John Day Fossil Beds Part II – Painted Hills Visions

“When nature has work to be done, she creates a genius to do it.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

C-20140513 Painted Hills (51) (JPG2)
Maybe my most favorite place….ever….
Have a seat and soak in the view....
Have a seat and soak in the view….

I’ve traveled a lot in my lifetime, probably more than most so you’d think by now some of the excitement would wear off. I mean after 40 (or so ish) years of hiking, backpacking and seeing some of the most stunning spots in the world, there can’t be much left to take your breath away right? But nature is the gift that never ceases to amaze and this place, this weird and wonderful thing called The Painted Hills in an obscure little corner of Eastern Oregon is one of those places. It will literally make you gasp leaving you speechless and mute before such overwhelming beauty….and that’s not even taking any poetic liberties.

Our sweet new boondocking spot
Our sweet new boondocking spot

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We meandered over to the second section of the John Day Fossil Beds only a few days ago. Following the lovely “Journey Through Time” Hwy 26 we continued our prehistoric trip to a boondocking spot on BLM land which I’d been given on the “low-down”* just a few miles from the Painted Hills. After a rather bumpy entrance (probably more than most big rigs would want to handle) we settled into our near-ideal campsite….shade trees, check…mountain views, check…nearby flowing stream, check. No internet signal, but with a site this nice I was happy to forgo that little necessity. We basked for a few hours in the greenery until the sun dropped low enough to glow golden and then sped on over to the hills.

Even the flowers are glowing here...
Even the flowers are glowing here…

If you thought the Blue Basin was something else, well then you’d better get ready for your world to be rocked. These hills are like nothing I have ever seen. As we rounded the road into the monument we got our first glimpse and whatever I had imagined was blown out of the water. This was waaaay better than any pictures and the visual impact hit me like waves from a grand tsunami.

The first impression was texture -> sensual curves of mountains, arms and fingers wrapping and overlapping like intertwined lovers. The mounds fold their way into the valley, like streams of water stopped in time.

How can a mountain look so soft??

The very next impression was color -> deep reds, bright yellows and pastel purples splashed across the scene like a wild painter’s brush. The colors blend and streak like a impressionist piece of art, made all the more brilliant by the golden glow of the late afternoon sun.

How can colors be so intense???

The last impression was mystery -> Up close the apparent softness of the curves disintegrate into delicate crumbles. The surface isn’t hard like sandstone or rock, it’s a massive mound (literally hundreds of feet tall) of popcorn-light pieces of earth, so fragile you’d permanently scar them by just walking through it. The firmness of the hills is a facade, hidden behind yet another layer of abstract art in the painting of the landscape.

How can this even exist??

Capture of art from the Painted Cove trail (see our car?)
Living art on the Painted Cove trail (see our car?)

Geologically these colorful hills are actually the result of a massive volcanic ash fall from the Cascade Mountains over 33 millions years ago. Natural processes changed the deposits into a type of clay (Bentonite) that expands as it absorbs water creating the close-up popcorn-like appearance. The colors are the result of minerals -> red from iron oxides, yellow from iron & magnesium oxides and lavender from rhyolitic lava. The delicate nature of the ash fall is part of what has helped to preserve so many fossil specimens in the area. Even ancient leaves have left perfect impressions allowing paleontologists to not only recreate the animal history, but also the flora of the area.

So simple, yet so visually impactful
So simple, yet so impactful

But none of this adequately describes the visual impact. It is simply stunning and made all the more so by the fact that there are so few people here. We spent several days exploring the area and absorbing the colorful palette of the hills. There are only a few, short hiking trails (all dog-friendly**) so it’s super-easy to do them all and chances are you’ll have very little company for any of it. If you only have a day come around an hour before sunset to get the best light from the Painted Hills Overlook***. If you have more than a day, pair it with an early morning visit for a totally different look. The colors change based on time of day and rain, so chances are you’ll see something different each time.

No matter what just come. Travel the roads, gasp at the colors and meditate in the beauty of it all. I promise you, you’ll never see anything like it again….

* CAMPING – The particular spot we stayed in is another of those spots whose exact co-ords I’ve promised to keep secret, but I’ll give you a very, very good hint -> if you call the Prineville BLM Office they can direct you to this area (even this very spot, I checked). They control most of the land right around the Painted Hills Unit. Other good nearby camping is Ochoco Divide National Forest campground ($13/night) and Mitchell City Park with 3 RV sites ($17/night with 30 Amp electric). For WiFi the very cute Hwy 26 Espresso stop in Mitchell offers free WiFi (and very decent coffee).

** DOGS IN THE PARK – Dogs are welcome on leash on all the trails of the Painted Hills. Just make sure to keep them off the fragile surface of the hills themselves.

*** PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS – For photography buffs the main portion of the hills face west, so the few hours before sunset will give the most intense colors from the Painted Hills Overlook. Once the sun drops lower you will lose some of the colors, but will gets LOTS of interesting depth of textures in the folds of the hills. Midday the colors & textures are rather washed out.

What do you think, Polly?
What do you think, Polly? Soaking it all in at the Painted Hills Overlook.

NEXT UP -> We make new friends, meet old friends, drink beer and get naked. Who said RV life was boring? :)

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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do

  1. says

    Your photos are lovely, Nina. The Painted Hills are so unique, who would think such a place exists in Oregon? We hope to get back there in September after our summer camphosting gig on Lopez Island.

  2. Rowanova says

    I think this may be the best post you’ve done to date, just because of the photography do this amazing natural treasure. I’m near speechless…
    Now I know I gotta get back to this area of my neighboring state.

    • libertatemamo says

      Well I’m glad I got you near speechless ‘coz that’s exactly the effect this place had on me :)


  3. John Audette says

    My wife and I are heading there from Bend next week to celebrate my 70th birthday. Seems like the perfect place to enter official old age! Eh? What’s that you say? Speak a little louder.

    • libertatemamo says

      Excellent! You guys have such the amazing range of natural beauty around Bend. I’m really enjoying it here!


  4. Jil says

    I am so glad you were able to experience this magical place…when we went there was no-one there either….and we loved it…just loved it…I wish I could remember where we parked…it has escaped my memory….I would go back here in a heartbeat…we also loved the Palouse area in eastern Washington …there are many similarities to this in a weird artistic way….add that to your list…you will not regret it..we like it when either they are harvesting the wheat or just before…

    I so love these photos…

    • libertatemamo says

      Cheers for the tip on Palouse. We don’t have Eastern WA on our itinerary this year, but hope to make a more detailed exploration of it in the future.


      • Rowanova says

        Plus 1 on the Palouse, especially Palouse Falls, an under appreciated state park.
        If/when you do eastern Wa. you may want to check out Dry Falls and the Sun Lakes also. Another state gem of parks and scenery. Spring is the best as summers are very hot, and the greenery is dried brown.

  5. Kelly G says

    Wonderful photos. I have only been to the Painted Hills in summer and fall and there was no green anywhere. It really adds to the color palette. Love the shadows.

    • libertatemamo says

      Good point about the seasonal green. We even had flowers this time of year which was quite the treat.


  6. says

    I’m not sure which is more lovely, your photographs or your words. This is clearly a take your breath away place that I am hungry to experience. Thanks Nina.

    • libertatemamo says

      The Prineville BLM office were very accommodating when I called. I just told them what kind of rig I had and they offered suggestions on where to park. Great office, nice people.


  7. says

    Absolutely wonderful and amazing pictures. I just always get that queasy feeling every time someone brags on Oregon that we’ll be invaded and become yet another stop on the tourist train. 😉

    • libertatemamo says

      So sorry Gunta…I have such a hard time hiding my enthusiasm about the spots we visit. I’m going to have to make Oregon sound a little more drab :)


  8. says

    Great images, expressed with your words and hauntingly beautiful images. I have never been to Oregon, but maybe someday! You have given new life to that dream and a new place to add to the bucket list! I would be like your dog, soaking all the beauty in that my soul could handle!

    • libertatemamo says

      Our doggie does have it pretty good. Her life started rough, but she’s had lots of good experiences to make up for it ever since she became part of our family.


  9. says

    Stunning photography Nina!! And a great post too! We skipped John Day last year on our way to the Oregon coast as it was WAY too hot, I think this time of year might be better!

    • libertatemamo says

      Good point Janna. This is semi-desert country and I think Spring is one of the best times to go. From what I gather summer is always pretty hot here. We had pretty even 70’s to 80’s weather while we were there.


    • libertatemamo says

      You would definitely get no end of interest for your watercolor paintings here. Such an interesting palette, and I don’t even think I managed to capture in photos how pretty it is in person.


  10. says

    You were right – geo gaga indeed! The hills look like the softest suede. The pic of Paul and Polly walking down the dirt path….magical. This natural artistry, the power of storms at Cape Disappointment, the solitude of night at Borrego….what an amazing life! So glad you’re sharing it with us :-).

    • libertatemamo says

      I do feel pretty darn lucky to be living all this! I love the mention of soft suede..that’s a very apt description.


  11. says

    Sure is a gorgeous place. Your photos really took me there. There are some beautiful bentonite hills in outback country near Capital Reefs NP. Our friends that live there took us on several Jeep trips and one to see the bentonite hills which were deep rust, purple, and gold…breath taking! The surface is so unique. I knew exactly what you were talking about. Thanks for sharing so many photos.

