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The Painted Hills at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument are one of the few places on earth where even the brightest colors of a rainbow are in perfect harmony with the vibrant hues and tones of the landscapes over which its arc falls. And that’s no exaggeration.
Here at Painted Hills, bright-red streaks run horizontally along the rippled sides of golden yellow hills and layers of black bands smudge across their soft siltstone slopes. A product of oxidized sediments, this rolling masterpiece of multicolored hills is one of the natural wonders of Oregon and can be easily explored via a number of short trails.
The origin of the name “John Day” is a bit peculiar as one might expect John Day to be some famed paleontologist after which the monument was named. However, that’s not the case.
John Day was an early settler who traveled along the Columbia River in the early 1800s to establish a fur-trading post. Around 1811, it’s believed that Native Americans robbed John Day and another explorer of everything they had—even their clothes.
The site of this incident, the mouth of the Mah-hah River along the Columbia River, eventually gave rise to the Mah-hah being renamed the John Day River, and, because the river runs through this area, the name John Day was also adopted for the national monument. Thus, John Day never actually had any connection to fossils and never even came within one hundred miles of the monument.
The John Day Fossil Beds area is made up of three different units, including Clarno, Sheep Rock, and the Painted Hills. The Clarno unit is known for the Palisade formations, which house many fossils of various prehistoric animals, whereas Sheep Rock is known for the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, which is the best place to see fossils at this national monument.
However, to see the magnificent displays of rainbows in the hills, the unit known as the Painted Hills of John Day is where you want to go.
The yellow, gold, red, and black colors of Painted Hills were formed over a span of millions of years of sedimentary deposits being uplifted and eroded. Millions of years ago, volcanic eruptions showered down clouds of ash that settled all across central Oregon, and the region that now makes up Painted Hills was layered with this lava ash sediment.
Over time this area transformed into a river basin where a lush temperate forest flourished, full of thick vegetation and exotic animals like camels and saber-toothed tigers. Eventually this river basin dried up, and, over a span of millions of years, significant uplifting occurred. As air and water eroded away the exposed terrain, the minerals from the original volcanic sediment deposits oxidized and transformed the bands of sediment into the brilliant stripes of color that exist today.
To get the most from Painted Hills, you really should take advantage of several extremely scenic hikes that the park has to offer. There are five different trails from which you can admire the Painted Hills, and they are all relatively short and easy.
For those looking for an easier trek with a great view of the Painted Hills, consider the Painted Hills Overlook Trail, which is an easy walk that’s only half a mile long, while at the same time offering some of the most captivating views and panoramas of the hills.
Then again, if you’re wanting a slightly more challenging hike, look into the Carrol Rim Trail, a 1.6-mile round-trip trek that will give you perhaps the best panoramic views of the Painted Hills and will also offer you a bit more of a peaceful, solitary experience.
Finally, if you’re looking to see fossils on the trails, there’s only one trail offering you that experience: the Trail of Fossils at the Clarno unit. For more information on fossils in the area, consider visiting the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center in the Sheep Rock unit of the park.
Don’t forget there are a few other trails in the park to explore, but, if you only have a day or half a day to enjoy it, then go with one or two of the trails mentioned above, since they offer the best chance to experience these spectacular hills in a reasonable period of time. And one last thing: whichever trail you go on, make sure to stay on the path itself, because the Painted Hills can be easily damaged by even the slightest footsteps.
All times of year are great to check out the Painted Hills. Spring may be the best, however, due to the bright yellow and purple wildflowers that grow along the rippled sides of the hills and at their base.
Your view of the hills may be obscured by snow if you visit during the winter, though the partially snow-covered hills with bright color bands interspersed throughout can be a unique experience to witness. Fall usually has great weather, but be prepared for extreme temperatures that can hit well above 100°F in the summer.
- If you visit the hills after a rain when the land has soaked up a little bit moisture, you’ll be able to see the landscape colors in their most vivid state. Also the colors will change as the sun’s position moves in the sky, which is why most recommend photographing in the late afternoon if you want to catch the most vivid colors of the hills.
- Remember that all wildlife, rocks, plants, and fossils are protected by the national monument and are not to be disturbed in any way. So admire the park from an appropriate distance and avoid the fines.
- Do your best to find parking in the paved visitor parking lots. Attempting to park on the side of the road may result in your tires getting stuck in soft clay.
- Be sure to fill up on gas in a town like Dayville to ensure that you will have enough to last your entire trip.
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Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the digital smart wallet, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. His content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.