Stock landscape and outdoor adventure photos from Oregon, Washington, and the Pacific Northwest

Posts Tagged ‘high desert’

Eastern Oregon Gems: Painted Hills, Blue Basin, and Strawberry Lake Photos

Bend, Oregon is perfectly situated in the middle of the state where the Cascade Mountains transition into the High Desert.  In addition to having great mountains, streams, alpine lakes, and desert rock formations right here in our own backyard, we are also amazingly close to some of the country’s most scenic waterfalls, old growth rain forests, and coastline.  A short drive to the west over Santiam Pass, McKenzie Pass, or Willamette Pass offers a mind-boggling range of outdoor activities, including hundreds of miles of rugged alpine and ocean-front parks.  With so many gorgeous opportunities for exploration to the west, it is often easy to forget about all of the wonderful and unique geography that lies out in the valleys to our east.

If you want to see Eastern Oregon at its best, I would suggest planning a trip in early spring when the deserts and hills come alive with fresh color.  I was fortunate enough to make such a trip last year during a short period of unexpected bachelorhood.  My wife and I were planning to go see family in St. Louis, but the flights worked out in such a way that she and the kids ended up flying out a few days before me.  Armed with a guilt-free hall pass, I knew there was no time to waste.  I kissed her and the kids good-bye at the airport, and then I raced home, launched Google Earth, and began taking a virtual tour around the state in hopes of planning the perfect get away.  I knew it was too early in the year for most of my favorite Central Oregon locations because snow drifts were still blocking access to most of our backcountry regions, and after checking the forecast, it looked like the weather was going to be too unpredictable to plan anything off to the west.  Then it dawned on me that it had been awhile since I ventured out into Eastern Oregon, so I loaded up my gear and started driving out into the deserts and rolling farmland near the John Day River and Strawberry Lake.

Just past the historic town of Prineville, Oregon, I started climbing up through the Ochoco National Forest on highway 26.  This is one of my favorite stretches of road in the state.  The narrow two-lane highway winds along a small meandering stream that is surrounded by nice groves of aspen trees and huge, perfectly spaced ponderosa pines.  It is an idyllic drive up to the 5,000 foot pass, at which point, the geography immediately transforms from lush open meadows and alpine forests to arid deserted hills.  I was fortunate enough to be there on a blue bird day, which means that I was greeted with stunning southerly views of the Ochoco Mountains as I made my way over the summit and dropped down toward the tiny town of Mitchell, Oregon and the Painted Hills.  The Painted Hills are part of the John Day Fossil Beds, and without a doubt, they are some of the most unique and colorful formations in the country. As a photographer, it is practically impossible to drive past the Painted Hills without stopping, and my trip was no exception. 

Fortunately, I had visited the Painted Hills several times in the past and I knew that Mike Putnam and I already had a fairly large collection of photos from this area available on our Pacific Crest Stock photography site.  While the Hills are always spectacular to visit, they are best photographed at sunset or when there are interesting cloud formations off to the east.  I didn’t really have either of those conditions to work with at the time, and since I knew I couldn’t add anything meaningful to our existing collection, I just got out and walked around for awhile and then drove back out to the highway.  If you’d like to purchase a beautiful fine art photograph of the Painted Hills, visit, Bend Oregon photographer.


Sunset photo of the Painted Hills in the John Day Fossil Beds.  One of several pictures of the Painted Hills that is available on our Pacific Crest Stock photography site.

Sunset photo of the Painted Hills in the John Day Fossil Beds. One of several pictures of the Painted Hills that is available on our Pacific Crest Stock photography site.




Just a few miles down the highway, there is another interesting collection of fossils and strange geologic formations called the Blue Basin.  I had only visited the Blue Basin once before, so I was fairly excited to explore this area in a little more detail.  I decided to hike around the 3-mile Overlook Trail, which climbs up and around the rim of Blue Basin and provides nice views into the canyon and its surrounding valley.  After circling around the higher cliffs, the trail drops down into a valley where it joins the “Island in Time” interpretive trail for awhile before dead-ending at the base of the blue-green canyon.  Standing at the end of the trail, staring at these strange hoodoo-like formations, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been transported to a different place in time—if not to a completely different planet.


Photo of the Blue Basin in the John Day Fossil Beds.  Several additional pictures of Blue Basin are available on our Pacific Crest Stock photography site.

