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John Day Fossil Beds National Monument: Painted Hills, Oregon
The Painted Hills are 2 hours East of Bend, Oregon
My two passions in life (other than my family) are travel and photography.
We have lived in Central Oregon since 2006, and I have always wanted to visit the Painted Hills, about 2 hours east of Bend. When my son and I visited in early Spring 2014, I wondered what took us so long to get here! If you live in the Pacific Northwest, the Painted Hills are a relatively easy drive and much easier to access (let alone easier to park and less expensive) than other geological marvels in the region like the Grand Canyon, or Bryce Canyon in Utah.
I admit that its amazing to visit Hawaii or Texas, but the best jewels are often those in your own geographical backyard! We are so glad that we finally took the trip to see the Painted Hills in Oregon.
Our family lives in the heart of Central Oregon, in Bend. The region is known for its beautiful Cascade Lakes, skiing at Mt. Bachelor, fishing, hiking, Smith Rock and amazing cuisine. A drive east from Bend takes you to areas including Prineville, Mitchell, the Painted Hills, and Fort Rock, among other places.
You can visit any of these locations as a day trip from and back to Bend.
Beauty of the Painted Hills in Oregon
Traveling to the Painted Hills, Oregon
Our trip to the Painted Hills took us through the heart of Central Oregon, traveling east from Bend, Redmond and Prineville. Highway 26 runs east from Portland, over Mt. Hood. It is approximately 4.5 hours to the Painted Hills from the Rose City.
For us, traveling from Bend takes a little less than 2 hours. Prineville, Oregon is the last metropolis though which you will pass on your journey. I recommend you should fill up your gas tank and purchase snacks and water before continuing on. Mitchell, Oregon is 47 miles east of Prineville, and the cut-off to the Painted Hills is about 40 miles from Prineville.
Leaving Prineville, continue following Highway 26 east of town over the Ochoco Mountains (4,700 feet above sea level) toward Mitchell, Oregon. Keep your eyes out for deer and other wildlife driving over the pass. We spotted a gang of wild turkeys right outside our car window!
Watch for the sign that welcomes you to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and indicates a turn-off to your left (when traveling east) to the Painted Hills. The park is approximately 6 miles from the highway along a rutted paved road, which turns to a dusty gravel road before you drive up the hills into the park.
You don't need a Forest Service Pass or any cash to visit or park at the Painted Hills! At the entrance to the park is a Ranger Station at which you can get directions, information and use the restrooms.
Spending a Saturday with my Son at the Painted Hills, OregonClick thumbnail to view full-size
Tips for an Enjoyable Visit to the Painted Hills
Our visit to the Painted HIlls in March was during what I would consider to be "perfect" weather. Most times, visitors will need to plan for weather.
- Be sure to carry plenty of water and other fluids (64 oz. per visitor); there are no drinking fountains on-site
- Wear sunscreen, even during winter months
- Dogs are welcome but must be on a leash - do not leave dogs unattended in cars as temperatures can quickly climb inside vehicles
- Make sure your camera battery is fully charged
- There is no cell phone service (actually very little service from the Ochoco Mountains and even into Mitchell, Oregon)
- Bring along snacks - there is no restaurant or snack bar on-site
- Use the bathrooms at the park entrance, about 1 mile away from the Painted Hills Overlook, right when you enter the park! There are no facilities on-site.
What Geological Forces Created the Painted Hills?
The beautiful colored layers in the hills here are the result of volcanic ash that began being deposited in the region about 35 million years ago, during the formation of the Cascade Mountains. Numerous volcanic eruptions and a changing climate created layer upon layer of ash. The ancient tropical river valley has transformed to the barren high desert of today.
Over time, the layers became compressed and mixed with various soils and minerals as the tropical leafy forest and river plain transformed into a barren high desert. Erosion and consolidation eventually changed the ash/mineral layers into bentonite clay.
Black swaths in the Painted Hills consists of lignite from decayed vegetation. Mudstone, siltstone and shale layers show up as various shades of gray. The red in the Painted Hills resulted from floodplain laterite soil deposits.
