Oregon’s Seven Wonders, Part V: Painted Hills

IMG_5016 As we pulled off Central Oregon’s Highway 26, it really did feel as if we were on a road less traveled. Brown and red hues, expansive views and the absence of forestation feels like you’re suddenly driving on some other planet.

Typically, in these settings, it always seems like geology can explain the featureless landscape.

And then, sure enough, we swooped around back toward the west after seven miles on a narrow two-lane road and took sight of our next Wonder: the Painted Hills.

Comprising three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, the 3,000-plus acres of Painted Hills are only 9 miles northwest of Mitchell, Oregon, and are a geologic phenomenon formed by floodplains from geologic eras with distinct layers that colored the hills black, gray, gold, yellow, and, most strikingly, red.

When staring out at the colors and geography from the Painted Hills Overlook Trail, you really are taking in millions of years of geologic history. Combine that with the discovery of plants and animal fossils, and it’s natural history right underneath your hiking boots.

Eastern Oregon

Oregon country, east of the Cascades, acts as a high desert climate comprised of ponderosa pines and juniper. The farther east you head out of Bend, the fewer trees you’ll see.

The terrain is rolling, rocky, swooping and devoid of people and cell reception. It’s real country with lots of hiking, fishing and camping (and not a lot of people). This makes it the perfect place to go for a little peace and quiet with nature.

The third longest freeflowing (un-dammed) river in the contiguous U.S., the John Day. Photo: Clark
The third longest freeflowing (undammed) river in the contiguous U.S., the John Day. Photo: Courtesy of Clark

Painted Hills Trails

Hills from above. Photo: Clark
Hills from above. Photo: Courtesy of Clark
In addition to a picnic area, the Painted Hills offer five different short hikes, with the longest, the Carroll Rim Trail, only being 1.6 miles round trip. With the Painted Hills sort of in the middle of nowhere, it’s the perfect place to stop to stretch the legs and take in the colorful beauty.

Steelhead or Bass Fishing on John Day River

One of the many benefits of the Painted Hills is that it doesn’t require a ton of your time, which means you’ll have ample hours to explore the surrounding area.

And whether you’re a fisherman or not, you’ll appreciate that unlike most northwestern rivers, the nearby John Day River is stocked with smallmouth and largemouth bass.

Even if you’re not a fisherman, you can float the 284 miles that make it the third longest free-flowing (undammed) river in the contiguous U.S.

Dutch-oven lunch is served. Photo: Clark
Dutch oven lunch is served. Photo: Courtesy of Clark

We hooked up with Mah-Hah Outfitters where lead guide Steve Fleming has been guiding groups exclusively on the John Day since 1989. We were greeted with a hearty lunch of chicken, rice and stuffing, which Steve cooked in a dutch oven on the boat.

After filling our bellies, we pushed out on the John Day and tried our luck at winter steelhead fishing.

Quiet, peaceful fishing on the John Day. Photo: Clark
Quiet, peaceful fishing on the John Day. Photo: Courtesy of Clark

Although Fleming said that fishing for steelhead in December on the John Day could be a long one, the clear day and quiet serenity of the empty country made that seem almost besides the point.

Over the course of five hours of fishing, we probably saw two to three cars pass by on the nearby highway — which gives you a sense of John Day’s isolation in the winter months.

Though we turned in that evening without hooking a fish (which Fleming said was the first time ever in his decades-long career), just listening to fishing stories and being out on a cold river gave us a legit glimpse into what distinguishes Central Oregon from the rest of the state. And that made it worth it for us.

John Stifter & Janna Irons, @vanventures

To win an Oregon Winter Wonders getaway …

Learn more about John and Janna’s trip through Oregon’s 7 Wonders and plan your own adventure at TravelOregon.com