Each of the three locations of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument has short trails to dramatic views of colorful rock formations. (Photo credit: Christian Heeb)

The first time I saw the Painted Hills in Eastern Oregon, I was in a hurry. My group had stopped at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, which acts as the interpretive center for the hills and the rest of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and learned about its stunning history — 55 million years of plant and animal evolution and a collection of 40,000 fossils that represent one of the two most complete fossil records in the world.

The thought of stopping at the nearby Painted Hills and walking through the same landscape that ancient cousins of elephants, camels, rhinoceroses and sabertooth tigers had was enticing. But with a full day ahead of us, we would have blown right past it but for the insistence of a very passionate local resident.

“We’d really love to, but we don’t have time,” we said.

“You must make time,” she said.

And the way she said it, we knew we didn’t have a choice. So we drove six miles out of our way, checking our watches and grumbling under our collective breath. Then we stepped out of the car and were absolutely blown away.

Where were we? On another planet, but right here in Oregon. The bare earth undulated in folds of scarlet, ochre and yellow by turns. In the golden light of late afternoon, the sunset hues intensified. Tiny birds flitted past and alighted in the fragrant sage, their twittering an otherworldly music in the deepening dusk.

The insistent local, now our friend, beamed as she saw us all absorbing the beauty of the place. She knew we’d go home and try to tell people about it, and end up explaining that you just have to go see for yourself. Here’s how:

Ancient History: The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument comprises three separate locations: The Sheep Rock Unit, The Painted Hills Unit and the Clarno Unit. Each site has short trails to dramatic views of colorful rock formations. The Sheep Rock Unit, home to the Paleontology Center, is between the towns of Dayville and Kimberly on Highway 19 two miles north of Highway 26. The Painted Hills Unit is nine miles northwest of the town of Mitchell, with the entrance six miles north of Highway 26 on Burnt Ranch Road. Find the Clarno Unit on Highway 218 about 20 miles west of the town of Fossil. All three sites will give you a view into the earth’s biography through the plant and animal fossils and rock layers.

Recent History: East of the fossil beds in the town of John Day, the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site is an imperative stop for a look at the more recent past. Walk through a veritable time capsule of the late 19th and early 20th century in this small building, which first opened in the late 1800s and served as a Chinese apothecary, general store and social hub for what was once the third largest China town in the country. The store was also the home to its proprietors, Ing “Doc” Hay and Lung On, who lived here for more than 50 years.

Get Outside: John Day is the point of departure for the Old West Scenic Bikeway, a challenging 174-mile loop ride through the remote beauty of John Day Fossil Bed country. Ride the route as a multi-day adventure, or just sample part of it.

Eat: Don’t miss 1188 Brewing Company for craft beers like the Box Canyon Pale Ale as well as a hearty menu of sandwiches, salads and wraps. Try the Oxbow Restaurant & Saloon in Prairie City for lunch and nearby Roan Coffee Company for a caffeinated pick-me-up.

Sleep: The Historic Hotel Prairie in Prairie City first opened in 1910 and underwent a complete renovation in 2008. The charming two-story brick hotel puts you in the heart of town. In the town of Mitchell, the Painted Hills Vacation Rentals offer two charming guest cottages, each with a private garden and full kitchen. For a genuine country getaway, check out the Triple H Homestead in the town of Monument. Spend the day hiking, fishing or horseback riding and cozy up in the bunkhouse at night.

about author Eileen Garvin

Eileen Garvin lives and writes in Hood River. When she’s not hunched over her keyboard or digging in the garden, you can find her mountain biking, kiteboarding, hiking, skiing or camping somewhere in Oregon.

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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. Geena says…

    Looks very interesting – did I miss the part about “How to Get There”??

    Written on June 5th, 2013 / Flag this Comment
  2. Sharon R Chace says…

    My husband Ernie and I plan to take a Road Scholar/ EldeHOstel trip NEXT summer. 2014, to Oregon. I am trying to convince them to add on a three day optional extension to the Painted Hills. If this does not work we will have to do it on our own. But it would be easier to do as a tour. I have wanted to see the painted hills for several years afteseeing pictures of them in a book, Heaven on Earth, Terry Donnelly.Abbeville press, 1999. Also my publisher is in Oregon…Wipf and Stock. Sincerely,
    SHARONR chace

    Written on June 5th, 2013 / Flag this Comment
  3. Bradley Hoth says…

    I visited all three units of the John Day Fossil park and the parks were magnificent. The split mountain at the Sheep Rock museum was the tops. Amenities were sparse five years ago and travelers should pack some food, water and coffee.

    Written on June 5th, 2013 / Flag this Comment
  4. Sharron Mathans says…

    Thanks for the timely article. Painted Hills is one of our prime destinations on or 40-day road trip through the Northwest and on to Glacier, etc.
    We will be staying in Prineville for two nights at a b&b starting June 16.
    We hope to view the hills in the late afternoon. Would 5 or 6 p.m. be about right?

    Written on June 5th, 2013 / Flag this Comment
  5. Beverly & Dick Shortridge says…

    Planning a trip there end of this week in our new motor home.! We also have passed it by and have always planned to go back! Am happy to see your article!

    Written on June 5th, 2013 / Flag this Comment
  6. Laurie Rucker says…

    Thanks so much for this article, Eileen. My husband and I are planning a trip to eastern Oregon in the near future, so this info is very timely!

    Written on June 5th, 2013 / Flag this Comment
  7. Nancy says…

    I traveled to this area with a photography group last weekend. We stayed at Hotel Condon. We were very happy there. Really nice rooms with that quaint old town feel. It’s an old boarding house that’s been restored. It’s lovely, warm and inviting. The staff is friendly, welcoming and very helpful. Check it out!

    Written on June 6th, 2013 / Flag this Comment
  8. Sven G Bergkvist of Sweden says…

    Must see – next time in Oregon
    Sven G

    Written on June 8th, 2013 / Flag this Comment
  9. Tom Powers says…

    I vividly remember going there as a kid (and 9-year-old geologist). Now I want to take my family there. When’s the best time to go for the less intrepid?

    Written on November 6th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  10. David Lee says…

    Did this trip a couple of years ago – link to my blog http://daveleephotography.com/3/post/2014/07/the-john-day-fossil-beds-of-easter-oregon.html

    Written on November 13th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  11. Laurence from Belgium says…

    We stood at the Oregon Hotel in Mitchell last May. The owners are very kind and we had a beautyfull stay. There is a small shop close to the hotel and a nice cafe at the end of the main street.
    That’s one of our best memories of our first road trip on the west coast.


    Written on November 13th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  12. mbella says…

    Does anyone know a good time to bike here? What are the seasons like? I’d love to plan a trip, but I’d like to avoid biking through the rain!


    Written on December 27th, 2016 / Flag this Comment
  13. Dale Stuckwish says…

    I am coming out to see my mom in Springfield and plan on visiting the John Day Fossil Beds.National Monument. I am very interested in fossils and have studied a lot about paleontology.I want to see also the Painted Hills and walk the trails there.

    Written on June 26th, 2017 / Flag this Comment
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