A Welcomed Oasis: Bates State Park

Bates State Park OPRD VisitorsAlthough it was only mid-June, eastern Oregon was hot. We happened upon Bates State Park, near the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the John Day River, and discovered a lovely oasis with shade trees and green grass. At 4,000-feet elevation, the park offered cool relief at night.

Bates State Park is the site of a former thriving lumber mill that operated for nearly 60 years. The 131-acre park is adjacent to the former Bates company town, home to about 400 families at its peak. In 1975, when a new mill was built in nearby John Day, the Bates mill was shut down and the town gradually disappeared. After the mill and many of the homes were dismantled, the land sat empty for more than 35 years.

A non-profit group, later named Friends of Bates State Park, worked tirelessly for many years advocating for the property’s preservation as a state park. Oregon Parks & Recreation Department purchased the land, and the park officially opened in 2011.

One of the central features of the park is the mill’s log pond. In its hey-day, local mill workers and ranch hands used to water ski in the pond, towed by a pick-up driving the bouncy road at the edge of the pond.

The park offers more than three miles of well-maintained hiking trails along the Middle Fork John Day River, Bridge Creek and Clear Creek. Interpretive panels throughout the park describe Bates life in the early to mid-20th Century and the steps taking place now to restore the land and waterways.

Although the park’s 28 sites do not offer hookups, there’s plenty of space to park rigs or to set up tents.

The area is a rich fish habitat. The Middle Fork of the John Day River and its tributaries are home to Chinook salmon, steelhead, trout and other native fish. Oregon Parks & Recreation are currently in the early stages of a restoration project, including a fish ladder, that would improve access to 14 miles of ideal fish habitat.

We found that Bates State Park makes a great home base when touring the area. The campground is situated between three nearby Wilderness Areas: Strawberry Mountain and Monument Rock to the south and North Fork John Day to the north. Hikers can climb to spectacular views atop Indian Rock and Vinegar Hill, which together make up the summit of the Greenhorn Range of the Blue Mountains.

Bates is convenient to the Old West Scenic Bikeway, a 174-mile loop that passes through landmarks such as John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The park is also on route for cross-country cyclists touring the TransAmerica Trail, which runs along nearby Oregon Highway 7.

On U.S. Highway 26, nine miles from Bates State Park, we found a nice little hike at the old Sumpter Valley Interpretive Trail that overlooks the historic Dixie Switchbacks. The tracks were used by the Sumpter Valley Railway that connected Prairie City, Oregon to Baker City, Oregon.

Bates State Park was a great find–just our kind of place.

The Layered Look: The Painted Hills of Oregon

Painted Hills 750

You have to keep reminding yourself that what you are seeing is real. The rolling, rounded hills striped with colors of rich rust, deep green, and yellow appear surreal, like an artist’s conception of outer space. You want to capture them on camera quickly before the illusion disappears, just to prove to the folks at home this marvelous pallet of pastels really exists.

Believe it. The Painted Hills in north central Oregon are authentic, and very old. About 30 million years ago, volcanoes from the Cascade Mountains 100 miles to the west deposited layer upon layer of cooled ash over the region. In time, plants and animals churned the surface, water flowed, eroding and redistributing the minerals, and air oxidized the ash. Many different minerals combine to produce the colorful display we see today: aluminum, silicon, iron, magnesium, manganese, sodium, and many more.

Very few plants are able to grow on the Painted Hills. The soils bind water so intensely plants are unable to draw nourishment. So, except in crevasses and gullies where some plants survive, the hills are bare.

From a distance the striped hill surfaces look hard as though they are painted on canvas, but close-up, you can see they have a popcorn appearance and, particularly after a rain, they are soft and spongy. For this reason, visitors are asked to keep on trails and to avoid walking on the hills. Noticeable trails, however, are created by deer and antelope.

Several good walking trails traverse Painted Hills with excellent interpretive signs and brochures. The moderately strenuous, 1.5-mile Carroll Rim Trail rewards the hiker with an outstanding view of the Painted Hills and Sutton Mountain. For a close-up view of a crimson hill and to see the claystone popcorn structure, take the short Painted Cove Trail which winds around the hill on a wooden walkway.

Another interesting hike is the quarter-mile Leaf Hill Trail that takes walkers past the area where large quantities of plant fossils have been removed for study. Except for this trail, fossils are rarely found in the Painted Hills.

The Painted Hills, located 10 miles west of Mitchell, off U.S. 26, is one of three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. In 1975 Congress established the monument which is composed of 14,000 acres and contains rocks preserving millions of years of plant and animal life. The other two units are the Sheep Rock Unit, near the town of Dayville, Oregon, and the Clarno Unit, 18 miles west of Fossil, Oregon. The Sheep Rock Unit, located at the intersection of State Route 19 and U.S. 26, has several trails and overlooks.

The Clarno Unit, 18 miles west of Fossil, OR, known for its Clarno Nut Beds, is one of the world’s finest fossil plant sources where more than 300 plant species have been found. Several trails allow visitors to see the actual fossils embedded in rock.

Be sure to visit the Thomas Condon Palenotology Center, a National Park Service research facility dedicated to the John Day Fossil Beds. It also serves as the park visitor center and fossil museum. We were fascinated as we watched through a picture window a scientist at work in a laboratory and collections room which contains more than 45,000 specimens.

Another interesting side visit is the James Cant Ranch, located on both sides of the John Day River in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The Cant Ranch complex is preserved as an interpretive site showing visitors an early 20th-century livestock ranch. The James Cant Ranch is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition, there are several short trails with exhibits showing a ranch of yesteryear with original wagons and farming equipment.

There are several camping facilities near Prineville, a small town (population 5,000) about 50 miles southwest of the Painted Hills. Prineville Reservoir State Park, located 17 miles south of Prineville, is a large 70-site facility. In addition, several U.S. Forest Service campgrounds are in the area.

Take your time at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The area, particularly the Painted Hills, is a unique, fascinating place to visit and a photographer’s delight.