Painted Hills. It’s a location that pops up quickly if you do a desperate internet search for “sunshine near Seattle in April.” As a result, it’s where we ended up as part of a short vacation during the spring school break.
In the summer, it’s toastier, but it’s always great for sun seekers in search of a stunning desert landscape in the Pacific Northwest. (Pack plenty of water and snacks!) After spending the pandemic in misty, tree-lined Seattle, my family found it was fantastic to be among the red clay in the sun-drenched Painted Hills area.
What is this place?
The Painted Hills Unit is part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, a paradise for kids into geology and paleontology too. The hills formed their striking colorful bands over time as the climate changed. The Painted Hills section is about 85 miles from Bend, about 200 miles from Portland and about 70 miles from Redmond, Ore. The area, overseen by the National Parks Service, includes the Clarno Unit, which is best for those who really want to see fossil beds, as well as the Sheep Rock Unit.
We ended up staying in a rented house in Sunriver, outside Bend, and traveled roughly 100 miles to Painted Hills as a long day trip. There really is not much in the way of accommodations closer to the Painted Hills. The closest town is Mitchell (population 130), 9 miles away from the hills. After the trip, I read that Mitchell has three restaurants and an espresso shop. (We didn’t see them in our drive past.) It also reportedly has a gas station, but we didn’t spot it as we cruised by, a street over from the one-street town and in need of a fill-up. (Note: The gas station is open only intermittently.)
This trip required quite a bit of driving. We had no cell phone service or Wi-Fi in that remote area, and we found ourselves staring at paper maps, desperately trying to work out the distance just to be sure we’d have enough gas to get where we wanted to go (the Sheep Rock Unit) — and back to a gas station. (We made it!) When we do this trip again, we’ll certainly fill up before we leave the last major town on the route.
It would have been useful — and wise — if we had worked out the amenities of Mitchell ahead of time as we would have most certainly filled up there just to make sure we weren’t stranded in the Oregon High Desert overnight in spring with no gas and no cell phone service. (And two cranky kids and a hungry dog.)
We didn’t make it to the Clarno Unit on our visit, but we’d love to see it someday. Not only are there plant fossils still being found, but there have been discoveries of tiny horses and meat-eating creodonts, among other prehistoric creatures. And fossilized plants can be seen on the walls of the cliffs there.
If you’re doing each location justice, it will be fairly hard to cover all three units in a day. Despite being part of the same national monument, they’re not close enough together for a convenient family day trip.
As far as we can tell, our hiking-phobic teen and tween sons (and the dog, Nessie) were pleased with the geological formations and the picnic food we packed. (Hooray, potato chips!) The warm weather-loving teen’s review: “This is better than most places you take us to.”
Nessie seemed happy, but, yes, she always seems happy.
(A note on lunch and snacks: I have a strong tendency to get takeout whenever and wherever possible, but I’d recommend packing a hearty picnic lunch (and many snacks) for all. We saw no businesses at all from about 10 in the morning until our return at about 6 p.m.)
The scenery was unforgettable, but the hiking was not memorably difficult, which is a very good thing with some kids. It was quite easy for my two children, even though they are never willing to hike much and usually accuse us of trying to torture them if we segue onto a trail.
At the Painted Hills Unit, we took a series of short hikes:
Painted Hills Overlook and Trail: .5 mile trail
Carroll Rim Trail: 1.5 mile moderate climb
Leaf Hill Trail: .25 mile loop
Painted Cove Trail: .25 mile trail
Red Scar Knoll Trail: .25 mile trail
We then drove to the Sheep Rock Unit, about an hour away, and had time for one hike. We took the Island in Time Trail, which was stunning. It looked as though we had left the country, if not Earth. The blue-green claystone of this trail was an interesting complement to the reddened clay we had been seeing earlier in the day at the Mars-like sections of the Painted Hills.
Directions: At Sheep Rock, the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center and Visitor Center has reopened.
Bathrooms: Latrines available at trailheads and picnic areas throughout the national monument.
Picnic areas: Yes, in each unit.
Is digging for fossils allowed? No.
Distance between units
Sheep Rock to Painted Hills: 45 miles (1 hour)
Painted Hills to Clarno: 75 miles (1.5 hours)
Clarno to Sheep Rock: 81 miles (2 hours)
Gas up! Bring lots of water! Make sure you have plenty of fuel before you leave Prineville (53 miles west of Mitchell), Dayville (51 miles east of Mitchell) or Spray (59 miles northeast of Mitchell).
Originally published in 2021
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