Photo of the Blue Basin in the John Day Fossil Beds. Several additional pictures of Blue Basin are available on our Pacific Crest Stock photography site.




I had a lot of fun exploring the Painted Hills and the Blue Basin, but as I turned back onto the highway, I recognized that it was getting late and that I wasn’t going to be able to stop at any more trails if I wanted to make it to the Strawberry Mountains before dark.  I cranked up the music, and hustled down the highway, through Picture Gorge and past the farmland towns of Dayville, Mount Vernon, and John Day until I finally made it to the charming little town of Prairie City, Oregon.  Prairie City is one of my favorite towns in Eastern Oregon–not only because it is close to the Strawberry Mountains, but also because it has one of the neatest little Mom-and-Pop restaurants I’ve ever seen.  The Oxbow Coffee House and Restaurant is almost a destination of its own.  In addition to the bar and restaurant, the old stone building also happens to be home to the North West Big Game Museum.  They have a ton of trophy-sized deer, elk, ram, and other big-game heads hanging on their walls and a beautiful 130-year-old mahogany and rosewood bar.  Knowing that the bar usually has at least one beer on tap from Deschutes Brewery, I couldn’t help but stop in for a quick drink. 

I ordered a Mirror Pond Pale Ale and then sat down at the bar next to a big, burly, and long-bearded gentleman. Within a few seconds, I pretty much figured out that he was a “local” and he quickly surmised that I was not.  I told him that I was planning on hiking into Strawberry Lake that night and asked him if the road to the trailhead was open yet. He quickly scanned me over from cap-to-boot with his eyes as if he was trying to figure out whether or not I was capable of making the trip, and then in a rugged smoker’s voice he said “Well, that depends. . . What are you driving?”  I explained that I had a four-wheel drive Jeep and that I had brought snowshoes in case the road was still blocked with snow.  He told me that I could probably make it to the lake, but that I had better finish my beer quickly because the sun was going to be setting soon and there was a good chance that I was going to need my snowshoes. I took his advice, bought his next round, and then hopped back in my Jeep.

The road from Prairie City to Strawberry Lake winds along open farmland for about 5 or 6 miles, and then it climbs more than 1,500 vertical feet up through a dense forest of pine, spruce, and fir trees for another 5 or 6 miles until it eventually dead-ends at the trailhead.  As I started driving toward the lake, I noticed a nice collection of cumulus clouds starting to form over the Strawberry Mountain range, and even though I knew I was running short on time, I couldn’t resist the temptation to take a few shots.


 Photo of Cumulus clouds over the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness Area in Eastern Oregon.

Photo of Cumulus clouds over the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness Area in Eastern Oregon.




Given the great collection of clouds that was forming, it was tough not to stay down low and explore the farm roads for longer, but I still wasn’t exactly sure what kind of adventure was waiting for me ahead, so I hopped back in the Jeep and continued up the gravel road.  Within a mile or so of entering the thick forested section, I noticed that there was much more snow starting to accumulate along the sides of the road and before long I got to the point where the road was completely blocked by snow.  I parked the Jeep, loaded my gear onto my back, and started snowshoeing in the general direction of the trailhead.  Although the road winds around quite a bit as it climbs up to its end, I was able to follow the general direction of the road fairly easily and before long I reached the sign marking the beginning of the trail. 

By this time, the sun had started its final descent and the cumulus clouds that I had taken pictures of earlier were just beginning to catch their color for the night.  I knew that I was only about a mile or so from Strawberry Lake, but I also knew that I was going to need to find my own way into the lake because the trail was still under several feet of hard-packed snow and ice.  I raced past the trailhead sign and forced my way up the steep, slippery hillside following my best guess for where the lake might be located.  As I struggled to navigate through the thick and cold forest with a 40-pound backpack, two things dawned on me.  First, I was quickly running out of daylight which meant that I might not be able to make it to the lake before the sunlight faded off of the clouds, and second, there was a very good chance that the lake was still going to be frozen from the winter.  The latter thought had not occurred to me when I was planning my trip, and since my primary mission was to photograph the mountainous headwall reflecting in Strawberry Lake, an ice-covered lake would be completely devastating.

