The Painted Hills
230 miles from Portland, 160 from Baker City, nearly 90 miles from even Bend, The Painted Hills sit lonely in the backcountry of Central Oregon. When we arrived there in the late afternoon we had been on the road for 5 hours. It was a day of waking up early, doing the shopping and packing we’d procrastinated the day before, tending to our dog in the back seat, and eating some truly terrible road food. So forgive us a bit for admitting that as we approached the entrance and looked at the park map appraising what we were in for, we remarked that it looked…small. Was this place really going to be worth the trip? We didn’t give ourselves a lot of time to brood over the question. The sun was about to set, and if we wanted to see anything that day, we needed to go. Setting up camp would have to wait.
Driving in, you follow a road through a hilly landscape that looks fairly ordinary. Little by little, multicolored spots appear on the hillsides, peeking through the grass, and it’s hard to not be excited by these. “Look!” we kept pointing. “Painted parts!” Don’t start taking pictures yet, though. The really good part is coming up.
When you finally wind your way into the center of the terrain, it feels like you’ve touched down on another planet. No other landscape resembles it. All around you are these great mounds of earth, some standing alone and some rolling into each other, forming smooth clefts and dimples where they merge. They look, strangely, kind of sexy; curvaceous forms in repose, draped with silk sheets.
And the surface truly looks like hand-painted silk with lush gradients of gold, rust, emerald, and black. The colors actually represent different sedimentary rocks that stacked up millions of years ago when the region was a warm river floodplain. The Painted Hills is one of the three units that make up the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (the others being Sheep Rock and Clarno). The entirety of the monument is an extraordinary record of plant and animal evolution, changing climate, and past ecosystems; and we plan to cover more in future posts!
In the Painted Hills there are five trails, all pretty short, between a quarter mile and a mile-and-a-half. This isn't for athletic recreation. You drive between trailheads, park in the small lots, and stroll around appreciating the beauty up close. We saw many people settled in with tripods and fancy camera equipment. But a smart phone camera still gets you some good shots. From a few feet away, some of the texture appears velvety; in other areas, cakey, as though touching it isn’t tempting enough, there’s also an urge to eat it.
In any case, only looking is allowed, as several signs point out. And that makes sense, since any disturbance can cause damage. There were a couple spots where footprints were clearly visible in the soft rock, evidence of someone flouting the rules and running up and down the hillside. All we can say is that we hope that person is struck by at least one of these Powerful Modern Curses http://the-toast.net/2014/05/13/powerful-modern-curses/
We did a hurried walk-through while there was still daylight and then went to set up camp. There are a few basic campgrounds in the area, we chose Priest Hole, located about 8 miles northeast, right on the John Day river. The area is only accessible by high clearance vehicles, but if you can make it down the bumpy gravel, it’s a beautiful spot to camp. While eating dinner, we witnessed a very pretty sunset and then the most stunning moonrise we’d ever seen.
At daybreak we drove back to the hills and were immediately glad that we stayed overnight. The morning light illuminates the Painted Hills in completely different ways and offers a fresh perspective when you’re hiking through. In a similar fashion, we’ve learned that different seasons can change the appearance of the hills radically. We visited on an October weekend with golden fall light and a brilliant blue sky. In spring, though, the formations are festooned with wildflowers, and in winter the colorful stripes peak out from ribbons of bright snow.
On your way out, we highly recommend stopping in the nearby town of Mitchell for lunch. As of the last census, Mitchell has a population of around 130, but it features a handful of thriving businesses, including the Little Pine Cafe that serves very satisfying burgers and fries. In town there’s also the very charming donation based Spoke’n Hostel, which caters to all travelers, but particularly Cyclists riding along the Painted Hills Oregon Scenic Byway and TransAmerica bike route.