The Blue Basin
If you’ve never been: Notes from the field by David Cobb
A little-known photographic gem lies in central Oregon along the “Island in Time Trail,” which is an easy mile hike through a terrain that feels like a slice of Badlands National Park. Just off highway 19, and not too far from the more famous Painted Hills of central Oregon, lies the Blue Basin in the Sheep Rock Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. A longer loop trail takes you to an overlook of the area, but for photography I prefer to head right into the center of the of the Blue Basin arena.
Due to the surrounding hills and cliffs, this isn’t a place that will catch good light in the morning or evening, so those great shadows you get at the Painted Hills aren’t an option here. I recently arrived during cloud cover, and the even light along with the color-saturating rain brought out the wonderful blues and greens of the basin. The deep red boulders make great foreground anchors and are a color complement to the blue hills. Surrounding sagebrush and grasses also make for some good foreground elements. Along the way there were plenty of high desert wildflowers to keep me busy with my macro photography. Leaving the trail is strictly forbidden due to the surrounding fossil lands, but plenty of photo opportunities present themselves along the trail so there isn’t any need to leave it.
Like most places, the light here can be pretty flat with the sun high in the sky, so arrive early or late for the best lighting. Even better, come on a cloudy and rainy day to catch some of the drama in the sky and color in the cliffs. The Sheep Rock Unit Visitor Center is outstanding and definitely worth a stop when you’re in the area, and just a short drive north is colorful Cathedral Rock which can make a nice subject under the right conditions. Picture Gorge is also in the area and a great place to view pictographs of the Columbia Plateau, even though photographing them here is a difficult challenge. All-in-all, the area is worth a visit for any serious northwest photographer.