With these two competing realizations, my mind started fighting with my legs and lungs about whether or not it was really worth it for me to hurry.  My mind was basically saying “Look, it’s a really tough climb up to the lake, and you’re going to need to work very hard if you expect to have any chance at all of making it there before dark” . . .  and my legs and lungs were countering by saying “But if the lake is frozen, there’s really no reason to push that hard because it will all be for naught anyway.”  In the end, I took the optimistic approach and pushed up the steep climb as quickly as I could.  I made it to the top of the ridge just as the clouds had started to brighten with shades of red and orange and I found a fully-thawed . . . but ripple-filled . . . lake. My legs and lungs were not at all happy that my mind had not anticipated the chance for a windy, reflection-killing night.  But, there was nothing they could do about it now.  Since the wind was not cooperating with my plans for a reflection, I dropped my backpack, watched the sun set behind Strawberry Mountain, and then set up camp for the night. 

After a cold night of snow camping and listening to the wind howl through the walls of my tent, I awoke the next morning and looked outside to find a perfectly calm lake.  I laced up my frozen boots and hiked to the lake shore where I took the following photo.


Picture of Spring sunrise on the Headwall at Strawberry Lake near Prairie City, Oregon.

Picture of Spring sunrise on the Headwall at Strawberry Lake near Prairie City, Oregon.




Knowing that I had completely lucked out and accomplished my goal of capturing the Strawberry Lake reflection, I took it easy the rest of the morning and then I leisurely hiked back down the canyon to my Jeep.  I stopped back by the Oxbow Coffee House and Restaurant for brunch and a celebratory beer and then drove back into Bend with a rejuvenated appreciation for all that Eastern Oregon has to offer.

Posted by Troy McMullin

NOTE: Special thanks go out to PremierWest Bancorp, which recently licensed one of my photos from this trip to use on the cover of their annual report.

The Magic of Smith Rock: A Memorable Mountain Biking and Photography Mission

As I peered out of my window at the cumulus clouds that were beginning to stack up in the skies overhead, I realized that this might be the day that I needed to finally capture one of the photographs that I had been hoping to get at Smith Rock State Park.  There had been a string of brilliant red and orange sunsets earlier in the week, and I was optimistically hoping that the pattern would repeat itself again tonight as I was perched on the cliffs along the northern ridge of the park.  I hurried to pack up my Canon EOS 5D camera, loaded my mountain bike on the top of the Jeep, and headed out for another trip to the world renowned rock climbing destination a few miles away in Terrebonne, Oregon.

As I got closer to the park, the clouds seemed to be arranged in a perfectly orchestrated position with just the right amount of spacing above the park’s rock spires.  Based on the sun’s position, I decided to ride into the park from the Canyon Trail on the south side of the Crooked River, not realizing just how steep and difficult that descent was going to be with a full-sized backpack.  As I dropped into the rocky and rutted trail, the pitch immediately forced me backward, but as I was attempting to get my weight adjusted to the rear, the bottom of my backpack got wedged against the bike saddle and me and my camera equipment were promptly ejected over the handlebars.  Fortunately, the trail was steep enough that as I went over the bars I was able to simply step forward and land on my feet in a running escape while I watched my Yeti spiral down the hill without anyone attached.

I was in no hurry to repeat that episode, so I chose to walk my bike for a while until the trail leveled out.  As I neared the bottom, I noticed that the sunlight coming in over my left shoulder was warming the cliffs on the opposite side of the river so I unloaded the tripod and wandered out through a clearing to get a better view.  Happy that the view toward the Christian Brothers formations was a relatively unique one, I set up the camera and shot a few images.  It was also at this point that I had two revelations.  First, the sun was setting quicker than expected and I needed to cover about 5 more miles in a hurry or I wasn’t going to get to where I needed to be for the photograph that I had been planning, and second, my perfectly arranged cloud formations had already begun to thin out.


Stock photo of the Christian Brothers rock formations in Smith Rock State Park.

Stock photo of the Christian Brothers rock formations in Smith Rock State Park.


After re-packing my equipment, I hustled along the rest of the Canyon Trail, crossed the footbridge to the other side of the river, and pedaled as quickly as I could toward the Mesa Verde Trail on the opposite side of the park.  As the trail steepened, I peeked at the sun behind me and realized that I was not going to make it to my planned destination in time.  Rather than leaving empty handed, I dismounted my bike and set up the tripod right there.  Although not quite the scene that I had anticipated, it was a beautiful sight looking back toward Monkey Face and Asterisk Pass with the rocks reflecting in the Crooked River below.  I took a few pictures and then sat there for awhile enjoying a peaceful (if cloudless and non-red/non-orange) sunset.

