Nine miles north-west of Mitchell off Hwy 26 a country road winds through rugged landscapes passing agricultural fields of grass and clover and leads into a geological wonderland – the Painted Hills of Eastern Oregon. The Painted Hills, one of the three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, are the crown jewels of this region with their spectacular colors and sublime patterns that seem to have been hand-painted by the master stroke of Mother Nature’s brush.
Like on a painters palette, the colors shift and change with the difference of light, weather and the seasons. Every rainstorm intensifies the bands of red and orange, the generous splashes of yellow and gold, and the random streaks of black and grey leaving you speechless and awe struck. Between April and May, rivers of small yellow flowers run down within the cracks of the reddish hills forming golden pools to their feet – a magic sight that draws hundreds of landscape photographers and artists to the place. But no matter what the time of year, the shapes and colors of the Painted Hills are an incredible sight.
The unique colors that streak the clay rich hills and mounds were formed over 35 million years ago by different volcanic eruptions and changing climate patterns. Once this area was a river flood plain with a warm tropical climate and an abundance of plants forming lush forests with exotic animals such as prehistoric horses, elephants, camels and saber tooth tigers roaming freely. Over time the landscape transformed again and again responding to the powerful forces of nature. Layers of ash and different types of soil mixed with minerals and plant material and eroded causing the unique coloring of the Painted Hills landscape we see today.
The Painted Hills unit is open all year around and has well established hiking trails that either bring you closer within the hills for a better examination or above them for a sweeping panoramic view. A short drive beyond the main sight brings you to the spectacular Red Hill and the Painted Cove Trail, a short educational hike around a small multi colored clay mound allowing a close up encounter. But there are many more special places within the unit that are waiting to be discovered and explored. You can easily spend a day here or come again and again without ever feeling that you’ve seen it all. There are well maintained picnic areas parking places and great information signs explaining the various geological and natural processes that occurred here through different eras.
One thing is for sure – a visit to the Painted Hills will be a one of a kind experience never to be forgotten!