A ‘Don’t Hurt the Dirt’ Tour of the Painted Hills

2 Travel Dads,  Photographer
September 10, 2019
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Two months ago it was waterfalls, wildlife, caves and sand dunes that were captivating Rob and Chris Taylor and their family as they road tripped through Southern Oregon. This time around, it was the science and history, color-drenched landscapes, and starry skies of the Painted Hills in Eastern Oregon that brought wonder and enchantment. “It was hiking and sunshine and wildlife,” says Rob, a journalist who, with his husband, are part of the travel blogging duo known as 2TravelDads. “We saw a bat and praying mantis, deer and antelope, spread across one of the most jagged and bizarre landscapes.” 

On this trip, Rob and Chris got to teach their sons, Oliver (age 7) and Elliott (age 4), about conservation — namely the park’s Don’t Hurt the Dirt campaign, which reminds visitors to stay on trails, pick up after pets, leave treasures where they found them (take pictures instead!) and other Leave No Trace practices — to keep the area pristine for generations to come.

The 2Travel Dads post about their adventures for LGBTQ publications and other media channels. Here’s how to take a family adventure like theirs to the Painted Hills.

Swimming at Prineville Reservoir State Park, about 90 minutes south of the Painted Hills, is a lovely way to cool off in the warmer months.

A flight, a hike and stargazing

On this trip, the family hopped on an hour-long flight from Seattle to the Redmond Municipal Airport in Central Oregon. There they rented a car for the 90-minute drive northeast to the Painted Hills — a geologic wonder that may even feel more remote because it’s not close to the main highway. They recommend the excellent food and beers at the family-friendly Crooked River Brewing in Prineville, where arcade games and a patio for lounging keep everyone happy. 

From there it was north to the Ochoco National Forest, where they set out for a hike along the Steins Pillar Trail. (Make sure to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle.) “Being in this pine forest in the heat in peak juniper-berry season was really overwhelming,” Rob says. “It was a gorgeous trail, and we saw trees with bear scratches. The color of the bark was also amazing — the deep red like sequoias. The theme of our trip was color.” They loved this spot and returned here on their way back, swimming in the Ochoco Reservoir to cool off. 

Arriving at the Painted Hills area, they checked into their lodging for three nights, the Painted Hills Vacation Cottages & Retreat, a charming bed-and-breakfast cabin filled with the owners’ local art collection. The Painted Hills area was part of the slice of Oregon in the “path of totality” during the 2017 solar eclipse, and a top destination due to their Dark Sky designation, having zero light pollution. Situated on a cliff overlooking the small town of Mitchell, the cottage is also popular for meditation retreats and other nature-based gatherings. “It’s very ‘Oregon,’” Rob says. “It’s a pocket of quiet” that made for total relaxation — being immersed in nature in the daytime and returning to the cottage to chill out. In the evenings, the family got out their cameras for some dark-sky photography, a treat for them as photography buffs. “Even when we visit national parks, very few of them have that designation or zero light pollution,” Rob says. “There were millions of stars just out of the sky. The sky was really crisp and clear, with very little moisture to provide atmospheric distortions.”

The 2Travel Dads' kids explored the John Day Fossil Beds like little conservationists, taking to heart ways to keep the area pristine for generations to come.

Colors, fossils and memories

Before their visit, the family did a lot of research about what they’d find at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, which consists of three sites, or “units” — Clarno, Painted Hills and Sheep Rock — all within two hours of each other. Each has a handful of trails, mostly 1 to 3 miles, including some that are paved, with restrooms and picnic spots (remember to pack out all trash with you, and leave your site cleaner than you found it). It didn’t disappoint. 

“On one of our hikes, we took a video of the Red Hill — on one side it’s yellow, on the other side red,” Rob says. “There’s nothing else quite like this.” They were also impressed by the Blue Basin, which appears differently — like much of the landscape — depending on the time of day, lighting and season. “The Blue Basin is blue when it’s overcast or a really brilliant jade color when the sun is directly on it. I have not been wowed by color in rock formations anywhere.” 

At the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center, they got to examine specimens in drawers and watch from an observation room while real paleontologists worked on a Pliocene-era fossil of a bear. “They had a million questions,” Rob says of his kids. “The learning experience here was different from almost every other science and nature experience.” What makes the Painted Hills area special from a geologic perspective is its concentration of fossil records for plant life and its biodiversity of animals, Rob says. They passed lava rocks that flowed millions of years ago, and the kids traced footsteps of extinct creatures they’ve read about in books. “It’s really exceptional,” Rob says. “I was geeking out.” 

Photo buffs, science geeks, wildlife lovers, families and kids of all ages find fascination at the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center.

If You Go:

Weather: You can explore the Painted Hills year-round, and fall and spring are probably the best times, due to the lovely light and mild conditions. During midsummer heat, it’s critical to keep hydrated and keep a close eye on kids and pets whenever they’re outside. For a great place to cool off, Rob and Chris recommend the John Day River, which flows east to west for nearly 300 miles and is known for its world-class smallmouth bass fishing. On a 90-degree day, the lush riverbed is a great place to toss pebbles and look for crawdads. “It’s just that perfect break to being in the hills, where it looks like Mars,” Rob says. “It’s such a warm river, we could just hang out.” In the winter, check weather and road conditions before you go. 

Tips for families: Talk to your party about ways to follow Don’t Hurt the Dirt practices — including keeping pets leashed to protect the fragile environment. The 2TravelDads always make sure to locate playgrounds where they’re staying, to let the kids just be kids. They found one at Mitchell City Park, a few minutes from their cottage. They also love to eat well. In Mitchell they found a favorite hangout at Tiger Town Brewing Company — a locally owned small-batch brewery with a food-truck-style kitchen that serves up killer chicken wings.

About The
Author

Jen Anderson
Jen Anderson writes and edits Travel Oregon's e-newsletters and other online content. She loves finding the latest places to eat, drink and play around the state with her husband and two young boys. Brewpubs, beaches and bike trails top the list.

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