Sunset photo of Monkey Face and Asterisk Pass in Smith Rock State Park. One of several Smith Rock stock photos of that is available on our Pacific Crest Stock photography site.

Sunset photo of Monkey Face and Asterisk Pass in Smith Rock State Park. One of several Smith Rock stock photos of that is available on our Pacific Crest Stock photography site.

With the light fading and the temperature dropping, I started my return trip back along the edge of the river, frequently dodging rabbits as they darted from the bushes just inches away from of my front wheel.  Worried that one of these little games of “chicken” with the rabbits was going to launch me over the handlebars again, I slowed my cadence and began to focus more on the trail in front of me.  In fact, I became so focused on the ground that I almost forgot to look around and enjoy what was becoming an almost mystic riding experience.  Here I was . . .  all alone in Smith Rock State Park, after dark, riding next to a meandering river under towering cliffs and rock formations.  It dawned on me that this was perhaps one of the most memorable mountain bike rides I had ever taken, and then to make things even better, I glanced up and found a full moon rising above the Morning Glory wall.  I don’t know for sure whether it was the cool air coming off of the river or the scenery itself, but I suddenly felt chills go up and down my spine.  I got off my bike, and in an almost trance-like manner, I set up the camera, took a few deep breaths, and then waited for the shutter to close.


Stock photo of the moon rising over the Morning Glory Wall in Smith Rock State Park.

Stock photo of the moon rising over the Morning Glory Wall in Smith Rock State Park.


Looking back, this was definitely one of my favorite photographic experiences of all time.  It also demonstrates how you might not always capture the images that you are hoping for, but if you keep your eyes open, you can sometimes find an even better opportunity just around the corner.  Photographers often say,”The key to good landscape photography is getting there,” and in this case, I feel very grateful that I was able to be there.

Posted by Troy McMullin

NOTE: I would like to thank Matt Lathrop of FOCUS Realty for licensing one of the images from this day for his new website.  If you are interested in seeing other images from Smith Rock, you can browse our High Desert Gallery on the main Pacific Crest Stock photography site or search the site for “Smith Rock.” 

Early Success in the Central Oregon Photo Market!

     I have genuinely loved Bend and the Central Oregon area ever since moving here more than 10 years ago.  I enjoy our Central Oregon mountains, the Deschutes River, the high desert, old growth ponderosas, Drake Park, the local trail systems, Downtown Bend, the restaurants,  and the breweries (not necessarily in that order).   The natural beauty of Central Oregon is what inspired me to take up photography on a professional level.  To have so much geographical diversity in the same region is truly wondrous.  My partner in Pacific Crest Stock, Troy, is also a big fan of Bend.  Many friends have suggested that we should be on the payroll for the Bend Chamber of Commerce or one of the tourism boards because we are both such big boosters of Bend and the whole Central Oregon area.

     When we first conceived of Pacific Crest Stock, we both thought it would be a tremendous honor to have one of our stock photos appear in one of the Central Oregon tourism publications because it would be an honor to represent the area in print.  Well, with that thought in mind, we have a big announcement to make.  It has recently been formalized and one of our landscape images will grace the cover of the Visit Bend‘s tourism  publication, which is due to be released this spring.  The exposure of having the cover shot will be great, the link on Visit Bend’s very attractive website which has been promised will certainly be helpful, but most of all, it is an honor to represent Bend and Central Oregon in a more formal way.  Having met with Lynnette and Laurel at Visit Bend several times, I can confidently say that it is a well run, personable and efficient organization.  Lynnette is clearly a skilled Web master, and graphic designer.  She was courteous enough to provide me with the following image file, which will be the cover of their glossy magazine style publication.

Our Mt Jefferson Photo on the cover of the soon to be released Visit Bend Publication.

Our Mt Jefferson Photo on the cover of the soon to be released Visit Bend Publication.

Yeah that’s my Mt. Jefferson Photo and yeah I’m pretty excited!  

Mt Jefferson is one of the most photogenic mountains anywhere and because it is visible from much of the city of Bend, it has long been one of my favorite photography destinations.  This image, like most great images, required lots of work.  I’ve been to Jefferson Park and the Mt Jefferson Wilderness many times before and have always been moved by its beauty, but. I had often been frustrated in that I always thought there was a shot I was missing in this beautiful area.  The year I shot this photo, Troy and I went backpacking in the Jefferson Park area and we captured lots of good Stock photos including the following shot of Troy’s ,which is a fan favorite on Panoramio and Google Earth.

