Sutton Mountain Dazzles,
Inspires in Equal Measure

Matt Wastradowski   Website

By Matt Wastradowski

The Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument sees roughly 200,000 visitors per year, almost all of them dazzled by the brightly colored hillsides, arid landscapes, and explosive ecological history of the John Day River Basin.

But just east of the Painted Hills sits Sutton Mountain, rising 4,700 feet above sea level and towering over the monument’s border. With a rocky western face and a grassier, more gradual eastern slope, Sutton Mountain invites hikers and horseback riders to rise above the region for a top-down look unavailable almost anywhere else in the region.

Those views range from the Painted Hills to canyons, gorges, and rolling hillsides that twist, turn, and rise all the way to the horizon—to say nothing of the many Cascade peaks in the distance. Visitors might even see some of the wildlife that calls Sutton Mountain home—like pronghorn, elk, mule deer, raptors, and coyotes.

And while it borders the Painted Hills and sits in the middle of the three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Sutton Mountain sees far fewer visitors in a given year and remains an underrated gem in the region. That doesn’t make it any less fascinating, though: The mountain’s unique ecology, unparalleled views, and promising future as a protected piece of land make it well worth a visit.

So if you’re interested in learning more about—or even visiting—Sutton Mountain, here’s a look at how the region came to be, what it’s like to ascend to the summit, and why it’s so important to protect it for future generations.

 

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Spring Basin Wilderness

Spring Basin Wilderness

Spring Basin Wilderness

With 10,000 acres of undulating terrain, secluded canyons and spectacular vantages of the John Day Country, Spring Basin is magnificent to explore This public treasure, forever protected as Wilderness, offers a profusion of desert wildflowers in the spring and year-round recreational opportunities for hikers, horseback

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Stewardship Pronghorn Fence

Stewardship Pronghorn Fence

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Western Rattlesnake

Western Rattlesnake

Also known as the Great Basin Rattlesnake, these pit vipers have buff-tan coloring and small, oval blotches to blend into their arid surroundings. Small heat-sensing indentations on each side of the snake’s snout detects warm-blooded prey for better striking accuracy in the dark. Source: The Oregon Encyclopedia

Latin name: Crotalus oreganus lutosus

Natural History of Sutton Mountain

Today, the view from atop Sutton Mountain looks over the John Day River Basin. But millions of years ago, the view would have been far different: Active volcanoes, ginkgo trees, plentiful wildlife, and a verdant ecosystem stretched for miles in every direction. (For context: In those days, this area of eastern Oregon was as wet as modern-day western Oregon.)

But those erupting volcanoes killed plant and animal life before slowly shifting westward—and a changing climate spurred the dry, arid ecosystem surrounding Sutton Mountain today.

Tyson Fisher   Website

What It’s Like to Hike Sutton Mountain

Of course, getting to enjoy those views demands some effort along the Sutton Mountain trail, a 7.5-mile, round-trip trek that gains nearly 1,700 feet in elevation.

The entirety of the trail follows an old roadbed, initially through open forests of juniper and springtime wildflowers—such as purple lupine and red Indian paintbrush—before leaving the shade for good. (As such, this hike is best done in early spring and fall, when daytime temperatures won’t be quite so oppressive. Bring plenty of water, and apply sunscreen before setting out)

Roughly halfway up the mountain, you’ll walk through a cattle gate—be sure to close it behind you—and follow the road as it grows fainter and approaches the summit. A small overlook just below the summit affords wide-open views of the Painted Hills and Ochoco Mountains. But for a full 360º look at the region, a quick backcountry climb to the summit of Sutton Mountain (where no official trail actually leads) affords even grander views of Cascade peaks, from Mt. Jefferson to Mt. Adams. In April, keep an eye out for the rare (and beautiful) pink hedgehog cactus.

 

Mark Darnell

Sutton Mountain Protection Efforts Remain Ongoing

Once you reach the summit of Sutton Mountain, you’ll understand why advocates like ONDA have been striving to protect the stunning landscape.

Sutton Mountain is managed by the Bureau of Land Management—and is under consideration for a Wilderness designation by the U.S. Congress. In 2019, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the Sutton Mountain and Painted Hills Area Preservation and Economic Enhancement Act, which would formally create the Sutton Mountain Wilderness.

This legislation is pending in Congress but, if passed, would imbue Sutton Mountain with the strongest possible standards of conservation law while providing for conservation and improved management of surrounding public lands to the benefit of fish and wildlife, watershed health, and local communities.

About the Author

Matt Wastradowski is a travel and outdoors writer based in Portland, Oregon. Matt has written for numerous publications, including Willamette Week, REI's Co-op Blog, and Northwest Travel & Life. He is the co-author of Moon Pacific Northwest Hiking, now available.

Learn More About Matt