    • libertatemamo says

      How interesting! I had no idea there were bentonite hills in Utah. This is the first time I’ve seen anything like this. Great info! I will be looking out for more of these on our travels.


  12. says

    Oh my gosh..gorgeous once more. That’s definitely being written in my book of places to go. AND, we are picking up our very own “beast” on may 30!!! and I know why you call your baby the “beast” holy huge!!!! lol

  13. says

    I had no idea bentonite could be so pretty. As a homebuilder the word bentonite was like uttering a four letter word. This reddish clay soil acts very much like a sponge; swelling and contracting causing ground movement….not good for a foundation. Thanks for showing me the pretty side of bentonite. And yep, gotta keep those sweet boondocking spots a little harder to find :-)

  14. says

    It’s almost funny how a place this brilliant seems so little visited. Was like that when I went there in the early 90s. I was blown away. Excellent photos really show the colors.

    • libertatemamo says

      Seems like it hasn’t changed much since that time. We probably only saw a handful of people the entire time we were there. Really special experience.


    • libertatemamo says

      I would definitely recommend it. We didn’t even make it to the third section (Clarno Unit) so we’ve got one more for our “list” sometimes in the future.


  15. Doug H says

    Now you are in our area. I didnt think about offering you a place to boondock. we live about 15 miles north of Redmond in a area called Crooked River Ranch. Since you are both golfers you should check out the golf course here. We have one acre with house and our 5th wheel and room for more. If you are looking for a boondock after Bend we would be glad to have you. we met you at June Lake a few years ago, I think it was in about october. we are also SKPS, chapter 34 here in Oregon. enjoy the scenery, we have some of the best views in Oregon. Doug and Barb H.

    • libertatemamo says

      What a great offer Doug. We’ve actually got reservations & plans for Memorial Day Weekend so we’ll be moving on soon, but sure appreciate the offer. We will probably be back here sometime in the future.

      P.S. Only hubby golfs. I usually just walk along w/ the dog (in the spots dogs are allowed). He’s already looked at the Crooked River Ranch area, but seems no doggies allowed on the course :(

  16. says

    Okay! I am following in your footsteps, so here I come in another week or two. haha! Thanks again so much for the “bread crumbs.” 😉

  17. Michael Mullin says

    Thanks for the great write up and photos! We’re moving to Bend in two weeks and I’ve just added this area to my “to do list.” Any idea if the Fall is as beautiful as the Spring? I’m thinking with the green grasses Spring is probably best.

    I just happened to be blowing through the area from South to North on Hwy 97 yesterday and felt like I was incredibly lucky. With those dark squalls moving across the high desert and the colorful wildflowers in bloom it was spectacular. If I hadn’t had a 12 hour drive to tackle (Lake Shasta to Spokane) I would have diverted onto Hwy 26 to get a glimpse. But I got home to see your post and will now plan a visit for next year.

    • libertatemamo says

      I’m thinking Spring is probably the most vibrant time, especially since grasses are green & flowers are blooming. I gather it gets hot and dry over summer, so although temps are probably good by fall the surrounding greenery would be gone. Then again, this is all just a guess. It’s my first time here :)


  18. says

    Yet another reason to fall madly in love with Oregon. Your photos are breathtaking Nina. I had no idea this even existed but it has now gone on the list of must-see sights. :)

  19. says

    As Suzanne said, thanks for breadcrumbs. we will be there later this next week. Will call BLM office to ask about possible sites. Photos are inspiring.

  20. Rattlesnake Joe says

    This land is a must for binoculars. You can’t see the wild antelope usually by just eyeballing them. Wild horse too. Also ‘the stars at night are big and bright’. I lived in a one horse town of Paulina (right smack dab in the middle of Oregon) back in 1957 and watched Sputnik fly over the town. It twinkled across the dark star studded sky and was a sight to behold. The very first of the satalites and I remember that moment like it was yesterday. Watch the sky, it is a most amazing captivating experience to actually see a Flying Saucer and because I am always watching the sky I have seen a number of them.

    • libertatemamo says

      Seeing Sputnik must have been amazing. I just “re-lived’ the whole space race by visiting the air and space museum in McMinnville. Lots of excellent history and replicas here. Seeing the real thing in space would have been much cooler though.


  21. Sue says

    Found it! We managed to locate the “secret” spot. The folks at the Prineville BLM office tried very hard to be helpful; however, all the rangers were out doing their ranger thing and those in the office had no clue. We even showed them your picture :) So, we put on our detective hats and wa-lah we found it! Yes it is a bit bumpy moving around, and there is definite evidence of bovine presence. We loved it! Lucky for us we were the only squatters so we had the place to ourselves. Thanks so much for pointing us in the right direction!


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