Troy's photo of Mt Jefferson from Jefferson Park with red Indian Paintbrush in the foreground.

Troy's photo of Mt Jefferson from Jefferson Park with red Indian Paintbrush in the foreground.

It is clearly a great shot. Mt Jefferson towering high above the mid-ground clouds with a stunning foreground of Troy’s favorite flower and the only one he knows the name of, the Red Indian Paintbrush.  During our trip, we scouted and shot on and off trail from many different locations including the one that will serve as Visit Bend’s Cover shot.  When we arrived at the “cover location”  the light was harsh and the alpine wildflowers hadn’t quite peaked for the year but the location was clearly special and I knew I had to return in a few days so I did.  To see more great Mount Jefferson images, please visit our stock site’s Mountain Gallery.

     On my return trip, I made a day trip of the outing carrying my heavy pack nearly 10 miles and several thousand feet of vertical gain to the same location as a few days before.  I quickly set up my tripod and my 4×5 camera and composed a beautiful scene at a stunning location when something unexpected happened.  A small wisp of clouds appeared over Mount Jefferson’s summit and it gradually evolved into the awesome lenticular cloud cap that you see in my cover shot from that second day. The scene went from a great one to one of the best fine art landscape shots I’ve ever taken.  It is one of my favorite images because Mount Jefferson’s amazing presence, the outstanding wildflower combinations (the equal of which I’ve yet to find in Oregon) and the mystical cloud cap which really brings the whole image together. I hiked out the last six miles with my headlamp beaming and my mind reeling with excitement about the great shots I’d just captured.   Without the cloud cap it’s a great stock photo, but with the cloud cap,  it becomes a great fine art print.  So I worked hard and I got Lucky.  I’ll take that combination any time!

    My thanks go out to Lynette at Visit Bend for the image file and to my loving wife for letting me go out and take photos in places I love.

To view my fine art prints, including the soon to be cover shot, please visit my fine art site at Mike Putnam Photography where you’ll see this lucky Mt. Jefferson Photograph and many others. 

Mike Putnam

Three Fingered Jack: Beware of the Greener Grass

Everyone has heard the saying about how “The grass is always greener on the other side.”  Well, this overly optimistic outlook is one of the problems that I often struggle with when I’m out scouting for pictures.  On one recent expedition, it almost cost me my life.   

 I wanted to do some scouting around Three Fingered Jack in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness Area, so I hiked into Canyon Creek Meadows (alone).  When I arrived in the upper meadow, it was absolutely gorgeous. 


Sunrise photo of Three Fingered Jack mountain with the wildflowers of Canyon Creek Meadows in full bloom.

Sunrise photo of Three Fingered Jack mountain with the wildflowers of Canyon Creek Meadows in full bloom.

 But for some reason, that wasn’t enough.  Despite standing in one of the most spectacular spots in the whole world, I couldn’t help but wonder what the views were like on the ridge to my immediate left.   I just knew that if I could find a way to get up on that ridge, I was going to find some unique and dramatic landscape shot that would be better than any that I have ever taken before.  The urge to climb that ridge was just overwhelming, and so I threw my camera gear into the backpack and started trekking toward the tree line.

As I approached the base of the ridge, the pine trees grew more and more dense until they became almost impassable.  The trees were only about 10 or 12 feet tall, but they had grown so close together that it was almost impossible for anything bigger than a rabbit to walk between them.  I began grabbing low hanging branches and with as much strength as I could muster, I started pulling myself through the wall of trees.  My backpack and tripod must have gotten hooked around a thousand different branches, and I swore that there was no way I would ever go back through this part of the forest again.  A few hundred vertical feet later, I finally popped out of the trees and found myself standing on a steep rocky slope. I attempted to traverse the slope, only to find that the boulders were incredibly unstable.  As they slipped and rolled under my feet, I started scrambling on all fours until I eventually made my way up to more solid ground.  From there, I could see a rock tunnel that spiraled up to what appeared to be an easy route to the top, so I did my best spider-man impression and wedged myself up through the winding rock tunnel.     


Winter photo of Three Fingered Jack. The ridge where I almost died is just out of frame to the left.

Winter photo of Three Fingered Jack. The ridge where I almost died is just out of frame to the left.

