Oregon Nature

Sites and impressions from the Oregon road

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Oregon, geographically and geologically, is an assemblage of parts that don’t truly make for a whole. Like its northern neighbor, Washington state, it is divided by ecosystems that also provide a rough border of the political divisions that have never seemed deeper, particularly following the dangerous four years of twice impeached former President Donald Trump.

West of the Cascade Mountain ranges are the state’s most densely populated areas, and they are more to the left in the northwest corner of the state. The lands east of the Cascades are sparsely filled. They include the northern farming counties of Gilliam, Morrow, Sherman, Wasco, Union, and Umatilla.

On this trip I passed through Gilliam County, which features stunningly scenic rolling hills and an endless supply of wind that led to the siting of extensive wind farms. Outside of the federally recognized tribal holdings and communities, the areas is overwhelmingly white, but is now seeing an influx of some Latino residents, who do much of the agricultural work in this part of the state. Politically, this is as red as red gets anywhere in the United States.

I drove south from the Columbia River Gorge on Highway 206 through Condon, then took a right going south on Highway 19 through the abandoned intersection community of Mayfield to Fossil. Here is where landscape turned from rolling hills to deep canyons, revealing millions of years of geological history. Farms that draw from the John Day River line the roads that wind through a “scenic byway.” Some of these stunning geological formations are partially protected in a federal land management area called the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The area has some of the richest collections of fossils spanning a 40 million year period, showing the evolution of species, plants, and ecosystems that existed long before homo erectus walked out of the plains of Africa to populate the planet.

After a brief stop at the monument’s fabulous visitor’s center, I took a right and headed west on Highway 26 that took me through more stunning canyons, multimillion dollar ranch holdings of land barons, and to the turnoff for the Painted Hills Overlook, which are some of the most photographed hills in the annals of photography. I first came here in 2003 and had forgotten how stunning the scenery was.

After taking a great walk and taking my obligatory tourist photos, I jumped back on Highway 26 (the Ochoco Highway), which climbed through the scenic Ochoco National Forest, where sites of recent forest fires were visible. Along the way I observed how severe the drought conditions were, with the Ochoco Reservoir down at least 20 feet. I passed through Prineville, which once identified itself as a town tied its ranching and agricultural past, celebrated in its public art. In reality, it has become a bedroom community for nearby and fast-growing Bend, about 25 miles to the southwest. The community is now home to larger data servers that tap into cut-rate cheap federal power provided by the nearby Bonneville Power Administration dams on the Columbia River.

Facebook recently announced it was building two more buildings here on top of nine existing structures, with operations the size of 80 football fields. The new investments will cost $2 billion. Apple also operates large data farms here as well. These investments make the bucking bronco and cowboy sculpture feel as old an a Roman antiquity sculpture.

Rudy at Paulina Lake

Rudy Owens at Paulina Lake, smiling because it snowed the night before in early June 2021.

I ended my drive in Newberry Crater, another national monument about 45 minutes southeast of Bend. This is one of my favorite places in Oregon. It similar geologically to the much more famous Crater Lake National Park, but more developed for campers and fishermen. The day I arrived it was nearly 32 F, and it snowed during the night. I had almost an entire campground to myself. I woke up with white stuff on my tent, and it was still the second week of June. I loved that, actually! From my campground, I did a long overdue nearly 8 mile run around Paulina Lake, which is one of the finest running loops I have done anywhere. That was worth the trip alone.


Newberry Crater, a hidden gem of central Oregon

Newberry National Volcanic Monument, known affectionately as Newberry Crater, is one of the most beautiful places in the Pacific Northwest. The volcanic landscape features 54,000+ acres of lakes, lava flows, and one of the most amazing geological features in central Oregon. Imagine Crater Lake, its more well-known cousin, except Newberry has two lakes. They are not as blue and deep as Crater Lake, but they are majestic twins. The highest point is Paulina Peak, 7,985 feet above sea level, which provides a commanding view of the natural area’s lava flows and cinder cones.

In their misguided wisdom decades earlier, U.S. Forest Service planners built a road to its top–evoking the lyrics of Joni Mitchell: “They paved paradise and put of a parking lot.” Hardy hikers can walk up. Everyone is rewarded with one of the greatest views in all of Oregon. You can see the vast expanse of high desert in all directions and the beautiful volcanic peaks of central Oregon: Mts. Bachelor, the Sisters, and Jefferson.Welcome to East Lake Resort Poster

I first came here in 2014, biking up from Highway 97. I pedaled up the steep climb and was rewarded by two clean mountain lakes (Paulina and East), a massive field of obsidian, photo-perfect lakeside campgrounds, and decades-old lodges on both lakes that seemed right out of the 1950s. I finally came back in August 2016. There is something for everyone here.

The four campgrounds are well-maintained, fronting the two lakes. Anglers bring in boats casting for kokanee and several species of trout (watch out there is natural mercury contamination). Fly fishermen can find many empty beach spaces to practice. A set of hot springs bubbles out of the gravel on the north shore of Paulina Lake–the hike to the springs and around the lake is fantastic! Lots of kayakers bring in their boats to explore the rocky shores. There are more than 30 trails. For a trail runner, you can circumnavigate the entire rim, or climb Paulina Peak, lap Paulina Lake, and more. You can also take a trail from the valley of the Deschutes National Forest along Paulina Creek to the majestic Paulina Falls, pouring from Paulina Lake. If you visit, be sure to bring your mountain bike to get around.

Visitors, if you can characterize them, mostly have massive V-8 trucks and large camping trailers towed behind. I saw lots of families, and plenty of dogs. The only people who were not white were adopted kids of some family members. Hiking and camping in central Oregon is still not a diverse activity. I kept wondering, would an African-American family want to spend a summer trip here? Likely not.

At the beautiful East Lake resort, which has old cabins looking west on East Lake, I grabbed morning coffee and got to know a retired Gresham principal who has been coming here with three generations of his family for 16 years. He boasted his 14-year-old granddaughter caught 17 trout one morning.

I doubt Newberry Crater will ever become “cool.” I hope it stays old-fashioned and affordable for locals seeking a cool getaway from their homes in the Northwest.