The Painted Hills' bands of color formed from ancient vegetation and various clay and shale deposits depict a visual timeline of the areas climate change
Shades of purples and tans were on display in the late summer, while spring offered rich reds and golds.
The time of day also determines nature’s paint palette. Evening and early morning produces more saturated hues.

I love the high desert area. Not just because of the juniper-scented warm air, but because it is a great home base for a radius of adventures. I was beyond ecstatic when I learned that the Painted Hills were only a short 1.5 hour drive from Redmond. What a perfect day trip for my son and I during our stay in Central Oregon last summer!  I loaded up the car with the usual provisions and headed east in search of this dreamy, rainbow-like landscape. This first trip actually encompassed a lot of the amazing gems that the John Day Fossil Bed National Monument area holds. What a priceless window into Earth’s history, and how wonderful that enough foresight was taken to preserve some of this land early on.

After departing Redmond, we stopped in Prineville as a last bathroom/iced coffee refill/cell phone reception spot before heading on the twisty pass to the little town of Mitchell. Mitchell is the “Gateway to the Painted Hills” and is located about 9 miles past the entrance to the monument. Tucked within the town are a few amenities such as a hotel, camping options and a personal favorite, the Little Pine Café. The burgers are worth a try, and it’s handy to have a few spare dollar bills to add to the quirky interior décor. .

Once we turned into the park itself, the landscape began to change; peeks of red and yellow bands appeared under tree lines. The ground appeared to soften and become void of brush. The first stop is a small information kiosk that has restrooms and a picnic area. We grab a map before heading up into the hills. There are three parking areas that lead to short walking trails and vista points, the first being a breathtaking view of some larger landscapes. Pictures truly do not do it justice. The bands of color formed from ancient vegetation and various clay and shale deposits depict a visual timeline of the area’s climate change. Explaining to my son that what he was seeing was evidence of a 40 million year-old rainforest was amazing.

Because of the heat our walks were short, and we decided to return the following spring. We made the return trip this past April and I was delightful to see how the hills take a total different tone in a different season. Rich were the reds and golds from the damp winter earth, while summer had offered more shades of purples and tans. The time of day also determines nature’s paint palette. Evening and early morning produces more saturated hues;  the bonus of a low sun would create a great opportunity for any photographer. Returning in the spring also offered much cooler temperatures, making visiting all three locations easier. At one location, you get a close-up experience of the hills from a boardwalk trail that weaves between the mounds of cracked red clay. Questions flew as the mind of a 7 year-old formed his hypothesis. How did the colors form? What was the land like back then? What kind of animals lived here? What made the green rocks and the white dust? Without a doubt this is fascinating and educational for the whole entire family. I hope next time to include the cooling-blue cast hills of the Clarno unit or the cathedral-like formations of Sheep Rock to add another layer to our experience.

We also visited the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, about an hour east toward John Day. The museum is full of beautifully-displayed fossils found throughout the area. Anyone with even just a hint of curiosity about dinosaurs will be enamored by this museum. My son enjoyed the hands-on lab available for kids enrolled in the Jr. Ranger Program.

When we made this leg of the journey we were surprised to come across a “shoe tree.” No rhyme or reason, just a fun roadside attraction about 68 miles past Prineville on Highway 26. No worries if there are no spare shoes in the car to add to the art; we just relocated some that had fallen on the ground below.

about author Michelle Fahlgren

Michelle Fahlgren has been a NW gal most of her life and has made it a personal hobby to explore the unique and historical places that make this area fascinating. A camera in one hand, strong coffee in the other she is usually researching something new to explore with her hubby and son. She is a photographer, a reader, a road-trip junkie, a treasure hunter and finds most of life's troubles can be set right by salty sea air and a bit of chocolate. Check out more of her latest photos and adventures here.

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These maps and directions are for planning purposes only. You may find that construction projects, traffic, or other events may cause road conditions to differ from the map results. For travel options, weather and road conditions, visit tripcheck.com, call 511 (in Oregon only), 800.977.6368 or 503.588.2941.

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  1. Cecile says…

    Are the roads in and parking accessible to RV’s. Is the road paved or gravel. Looking forward to being there in June. We have a pickup with RV trailer and hope to be able to drive in, park, turn around, etc. Thank you for sharing this information regarding the Painted Hills.

    Written on May 12th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
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