 It was at this point that I should have remembered the other saying about how “appearances can be deceiving” because once I made it through the tunnel, that apparently easy route to the top completely disappeared.  I was now standing on a ledge that was a little more than one-square foot around.  The ledge was too small to turn around on; the way down was much too steep to go back; and the only way up was via another ledge that was sticking out about 5 feet away.  In a bit of a panicked haste, I decided that my only option was to jump up and over to the other ledge.    

To lighten my load for the leap, I took off my backpack and tossed it and my hiking poles up to the ledge above me.  I then took another look at the distance, and this is when I began to have some serious doubts about whether or not I could actually make the gap, especially since the fear running through my body was causing my legs to grow weaker and weaker by the minute. On level ground, I wouldn’t have thought twice about jumping up and over to the other ledge, but with a few hundred feet of vertical relief below me, the whole idea of it was becoming rather unsettling. 

I stood there, trembling on the tiny ledge for several excruciating minutes trying to find another way out of the situation.  I looked down at the route I had taken up to this spot and started to imagine what it would feel like to have my body ricocheting down through the rocks.  I even remember staring down at the rock slide below me trying to calculate where my body might stop rolling if I couldn’t hold on to the ledge after jumping.  None of these thoughts were all that comforting, and as I started contemplating calling for an emergency rescue rather than attempting to make the jump over to the other ledge, I realized that a rescue call was no longer an option because my cell phone was already resting comfortably in my backpack on the other ledge.  That was the final straw and when I realized that I really had no choice at this point but to jump.  I focused my eyes on the exact spot where I thought I needed to land, and then I crouched down and quickly lunged across the gap reaching out as far as I possibly could.  I didn’t breathe for a few seconds until I finally realized that my fingers had firmly grasped onto the ledge above me and that my feet had found a hold on the side of the rocks.  Immensely relieved, I scrambled on to the top of the rocks, rolled over to my back, and swore that I would never again climb up something that I couldn’t safely climb back down.

The trip was rather uneventful from this point.  After a few more relatively easy scrambles, I made it to the top of the ridge.  The views from the top certainly weren’t worth dying for, but they were pretty spectacular–with the pinnacles of Three Fingered Jack towering directly overhead and wide open views of Mount Jefferson to the north, and Mount Washington and the Three Sisters Mountains to the south.  I found several interesting compositions up on the ridgeline, but unfortunately, the light was too harsh by the time I arrived to really do them justice with a camera.  Plus, to be honest, I felt like I had kind of lost my appetite for exploring any more on that particular day.  After 4 hours of hiking and climbing up to this spot, I probably spent less than 10 minutes on the top of the ridge, and then I turned around; found an easy way back down to the meadow; and hiked out to my truck—just happy to be alive.


Happy to be alive! Three Fingered Jack high in the Central Oregon Cascades.

Happy to be alive! Three Fingered Jack high in the Central Oregon Cascades.


Posted by Troy McMullin  

PS: Although I haven’t returned to the ridge since nearly being stranded on that ledge, I have a photograph in mind that I hope to capture later this Spring.  With any luck at all, it will soon be posted on our Pacific Crest Stock photography website.   We’ll keep you updated.

Killer Rattlesnakes and Photos from Central Oregon’s Alder Springs Trail!

One of my favorite  and lesser known Central Oregon destinations for hiking and Photography is the Whychus Creek canyon, which is best accessed from the Alder Springs trail head south east of the city of Sisters, Oregon.  This beautiful area is monitored and maintained by one of my favorite non-profit groups, the Deschutes Land Trust.  It offers classic high desert views of sagebrush seas, the Three Sisters Mountains, and the Whychus Creek Canyon.  Below is an image of the Three Sisters and Broken Top as seen from near the Alder Springs Trail head.

The Three Sisters and Broken top as seen from near the Alder Springs Trail Head

The Three Sisters and Broken top as seen from near the Alder Springs Trail Head



      This area is accessible for much of the year because it is lower in elevation than many of the more popular hiking areas of Central Oregon.  Trail details are available from many different local hiking guides and from the Land Trust’s website.  Parking is available at the trail head and the trail is easy to navigate but is not  handicap accessible.  Initially the trail skirts along a high desert ridge with some views of the surrounding buttes, the distant Oregon Cascades, and Whychus Creek far below.  Below is an image of the Whychus Creek Canyon from the Alder Creek Trail.  

