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John Day Fossil Beds National Monument - Painted Hills Unit, OR

Sunday, September 8, 2019 - 5:45pm by Lolo
85 miles and 1.75 hours from our last stop - 1 night stay

Travelogue

Lolo hits John Day Fossil Beds (Painted Hills)Lolo hits John Day Fossil Beds (Painted Hills)John Day Fossil Beds National Monument was very high on Herb’s list from the start. I had never known that he was so interested in fossils, but apparently, he knew that there was a lot more to John Day than that.

John Day is not just one park, but three separate units, pretty geographically far apart from each other: the Clarno Unit, the Painted HIlls Unit, and the Sheeps Rock Unit.

View from the Painted Hills OverlookView from the Painted Hills OverlookBefore I get started sharing our experiences, I do what to share an interesting fact I learned about how this National Monument got its name. You might think that John Day was instrumental in the discovery of this area as a treasure trove of fossils, or in its preservation as a National Monument. Well, not exactly. In fact, John day was never anywhere near any of the park’s units. His claim to fame was that when he was a fur trapper, he was robbed and stripped naked by Indians. Everyone loved telling the story so much, that the river near where the robbery took place was named after John Day. Since that river flows through the various units of the park, it too took on the name John Day.

Along the drive through the Painted HillsAlong the drive through the Painted HillsOk, now onto our journey through the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, which is located just off Highway 26 near the town of MItchell.

Of the three units in the National Monument, this one is the most stunning in terms of photogenic natural beauty, with its colorful, sculptured hills and mounds formed over 35 million years ago by ash layers deposited by ancient volcanic eruptions. Over time, the layers of ash containing different minerals compacted and solidified into the various bands of red, yellow, green, ocher and black seen today. They are incredibly beautiful, especially just before sunset.

Along the drive through the Painted HillsAlong the drive through the Painted HillsThe park is very easy to conquer in just one day, or a few hours, as there are only about 6 or 7 miles of roads, from which you can get a great view of the painted hills. However,I strongly advise getting out of your car and hiking along one or more of relatively short trails that bring you to even better views.

The hills are most colorful in evening light, just before sunset, so we spent the afternoon scouting out the best place to experience the evening glow.

We went first to the Painted Hills Overlook, and walked along the half mile trail which had magnificent views all along the way. All the colors - reds, yellows, greens, blacks, and ochres - were on display here. We found the spot where the classic photo of this park was taken, but the light just wasn’t right yet - too harsh and flat.

Along the Painted Cove TrailAlong the Painted Cove TrailRight across the road from the Overlook, we hiked the 1.5-mile Carroll Rim Trail, which brought us up a few hundred feet to a rimrock ridge that looked out over the entire area. Also, beautiful, but not quite as good as the Overlook Trail.

Since we wanted to be here for evening light, we drove the short distance back to the picnic area by the Visitor Center to cook our simple camping dinner of macaroni and cheese with hot dogs.

Dinner out of the way, we drove back up to the Overlook to enjoy the sunset. Before we entirely lost the light, we drove down to a pullout along the road where the hills were side lit and provided a different perspective.

Along the Painted Cove TrailAlong the Painted Cove TrailWe still hadn’t figured out where we were going to camp for the night, and it was getting a bit dark. There is no camping allowed in the park, but you can pretty much camp in forest land outside the park, so we found a forest road just a few miles outside the boundaries of the park and pulled over the first place we could. It was a little dark and scary, so I made Herb lock all the doors before I crawled back into my newly designed bed in the back of the 4Runner. In the future, we would have to scout out camping spots earlier in the day.

The next morning we drove pack into the park and hiked the short, but sweet, Painted Cove Trail where we were treated to red and gold claystone hills in the morning light. Lovely.

Description

View from the Painted Hills OverlookView from the Painted Hills OverlookJohn Day Fossil Beds National Monument includes over 14,000 acres found in 3 widely separated units, the Sheep Rock Unit, Painted Hills Unit, and Clarno Unit. All 3 units are in the John Day River Basin.

The Painted Hills Unit, which is the subject of this stop, is the most naturally stunning of the three areas, with its sculptured hills and mounds formed over 35 million years ago by ash layers deposited by ancient volcanic eruptions. Over time, the layers of ash containing different minerals compacted and solidified into the various bands of red, yellow, green, ocher and black seen today. They are incredibly beautiful, especially just before sunset.

It is located 9 miles northwest of the town of Mitchell, OR, off US 26. There is no camping in the park. However, there are restrooms, water, shaded picnic tables, and trails. The roads in the unit are dirt and gravel.

You can view the colorful hills from your car along the drive through the park, but there are several easy hikes that bring you more up close and personal:

  • Overlook Trail - ½ mile trail providing a magnificent overview of the hills
    • Carroll Rim Trail - 1.5 mile (RT) hike up a few hundred feet to a rimrock ridge for a birds eye view of the entire area. The trail starts from the parking area for the Overlook Trail
      • Painted Cove Trail -1/4-mile stroll through an area of dark red and gold claystone hills
        • Leaf Hill Trail - ½ mile trail through the remnants of a 30-million-year-old hardwood forest. While not as photogenic as the other trails, it is educational from a natural history standpoint

        John Day Fossil Beds National Monument - Painted Hills Unit location map in "high definition"

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