Last year the caretaker of the Alvord Hot Springs told me a story about a enormous R.V. bus that pulled up to the springs. The caretaker was surprised when a large Mennonite family emerged, and the wife said “what and who would live in this God-forsaken place”. This may have not been her actual words but I immediately understood the sentiment. Many people, myself included for a long time, have a common misconception that the desert or near-desert is lifeless, barren, and completely unlivable. The challenge I took on myself and now pass to you if you carry this belief is to take a closer look, a much closer look.
I’ve been itching, positively electric, with the need to get out of town and into nature. I’m taking the summer off from school after 2 years straight non-stop studying. With 16 weeks of freedom and a rough plan for wander we needed a warm up. A kayak adventure to Sparks Lake near Bend was a possibility, but after seeing some beautiful wetland pics on The Hike Guy‘s Instagram I asked him what the mosquito condition was out there, and he reported a 7/10 (10 being unbearable). The choice was then Coast or Desert, as our favorite place to primitive camp is also unbearably buggy this time of year. Cool conditions at the coast eventually turned our sights to the Painted Hills of the John Day National Monument. There are a number of available camping options in the area, but we prefer 1) Free, and 2) Out there, so I focused in on available BLM sites northwest of the Painted Hills.
A few miles past the Painted Hills is the turn off for Priest Hole Recreation Site. If you don’t have AWD and high clearance avoid this road, if you do, carry on. We ended up at the campsite above, with an amazing view and our own quiet swimming hole. The hills around the site glowed in the golden hour as we sat down with bullfrog surround sound and Swifts doing their aerial acrobatics in the fading light above the basalt cliffs. The mosquito level was completely tolerable despite being right on the river. A quick dinner of turkey burgers and fresh zucchini, and we settled down in the tent for some reading before bedtime. The tent walls were clicking and crawling with earwigs in the light of my headlamp, and the bullfrog symphony was in full bloom but sleep finally won out.
The next morning after a simple cereal breakfast we headed back to the Monument to hike several small trails. As opposed to the land surrounding the Monument the actual hills are mostly lifeless (at least vegetation wise), but you can see insects, snakes, birds, and game tracks crisscrossing the hills. We’ve been out here 3 times, and each time is a completely different and unreal experience. The colors against the intense blue skies is spectacular. You get lost traversing the crackle texture of the hills, the painterly stripes of color across the landscape, and the utter desolateness and remoteness of the place. The trails around the unit are mercifully short – usually no longer than 1/2 mile, which is great because there is little shade, and the afternoon sun and temperatures can be brutal. We hiked the Painted Cove, Red Hill, and Leaf Fossil trails, and ate lunch back at the picnic area next to the guard station which has deliciously cool grass and shade to lie in before retreating back to the swim hole for the afternoon.
Once back at the campsite it was into the water which was chilly but we acclimated quickly and it felt amazing in the blazing afternoon sun. It was too hot to get in the tent and change into my swimsuit so I swam around in my shorts and shirt. Humptilumps and I rode the very minor rapids into the main channel for a mini-adventure. Swimming in our clothes turned out to be a wise move as it allowed us to lounge in the shade in our wet clothes to bead and read and lazily watch the many boaters and fishermen floating down the river through the most intense heat of the day. Once the sun settled behind the hill across the river we made a quickie camp dinner of mac and cheese with hot dogs and frozen broccoli. It tasted amazing as all food does after a full day playing outdoors.
After our full day of hiking, sun, and swimming we crashed in the tent shortly after dinner about 45 minutes before sun down. About 15 minutes after we got into the tent a car pulled up and out popped three children and their parents. “Let’s go fishing” (with maybe 30 mins of light left?) We looked at each other quietly in the tent like WTF. As soon as the kids were out of the car they ran around the campsite “we have to go pee” and made a bee-line for the back of our tent until the mother yelled at them “to get away from there right this minute”. Several minutes later the 5 year old goes into total meltdown mode and the father starts getting terse, hysteria crescendos into a “now Junior’s grounded”. A few minutes of wailing later they get into their car and finally leave. We looked at each other and were like, who does that? Rude, inconsiderate, and utterly stupid. The only weird and somewhat laughable and somewhat sad “negative” experience of our whole trip. This is one of many reasons why we try to camp as far out there as possible.
After another night of serenading bullfrogs and snoring we packed up and headed back to the Painted Hills overlook via “wildflower avenue” for a quick peek (and spotted another trail we need to do in the future). You can and should go back to the Painted Hills in many different seasons, and at many different times of the day. There’s always something new to see. After a really quick trip partially up the overlook path we headed into Mitchell, OR to stop for lunch at the Sidewalk Cafe & More. We both had cheeseburgers n fries and I had a super yummy strawberry milkshake. I was shake #411 since May 2015! Both times we’ve eaten there we’ve had friendly service, and delicious food. They make enormous and tasty sandwiches, and are basically the only restaurant for ~50 miles in any direction.
We drove back west on 26 through Prineville and Madras briefly entertaining the idea of stopping at The Museum at Warm Springs, but being dusty from breaking camp in a heavy wind that started the night before decided to save that for another day. Once on Mt. Hood we decided to drive through Hood River and make our requisite end of wandering stop at “The Cone” aka Eastwind Cafe in Cascade Locks.
All in all a relaxing and relatively bug free trip to one of the 7 wonders of Oregon. It was a good shake down trip for us, our gear and our ability to hit the road relatively spontaneously. We will definitely return to Priest Hole Rec area, despite the one obnoxious family intrusion, it ended up being an awesome site and the swimming was divine. But maybe next time bring some shade cloth set up. The sun is unrelenting out there. Can’t wait for our next adventure! Remember to always take a closer look and get outside!
Deer, Bullocks Oriole, swifts, unidentified snake, ground-nesting wasp, earwigs, ants of many types, bullfrogs, bass, minnows, raptors, ravens, bees/wasps/hornets of many types, dragonflies, and too many other terrestrial and aquatic insects to count!