Moody skies over the Whychus Creek Canyon along the Alder Springs Trail

Moody skies over the Whychus Creek Canyon along the Alder Springs Trail



I’ve been to the Alder Springs area many times but I’ve rarely seen the dark and moody skies like those in the above image which help to add interest to this photo.  In addition to the brooding skies, I love the big western feel of this photograph with its raw and rugged canyon zig-zagging into the distance between high desert mesas and the sparse details of junipers and sagebrush dotting the scene.  In early spring during certain years, you might be lucky enough to find a floral gem of the desert, the ephemeral Bitterroot flowers.  Below is one of my favorite groupings of Bitterroot blossoms seen along the Alder Springs trail.  

Bitterroot blossoms as seen along the Alder Springs trail in Central Oregon

Bitterroot blossoms as seen along the Alder Springs trail in Central Oregon



These delicate flowers seem to glow from within as if they have their own inner light source.  They are a favorite of my farrier friend, Big Todd, because I think they appeal to his delicate and sensitive side.  High along the canyon you can find all sorts of surprises.  I’ve made many trips there in early spring to capture the flamboyant accents of Balsamroot in full bloom.  If you want to enjoy these early season beauties, you should arrive before the deer herds as they seem to be a favorite snack for these foraging ungulates.  Perhaps, more importantly, you should only venture off trail to view these flowers with the knowledge that you will have a good chance of encountering Rattlesnakes fresh from their winter slumbers!  In all seriousness, I’ve noted a very strong correlation between these balsamroot being in bloom and Rattlesnakes coming out of hibernation.  On the day that I shot the following photograph of Balsamroot and basalt columns, I was “rattled” twice by the local serpents.  I was hiking off trail along a steep slope near a big drop down into the canyon floor.  As I crossed a rocky area, I heard a faint rattling noise.  A primal impulse triggered my flight or fight mechanism and I quickly chose the flight option!  As panic ensued I quickly leaped out of the area. During my less than grand exit, I spotted the fluttering tail of the rattlesnake disappear into a rocky crevice directly beneath my dancing feet!  Please keep in mind that I am not especially afraid of snakes, unlike my mother who seems to think they are the devil incarnate.  I simply don’t like being surprised by poisonous snakes while crossing rocky and exposed slopes.  After I’d cleared the area and my heart rate dropped to a reasonable level I rounded a canyon edge and saw another rocky slope I had to cross.  I conjured unhealthy visions of Indiana Jones in Raiders surrounded by viscous asps in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I mentally gathered myself and selected the least exposed route across what the dark side of my imagination perceived as a giant rattlesnake breeding ground.  Mid route I stepped on a loose rock which toppled into an adjacent area and sure enough, RATTTTTTLE!  Panic!  To make matters worse, I was unable to spot my angry foe amidst all the plate sized rocks surrounding my nervous ankles.  I blindly bounded out of the area never seeing the offended serpent.  Perhaps, understandably, it took me a bit longer to compose myself after my second scare of the day.  Eventually I gathered myself and captured the following image of Balsamroot flowers backed by some beautiful lichen covered basalt columns high above Whychus Creek.  


Balsamroot flowers and Basalt columns along the Alder Springs Trail near Sisters, Oregon

Balsamroot flowers and Basalt columns along the Alder Springs Trail near Sisters, Oregon

One of my favorite images from this area also involved an adventure into this rattlesnake infested location.  The following image captures some of the most colorful rock formations I’ve ever found.  The brilliant orange and yellow lichen growths are simply stunning and when combined with the vertical accents of the basalt columns they make for a very surreal scene.  I’ve seen few images from this area probably because of the very real threat of rattlesnakes and because of the treacherous locations in which these beautiful rock formations seem to be found.  During the process of capturing the following scene, I was precariously balanced on the very edge of a 50-foot cliff with my left foot  and two legs of the tripod holding my 4×5 camera balanced on loose rocks. On multiple locations my tripod slightly slipped allowing me to experience a different form of terror than that offered by the hidden rattlesnakes!   Eventually I captured the following photo and then took a longer but rattlesnake-free route out of the Whychus Creek Basin.

Lichen covered basalt columns at sunset high above Whychus Creek along the Alder Springs Trai

Lichen covered basalt columns at sunset high above Whychus Creek along the Alder Springs Trail



The stunning color combinations, the vertical accents and the warm evening light make this one of my favorite fine art images.  

