Oregon’s Painted Hills Are a Natural Wonder

Soak in the sun, and unique geology, of the Painted Hills in north central Oregon

By Danielle Centoni


April 30, 2018

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Seattle Magazine.

This article appears in print in the May 2018 issue, as part of the “Sunny Getaways” cover story. Click here to subscribe.

The russet-striped slopes of Oregon’s Painted Hills look like they’ve been draped in a gently rumpled Pendleton blanket. With their gorgeous bands of reds and golds undulating across the surface, the hills look like they were magically stained by a sunset, or airbrushed by an artist with a penchant for earth tones and large-scale art installations. What they don’t look like is real, but the fact that they are, that these bands of colored soil are a visual record of millennia gone by, makes them a bona fide marvel.

Every Pacific Northwesterner’s bucket list should include a visit to the Painted Hills. Smack in the middle of Oregon, it takes a little effort to get there, but that’s part of the fun. 

Your best bet is to break up the trip with an overnight stay in Bend, Oregon, where hotel, motel and vacation rentals are plentiful, as are great restaurants and, of course, breweries—Bend’s most plentiful resource aside from its plethora of outdoor activities. Grab a pint and some food-truck tacos at Crux Fermentation Project, or sit down to heartier pub grub at Bend Brewing Company or Deschutes Brewery. Before heading out in the morning, stop at the Delaware Avenue location of cute little Jackson’s Corner for belly-filling hashes and scrambles, or at The Sparrow Bakery for a perfectly made latte and sugar-dusted cardamom Ocean Roll. 

A visitor views the rust colored soil along a section of the Painted Hills via a walkway

From Bend, it’s just over an hour-and-a-half drive to the tiny pioneer town of Mitchell, which looks like a set from an Old West movie. From there, the 8-square-mile Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is within easy reach.

Head about 5 miles east of Mitchell on U.S. Highway 26, then turn right at the sign for the John Day Fossil Beds Painted Hills Unit. From there, it’s just a few more miles to Bear Creek Road, which offers easy, well-marked access to the area’s five short, mostly flat trails. Don’t miss the quarter-mile Painted Cove Trail, which features a boardwalk along the rust-colored hills, allowing you such an immersive experience that you might feel like you’re on another planet. The quarter-mile Leaf Hill Trail offers interpretive signs so you can learn about the area’s history. And the slightly more difficult Carroll Rim Trail (1.6 miles) rewards your short climb with panoramic views.

Step inside the Mitchell Stage Shop to visit the Little Pine Cafe. Photograph by Little Pine Cafe. 

Afterward, head back into Mitchell for burgers at the Little Pine Cafe, located inside the Mitchell Stage Shop, or get a craft brew and smoked wings glazed in one of a dozen sauces at Tiger Town Brewing Company. They even have vegan-friendly meatless “wings.”

If you can’t get enough of this sleepy yet gorgeously scenic area, book a night in one of The Oregon Hotel’s vintage rooms in Mitchell, or grab a bunk and get to know some fellow travelers at the three-year-old Spoke’n Hostel (bedding and towels provided).  

Spend the next day exploring the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, about 35 miles east of Mitchell in the Sheep Rock Unit of John Day Fossil Beds. Here at the monument’s de facto headquarters, you’ll find displays of more than 500 fossils from the surrounding area, including the jaws of “marsh rhinos,” which lived 40 million years ago, plus murals bringing Oregon’s prehistoric flora and fauna to life.

Burgers accompany the beer at Deschutes Brewing in Bend. Photograph by Deschutes Brewery. 

The Oregon Hotel in Mitchell is a convenient resting spot. Photograph by The Oregon Hotel. 

When temperatures drop at night, guests can huddle around the outdoor fire at Tigertown Brewing which is known for its wings. Photograph Patrick Farrell. 

If you happen to visit in summer (the only time it’s open), don’t miss the well-preserved Cant Ranch Historic Home and Museum across the way. It’s decorated just as it was when Scottish immigrants James and Elizabeth Cant lived there 100 years ago. It may be a youngster compared to the area’s colorful soils and fossils, but history buffs will find it no less fascinating.

Getting there: Mitchell, Oregon, considered the “gateway” to the Painted Hills area, is 340 miles southeast of Seattle and a six-and-a-half-hour drive.
Sun meter: On average, Mitchell gets 203 sunny days


Bend Brewing Company, 1019 NW Brooks St.; 541.383.1599
Crux Fermentation Project, 50 SW Division St.; 541.385.3333
Deschutes Brewery, 1044 NW Bond St.; 541.382.9242 
Jackson’s Corner, 845 NW Delaware Ave.; 541.647.2198 
The Sparrow Bakery, 50 SE Scott St.; 541.330.6321

Little Pine Cafe at Mitchell Stage Shop, 100 E Main St.; 541.462.3532
Spoke’n Hostel, 300 U.S. Highway 26; 541.462.3333; from $25
Tiger Town Brewing Company, 108 W Main St.; 541.462.3663
The Oregon Hotel, 108 E Main St.; 541.462.3027

For Painted Hills Trails, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Thomas Condon Paleontology Center and Cant Historic Home and Museum, go to nps.gov and use the search tool for information on each location.

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