Painted Hills is one of three units comprising the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Near Mitchell, Oregon, the area is regarded as one of the most beautifully striking regions in Eastern Oregon. The Painted Hills receive their name from spectacular colors and banded striations that appear hand-painted with an artistic quality that seems almost unnatural and highly surreal. These colors shift in appearance throughout different times of the day due to the varying angles of the sun. They absolutely explode in vibrancy after a thunderstorm, with a full saturated color palette due to the polarizing light filtering the sun’s rays through the clouds. Colors range from burnt red, amber, orange, yellow, and gold, with streaks of black and grey reminiscent of an artist’s creation. The Painted Hills of Oregon are a top destination for painters and landscape photographers alike, searching to capture the beauty of this protected region.
As part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, the Painted Hills makes up one unit of the overall 14,000 acres of semi-desert shrublands and colorful badlands of the John Day River Basin in Eastern Oregon. Other units include Sheep Rock and Clarno. The area became a National Monument in 1975 and has been attracting droves of visitors ever since. The John Day Fossil Beds rank third in annual attendance out of the four national parks and monuments located in Oregon. Crater Lake attracts the most visitors followed by the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park. All three units of the monument are in the John Day River Basin. The John Day River is the longest undammed tributary into the Columbia River. The South Fork of the John Day River flows west through the landscape, meandering by cattle ranches, farms, and communities, before turning north as it enters the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. After passing through Picture Gorge, the John Day River is joined by Rock Creek for the next 8 miles and flows through the Sheep Rock Unit of the monument.
The park is well-regarded for its abundance of preserved layers of fossil plants and mammals that were part of the Eocene period 44 million years ago, and the late Miocene approximately 7 million years ago. Sheep Rock reveals almost 25 million years of geologic record, from tropical volcanoes about 40 million years ago, to the 15-million year-old basalts that cap its peak. Fossils found in the John Day Strata include a wide variety of plants and more than 100 species of mammals, including dogs, cats, saber-toothed tigers, camels, horses, and small rodents. Built in 2003, the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center located at the Sheep Rock unit, is the best place to see fossils at the monument. Visitors can watch scientists diligently working on fossils from behind a window. The center features interactive displays, including “touch tables” and microscopes, paintings, murals, and displays illustrating the various regions where the fossils were found and the variety of plant and animal fossils discovered in the monument. The center is named for Thomas Condon, who was a Christian minister interested in the fossils he found in the region, which led him to studying geology and paleontology. He was appointed as Oregon’s first State Geologist and became the first professor of Geology at the University of Oregon.
The Painted Hills at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is noted mostly for its colorful geology made of heavily eroded volcanic ash layers deposited during ancient times when the area was a river plain with a warm tropical climate. Over time, the layers of ash formed with different mineral compositions, which led to the incredible bands of color seen today. The red and orange hues are from laterite soil which formed by floodplain deposits. The grey coloring is from mudstone, shale, and siltstone. The striations of black soil are lignite which was vegetation that grew along the floodplain. It is from these layers of ash, minerals, and vegetative matter, coupled with eons of erosion from the powerful forces of nature that caused the painted hills to emerge as we see them today.
The Painted Hills unit is open year-round with easy access for all visitors. There are a handful of well-marked trails to guide you through the park. As the area is fairly open and level, these are considered more of a moderate walk than a hike. The Painted Hills Overlook Trail is ½ mile, and provides views of the most popular viewing point. At another section of the unit is the Painted Cove Trail at ¼ mile in length. Much of this trail is on a boardwalk which offers an extremely close-up view of the Painted Coves and their entire burnt red and orange glow. Visible from the Painted Coves is a view of a picturesque reservoir that is inaccessible as it is private land. The Leaf Hill Trail at ¼ mile takes you to the location of significant scientific studies in the 1920s and 1990s where thousands of leaf fossils were found and preserved. The recently developed Red Hill Trail at ¼ mile is located at the far western edge of the unit and was created as a short walk to a colorful lookout. A slightly longer hike is the Carroll Rim Trail at 1 ½ miles. This trail takes you three hundred feet in elevation to an overlook atop the Painted Hills. The trails in the area are short and purposeful, in order to keep visitors away from the delicate hills. The “paintings” are so incredibly delicate that a man-made foot track can scar the hills for many years. Therefore, extreme caution is advised and full respect for the landscape is essential.
The appearance of the park varies greatly with the lighting and seasons. However, the late afternoon is predominately the best time of day to visit as the day’s light has calmed, which helps to strengthen the visual coloring of the hills. A popular time of year to visit is between April and May, when rivers of small yellow flowers run down within the cracks of the Painted Hills creating strong leading lines and colorful contrast. This is often a busier time as countless landscape photographers and artists make the journey to capture the splendid scenery. Another prime time to visit is just after a light dusting of snow. The stark white of the snow juxtaposed against the colorful striations makes for a strong composition. As with most landscape photography locations, fantastic end of day light after a thunderstorm with dramatic skies is quintessential. The Painted Hills unit is a top destination in Oregon for nature scenery and photography.
For more pictures of the John Day Basin, visit www.oregonfoto.com.
To Get There:
The Painted Hills Unit is located 9 miles northwest of the town of Mitchell, Oregon. The entrance is 6 miles north from Highway 26 on Burnt Ranch Road. The drive is highly photographic with many agricultural and farm scenes along the way.