (designated areas only) and even rafting if you are into crazy stuff like that.

 

So, if you find yourself driving across Oregon or heading to Boise, Idaho from the West Coast, stop by the Painted Hills and make sure to stop by Mitchell.  Henry is waiting…




binky says:
Dude, I think you might actually like Oregon. Very outdoorsy, which I am not, so I had a hard time! ;) It actually was pretty cool, but a hike for lightweights more. I am a pretty good hiker and was a little disappointed it wasn't more intense. Blame nature!
Posted on: Apr 19, 2010
B-Town says:
Only you Bink could make a place as, uh, ordinary as Oregon sound so enticing :-)
Posted on: Apr 19, 2010
binky says:
Ha! Yeah, creepy guy owes me! He made me lose at least a full three nights of sleep! I will never fully understand what happened in that moment, maybe it is better that way...
Posted on: Aug 26, 2009
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Mt. Hood - Notice the Green
Mt. Hood - Notice the Green
Some Random River
Some Random River
More Desert
More Desert
Like the Moon, But Totally Not!
Like the Moon, But Totally Not!
Bye Green Hello Desert!
Bye Green Hello Desert!
Leaf Hill Path
Leaf Hill Path
The Painted Hills
The Painted Hills
More of the Painted Hills
More of the Painted Hills
Big Ass Rocking Chair
Big Ass Rocking Chair
Just What the Doctor Ordered
Just What the Doctor Ordered
Motel
Motel
Mitchell Kitty
Mitchell Kitty
Downtown Mitchell
Downtown Mitchell
Kudos to The Painted Hills!
Kudos to The Painted Hills!
Red Hill
Red Hill
Young Buck
Young Buck
Cow Family
Cow Family
Evening
Evening
Henry!!!
Henry!!!
The Desert at Dawn
The Desert at Dawn
Sunset
Sunset
The Painted Hills at Dawn
The Painted Hills at Dawn
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Mitchell
photo by: binky