Painted Hills Unit is the most spectacular site on the entire John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The area is relatively small, but jaw dropping beautiful and different from anything you might have seen before. The place is definitively worth a trip! Painted Hills is named after the colorful layers of its hills corresponding to various geological eras, formed when the area was an ancient river floodplain.
The black soil is lignite that was vegetative matter that grew along the floodplain. The grey coloring is mudstone, siltstone, and shale. The red coloring is laterite soil that formed by floodplain deposits when the area was warm and humid.
While the abundance of fossil remains of early horses, camels, and rhinoceroses in the Painted Hills unit makes the area particularly important to vertebrate paleontologists, the colorful layers are a real paradise for photographers.
The place is so drop gorgeous that I went there already four times and each time I decided that I will have to return again. I am not sure when my fifth visit to Painted Hills will be. I just know that it will happen!
Getting to Painted Hills:
The starting point to get to Painted Hills is the town of Mitchell. The description to get to Mitchell can be seen at the previous page.
From Mitchell take highway 26 heading east. Approximately 3.8 miles later you will merge right onto a paved road that leads you for another 4.6 miles where you turn left to enter inner circle of the Painted Hills. First you pass the little ranger station located to your left and finally you will enter the valley to see the biggest part of the Painted Hills to the left and Carrol Mountain to the right. The road will go in small serpentines up the hill until you reach the parking lot.
From the little parking lot you will start to explore the main segment of Painted Hills. Walk up first the Painted Hills Overlook. The color-splashed hummocks and hills are the eroded remnants of the lower John Day Formation. The weathering of volcanic ash under varying climatic regimes resulted in vividly-hued rock layers of red, pink, bronze, tan, and black. These hills are extremely fragile and access to them as well as walking on them is strictly forbidden. You might see some trails on the hills. These are from deers and Pronghorn Antelopes which life in the area and do not follow rules imposed by humans.
Due to the restrictions in accessing the hills you really will need to have a tele lens in the range of 200 – 300mm to get close enough for some interesting and attractive abstract images including the geologic patterns of the hills.
Another option is walking back to where you entered the valley with your car and climb the hills to the south and get behind the main hills. There are no trails for this, but the reward is immense and you will come back home with some unique and novel images from Painted Hills.
Walking and hiking is actually the best way to get around. Each spot provides a new angle and photographic approach which you might miss if you just drive through the area. Several additional trails are to be explored:
Painted Cove Trail – A short trail winds around a crimson hill, permitting a close view of the popcorn-textured claystones that distinguish the Painted Hills. A printed trail guide is available at the trailhead.
Leaf Hill Trail – An exhibit describes the hill where large quantities of plant fossils have been removed for scientific study and where research continues. Much of what is now known about the ancient forests once growing in eastern Oregon was learned at this site. Walking on the hill is strictly prohibited.
Carroll Rim Trail – 1 1/2 miles – The Carroll Rim trailhead is near the road junction to the Painted Hills Overlook. This moderately strenuous trail leads to the top of Carroll Rim and offers a spectacular view of the Painted Hills and nearby Sutton Mountain. The weather-resistant rock forming the cliffs along the trail is ignimbrite, a layer of welded volcanic ash.
Plan several visits at Painted Hills during your stay at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Each time of the day is rewarding, although my personal favorite time was always the late afternoon.
Last update: November 26, 2011