     In regards to the Alder Springs Trail, it really is quite special.  From desert mesas to cold flowing springs, beautiful sights are everywhere.  The trail passes through a spring laden oasis of plant life and eventually to the confluence of Whychus Creek and the mighty Deschutes River.  The take home message from this trail is that if the balsamroot have begun to bloom and you are wary of rattlesnakes, you should consider staying on the trail!  If you are interested in licensing any of these images, please visit the High Desert Gallery of our stock photography site, Pacific Crest Stock.  

By Mike Putnam

Smith Rock Photos: Desert Snow Adventure

 Approximately mid-way through this hike, I began to think that it might have been optimism that killed the cat rather than just curiosity.  After all, that cat must have been more than just a little curious.  I suspect that he—like me—was simply a bit too optimistic that somehow the reward was going to be worth the risk.

Any time that thoughts like these begin to creep into my head, I know that I must be having fun, and indeed, I was definitely having a blast on this beautiful winter hike along the Crooked River canyon that runs through Terrebonne, Oregon.  Suspecting that the desert rock formations were going to be blanketed with snow, Mike Putnam and I decided to make a quick trip to Smith Rock State Park in hopes of expanding our High Desert Gallery on our new Pacific Crest Stock website.  The sun was higher than expected when we arrived, so we decided to split up in an effort to maximize the limited amount of remaining good light.  Mike would work around the ledges on the top of the canyon, and I would go explore around the Crooked River and the meadows in the bottom of the canyon.



Smith Rock, the Crooked River, and blue skies after a fresh winter snow


My unexpected adventure started about 50 feet from the truck when I realized that I was not going to be able to find the normally easy trail that traverses down from the top of the cliff because everything on the ground was covered with several inches of fresh powder.  After spending a few futile minutes searching for the trail, it became obvious that I would need to find my own way down the 30 percent grade, all of the while trying to carefully pick my route through the hidden rock fields.  It took much longer than expected to reach the river’s edge and on more than one occasion, I found myself in an awkward telemark-like position, using my poles for balance as I clumsily boot skied down the slippery slope. 

After I had safely made it to level ground and was able to look around, it was absolutely beautiful.  I was surrounded by towering cliffs, all of which were draped with a light snow that was trying desperately to cling to the near vertical faces.  I realized right away that this was one of most spectacular days that I have ever spent at Smith Rock, and I began thinking about how pretty the snow must be upstream near the currents across from the Monument (one of my favorite rock climbing formations in the park). 

I have hiked up near the Monument many times in the past, and as luck would have it, my current level of excitement seemed to have obscured my memory of just how difficult it was to access—even when there was no snow or ice.  As I struggled to make my way over the huge slippery boulders lying upstream, I began having strange conversations with myself about cats and curiosity and then flashes of Mike’s recent blog entry about a wintery boulder-filled hike along the Deschutes River filled my head.  Unfortunately, by the time that I remembered reading about all of the dangers that he had encountered, I was already trying to navigate my way through my own ice-covered rock garden.  Each step seemed to present new challenges, and on more than one occasion I found myself knee deep in what had been a previously snow-covered crevice.  With a little bit of luck (and a whole lot of optimism), I managed to avoid getting myself tangled into an eternal figure-four-leg lock and I arrived at my final destination with a huge smile on my sweat-drenched face. 


The Monument at Smith Rock State Park with snow covered boulders in the Crooked River in the foreground


The boulders along the river’s edge were stacked high with bright new snow and the rocky spires rising on the other side of the river seemed magnified against the backdrop of a brilliant clear blue sky.  Standing there, I realized that all of my optimism had been fully rewarded, and the hike was already worth the risk, even if I didn’t end up with a single photograph for the website.   Of course, I also knew that Mike and his unique brand of humor would embarrass me beyond belief if I was to let that happen, so I quickly scurried around the icy river bank framing various angles and water patterns, and then I started my way back–following my previous zigzag of foot prints until I had made it to the safety of the wide open meadow. 


Snow covered rock formations and the Crooked River at Smith Rock State Park


In the time that it took me to negotiate less than a mile of rough terrain, Mike had thoroughly covered the upper ridges extending along the entire border of the park.  Altogether, we captured at least a dozen stock-worthy images.  While driving home along Highway 97, we talked optimistically about the future of our new stock agency and we began planning our next adventure into other local snowscapes.  We’ll keep you updated.


Posted By Troy McMullin


NOTE: If you are interested in seeing other images from this day, you can search our Pacific Crest Stock website for “Smith Rock” and “Snow.”