Sutton Mountain could be one of our next national monuments

Oregon’s little-known treasure

Julia Dinmore

Cover photo: View from top of Sutton Mountain, Michael Campbell, BLM via Flickr / CC BY 2.0

You’re making a list of nature destinations to visit this summer, and you can’t quite decide where to go. Somewhere with impressive rock faces and mountainous terrain—perfect for climbing, hiking and marveling at ancient sediment layers? Or perhaps a place more akin to the rolling hills of Austria featured in the opening of The Sound of Music? Well, here’s some good news: You don’t have to choose! Sutton Mountain in Oregon’s northern high desert offers the best of both worlds. And this area could be a new national monument thanks to support from Oregon’s U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden.

Photo: Sutton Mountain, Michael Campbell, BLM via Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Although Sutton Mountain isn’t on most people’s bucket lists, it probably should be. Locals have long recognized the worth of this one-of-a-kind place. The landscape is part of the Sutton Mountain Wilderness Study Area, which encompasses 28,872 acres of land. Sen. Merkley and Sen. Wyden’s Sutton Mountain and Painted Hills Area Wildfire Resiliency, Preservation, and Economic Enhancement Act would protect this natural gem by designating Sutton Mountain a national monument and protecting surrounding areas. This important step would allow present and future generations to enjoy all the wonders the region has to offer.

Sutton Mountain’s 4,694-foot peak offers an expansive view of the diverse landscape. To the west, steep rocky faces jut out from the ground, enticing climbers, hikers and photographers alike. The eastern side offers rolling hills blanketed in juniper, sagebrush and breathtaking wildflower displays. There’s purple lupine and Indian paintbrush, as well as the threatened arrowleaf thelypody and Peck’s milkvetch blossom, in abundance. The effect is a vibrant tapestry of blazing red, crisp white, vivid magenta and deep purple—a sight one might not expect to enjoy within land deemed a high desert.

Photo: Purple Lupine on Sutton Mountain, Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington via Flickr; CC BY 2.0

This tapestry is a reminder that deserts are not as desolate as you think. Sure, the Sahara’s sandy expanse might come to mind at first, but not all deserts are the same, and Sutton Mountain is an example like no other. The mountain and its surrounding area hosts an impressive range of wildlife, including elk, pronghorn antelope, mule deer and swooping raptors, such as bald eagles and ferruginous hawks. Visit the area and expect to see these critters and more munching on sagebrush, bounding across the rough terrain or soaring through the air.

Hiking to the summit offers endless striking views, including the dazzling Painted Hills. Named one of the “7 Wonders of Oregon,” the Painted Hills earned their name because of the rock layers’ distinctive coloring, which act as a geologic timeline spanning millions of years. At the summit, you can even catch a glimpse of the Cascade Range—more than an hour’s drive west—boasting Mounts Jefferson and Adams. 

Photo: The Painted Hills at Sutton Mountain, Bob Wick, BLM via Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The mountain’s base has much to offer as well. The surrounding rock is composed of hardened volcanic ash and the pyroclastic flows of the John Day Formation—a geologic event that occurred over 18 million years ago. Its unique coloring displays stripes of red-orange, white and rusty brown that blend together at the edges. The result: a colorful mosaic of the Earth’s ancient history, which is enough to move not only nature-lovers but also urbanites.

Now,  Sutton Mountain and Painted Hills Area Wildfire Resiliency, Preservation, and Economic Enhancement Act has been proposed to preserve this treasure trove of life, history and beauty. Introduced in the Senate on November 3, 2021, the bill would establish the Sutton Mountain National Monument and protect approximately 66,000 acres of public lands. Encompassed in this acreage are other popular nearby nature destinations, such as Sand Mountain, Gable Creek and Pat’s Cabin. The act would also withdraw the lands from new mining claims. 

Photo: Sutton Mountain Wilderness Study Area, Bob Wick, BLM via Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Residents of Wheeler County provided feedback on the conservation plans and discussed what it would look like for a new national monument to be established so close to their homes. One of the bill’s provisions allows some grazing to continue within the monument in order to maintain Wheeler County’s economy, heritage and culture. It’s this kind of collaborative conservationism that can ensure we justly preserve our nation’s nature for generations young and old to enjoy.

This blog was coauthored by Environment America intern Kristine Meader

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Julia Dinmore

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