The beautiful colors of the various clay surfaces of the hills are permanently on view for the public because nothing grows there. During periods of rainfall, the clay becomes saturated and effectively seals water within so that any seedlings cannot penetrate the surface. In addition, the loose surface particles easily wash away, again preventing a foothold for plants.
The benefit of rainfall in the Painted Hills is that the absorption of water causes the surface to expand, which changes the surface tension, transforming reds and yellows to pinks and golds. During dry periods, the hills appear with deeper colors.
The best time to view the colors is at sunset. Each visit to the Painted Hills will be different - depending on the time of day, time of year, amount of sunlight and shadows from clouds above.
Painted Hills, Oregon
Overview of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon
There are three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument : the Clarno Unit, the Painted Hills Unit, and the Sheep Rock Unit. Each are relatively close (40 miles apart), but it is difficult to see all in a single day.
Be sure to check the National Monument website to ensure that the units you wish to visit are open or if there are any travel advisories before making the journey.
After you learn about the numerous fossils located within the Painted Hills Unit, you will want to visit the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center in the Sheep Rock Unit of the Monument. A fossil museum, bookstore, theater - as well as restrooms and drinking fountains - provide a welcome respite for visitors who have spent a large portion of the day outside. Less than 1/4 mile away is the James Can't Ranch Historic District, which is open most weekdays. It includes a fully-accessible cultural museum.
The Clarno Unit of the National Monument is 18 miles west of the town of Fossil, Oregon. Here, you will witness the majestic Palisades landform. Its creation predates by about 10 million years that of the Painted Hills. Once again, volcanic activity and mudflows, coupled with other geological and climate-based changes, transformed the area from a tropical rainforest into a fossil-rich region exposed to the winds and baking sun of the high desert.
Painted Hills Unit: John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
Why Take a Geology Course When you can Visit the Painted Hills?Click thumbnail to view full-size
What is Your Favorite Geological Site in the Western United States?
Basic Information About the Painted Hills in Oregon
Hours: Open Year Round, weather permitting
Parking: Space for 5-8 vehicles at each of the trailheads. Plan ahead if visiting during summer or other busy times
Park Ranger: Yes, including information booth at the entrance to the park
Restrooms/Facilities: At the entrance of the park - be sure to stop before heading up toward the various hiking trails. There are no facilities within the park itself.
Accessibility: Trails are covered in loose gravel and are steep in spots, near drop-offs. The government is considering creation of ADA compliant trails in the future.
Fees: Free to visit and free parking
Picnic areas: Yes
Size of the Park: 3,132 acres
Climate and Weather: The climate is generally mild, ranging from 40-80 degrees F. However, check the weather ahead of time. Winters in this part of Oregon can be very cold and icy (10-40 degrees F. On the other hand, summers may be brutally hot (80-100 degrees F), with little shade and no on-site water resources. Rain and snow may occur on occasion, but generally the region is arid.
Special Park Uses: Check with the park superintendent if you wish to engage in any commercial activity or hold special events in the park (weddings, scattering of ashes).
Fossil Research: You may not dig for or collect fossils, without a research permit issued by the monument's paleontologist.
What to Bring to the Painted Hills, Oregon
Visiting in Spring/Summer
Visiting in Autumn/Winter
Sturdy shoes and socks
May not be necessary, but leave in the car
May wish to bring heavier coat, gloves and a hat
Leash for dogs
Painted Cove Photos: John Day Fossil Beds National MonumentClick thumbnail to view full-size
Various Trails You Can Hike at the Painted Hills, Oregon
When we visited in March 2014, we walked 4 of the 5 public trails at this unit of the National Monument. Each of these trails are approximately 6-8 miles north of Highway 26 in Oregon.
- Painted Cove Trail (1/4 mile round trip)
- Painted Hills Overlook Trail (1/2 mile each way)
- Fossil (1/2 mile round trip)
- Red Hill Trail (1/2 mile round trip)
The one trail we did not hike, which I would definitely do next time, is the Mitchell Trail, which is 3/4 mile each way.
Each of these trails are rated "easy," and require little effort, particularly because they are so short in distance. Strollers and/or wheelchairs can be used on these trails, except for the Painted Cove Trail which includes steps. Be prepared, however, that the trails are not paved, but covered with gravel. Grades are slight to low-medium in height.
© 2014 Stephanie Hicks