Oregon’s High Desert and Spaceman Spiff

When I moved out West after growing up in Kentucky I was most excited about experiencing the desert.  It took me a year until I finally decided to go to Moab, Utah and see four of the five National Parks in Utah’s desert.  I was inexplicably excited on the drive down, and loved every minute of the sightseeing, yet I was still puzzled as to why I loved the desert so much.  Then it hit me…Spaceman Spiff.  As I was growing up I had numerous comic books.  Not the Marvel comics, but practically every frame from Gary Larson (The Far Side) and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes).  I read them all multiple times.  Spaceman Spiff was a sub-character of Calvin.  He was an intrepid space explorer always stranded on a planet filled with buttes and mesas (and onomatopoeic terms beginning with “z”).  I suppose this subconsciously developed the affinity I now have for the desert.

When I lived in Boise, I traveled the two hours round-trip to Jump Creek Canyon about two or three times a month (when the mountains were snowed in).  Jump Creek is on the edge of the Owyhee Canyonalnds which offer a vast, vast area of high desert wilderness.  I’ve seen much of what the Owyhees have to offer but never tire of exploring that area.  For Thanksgiving break (from school) this year, I was initially planning on a backpacking trip to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah through the University of Idaho’s outdoor program.  Other priorities came up and I gladly settled with my contingency:  John Day National Monument.

I arose early on Saturday morning (4am) planning on spending most of the day in the park shooting.  I made good time driving through the Tri-Cities and eventually exiting the interstate at Arlington, OR and taking HWY 19 south.  The first portion took me through a large, spacious wind farm which was nice.  I spent more time looking at the windmills and thinking of possible pictures than paying attention to the road.  The fields and turbines were left behind and the terrain took on more of a canyon feel.  It was a very scenic drive even before it officially became a scenic byway.  I took the Service Creek road down to Mitchell and began to see glimpses of otherworldly colored hills.  The abundance of juniper also pleased me, being indicative of the high desert environment I love.

Once at Mitchell I continued on to the Painted Hills and arrived around noon.  One nice aspect of winter time is the low angle of sunlight, especially at higher latitudes.  This produces very nice light throughout the whole day for photography.  The conditions were nice with puffy cumulus and sunshine.  I hiked the small overlook trail while the weather was still good.  In the matter of a few minutes clouds came in and snow was falling not far to the west.  I drove around a little while longer through the park (didn’t take long) and then decided to hike the Carroll Rim Trail for some exercise if nothing else.  This turned out to be a good plan.  Sunlight began breaking through the clouds here and there with nice crepuscular rays.  Here are a couple views from the overlook and initial visit.

Painted Hills at noon

Painted Hills overlook detail

Looking West from Carroll Rim

Painted Hills western edge

With the weather seemingly deteriorating and it not even 2PM I decided to drive over to the Sheep Rock Unit of the park.  This ended up being a longer drive than I expected and the weather looked worse over there.  The clouds were beginning to break up a little so I headed back to the Painted Hills for the afternoon.  I stopped just outside the park at one of the Wilderness Study Areas.  Foot traffic was permitted so I spent a little time at a couple brightly colored hills.

Painted Hills WSA

Painted Hills texture

My attention was constantly being pulled away from realizing how good the light was becoming and the opportunities awaiting me back in the park.  I hurried in and jogged up the small overlook.  Very nice cumulus clouds were on the horizon and the light was very nice against the painted hills.  I envisioned more of a wide angle view of the hills and knew where to go.  I ran back to the car, taking a couple pictures on the way back.  I then headed to the Carroll Rim Trail again and went up a quarter of the way to a bench.  I found some nice foreground subject, setup the gear and let the light go to work.  It was a good evening.

Afternoon light over Painted Hills

Painted Hills sunset

An early snowstorm was moving into the PNW so I was hoping to get out ahead of it the next day.  The weather was very cloudy with occasional flurries.  I was going to spend the whole day in the Sheep Rock Unit of the park but I only took a short hike and then hit the road.  I hiked the Island in Time trail in the Blue Basin.  It was another surreal experience.  More badlands but they were green and blue rather than yellow and red.  Here is a short video I shot at the end of the trail.

The road conditions were very good with occasional snow/ice patches especially in the passes.  The first pass had a decent amount of snow hanging on the pines and the red ponderosa trunks stood out beautifully.  I wanted to stop but no pullouts were plowed and I wasn’t too interested either.  During the next pass (Blue Mountain Pass) I finally decided it was worth the stop, especially after finding a good amount of ponderosas throughout the forest.  Here are a couple shots from the photo stop.

Blue Mountain Pass HWY 26

The next time my camera came out was at Jump Creek, three days later.  There was a little snow but lots of ice on the trail and canyon walls.  The temperatures in the Treasure Valley had dropped to the teens so I hoped the falls would be slightly frozen over.  Some ice had formed in the creek and along the falls but not as much as I’d hoped.  Nonetheless it was nice being back at one of my favorite spots.  I also spent some time along the creek finding abstract shots within the ice and water.

Jump Creek Falls detail

Jump Creek extract

Four days later my break was over and I was driving back to Moscow.  The road conditions at times weren’t too good, but at other times it was bare pavement.  While driving through Riggins I saw a place with potential along the Salmon River.  Fortunately there was a large pull out.  I was very surprised to find a beautiful rocky shore just through the brush along the road.  It reminded me of the pictures I so often see from David Ward and Joe Cornish from the UK.  The sun was cooperating at times by staying behind clouds.  I played around for about 20 minutes taking pictures but would have loved to have spent about an hour.  It was a small area but with an abundance of photographic opportunities.

Salmon River shore diagonals

Salmon River rock collection

My final stop was near the top of White Bird Grade.  This grade rises 2700ft over 7 miles giving you a great view of the historic White Bird Battlefield and the canyon of the Salmon River in the distance.  The road was wet with snow all around.  Low lying clouds in the valley helped cap off a very dramatic scene.  They also helped engulf some power lines and poles that were encroaching on my compositions.  As the clouds moved along I was enabled to take wider views of the scene.  This was my final picture of the trip.  Despite plans being changed I had a very productive time, photographically.  My find outside of Riggins was especially fulfilling.  Idaho continues to impress me with it’s landscape and beauty.

Clearing Storm over White Bird


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