This time of year, I yearn for color.
Don’t get me wrong — I love the dry, rugged landscape of the High Desert, with its dusty brown and green hues, its sagebrush and snowy peaks. But around March, I start daydreaming about lush, grassy fields and vibrant wildflowers.
Last week, when I heard about the Painted Hills, located just an hour and a half from Bend, I jumped at the chance for a change of scenery. My father-in-law, Rich Gross, and his English setter, Hank, came along for the adventure.
The Painted Hills, part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, are located about 50 miles northeast of Prineville and 10 miles west of Mitchell. The fossil beds are divided into three geographical units, including Clarno and Sheep Rock.
The view from my car window along U.S. Highway 26 was admittedly ordinary, adding to my anticipation. Upon turning off the highway into the Painted Hills Unit, I craned my neck out the window and asked Rich to point out the hills to me.
“You’ll know when you see it," he said.
After a few turns on a gravel road, I caught my first glimpse of a painted hill.
A mound of terra cotta-colored earth seemed to rise out of nothing, banded with strokes of cream and pastel green. The rich tones looked stunning against the muted landscape, illuminated by the intense morning sun.
When I stepped out of the car, the scene felt almost quaint. Across the road, a herd of cows mooed and a tractor hummed in the distance.
It was just a taste of the larger, more impressive hills that awaited us a few miles down the road.
There, folded tan hills striated with red, orange and bronze are surrounded by smaller hills similar in appearance. Visitors can admire the view along several nature trails and viewpoints.
Before exploring the trails, we stopped at a picnic spot containing restrooms and exhibits. Informational signs and brochures tell the story of the multicolored hills, formed by millions of years of volcanic deposits and erosion.
Each hill is made of layers of claystone that contain ancient soils and lake beds. The desolate landscape has changed drastically over the millennia.
Fossil beds have documented the transformation, providing one of the most continuous fossil records in North America. Roughly 56 million years ago, the area was a subtropical forest where camels, saber-toothed cats and rhinos roamed.
After checking out the exhibits, we headed to the Leaf Hill Trail. The short, quarter-mile hike provided even more geological context. The sign at the trailhead told us that 33 million years ago, the land was covered with deciduous trees such as beech and maple.
The exhibit also identified the trail as an excavation site for thousands of plant fossils. Removal of fossils — along with walking on the hills — is prohibited.
Next, a mile drive took us to the quarter-mile-long Painted Cove Trail, where a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk slithers between red and gold hills flecked with black.
By this time it was early afternoon and overcast, and cloud shadows had colored the hills a deep and vivid red.
The trail offered an upclose look at the claystone hills. An interpretive sign explained how the clay contracts to look like popcorn when dry, and becomes sticky and absorbent when wet. Poor nutrient conditions and a hard underlayer keep the hills barren — one of the reasons why they are so visually striking.
Saving the best for last, we parked near the Painted Hills Overlook to take the Carroll Rim Trail. We ascended a few hundred feet in elevation for three-quarters of a mile to an overlook of the entire region.
It was well worth the trek. While all three trails were unique, this one offered a birds-eye view of the Painted Hills unit.
I took a moment to take in the view. From above, the ringed hilltops resembled tiny planets. The roads and trails below assumed the form of delicate veins, cars became miniature toys. It was beautiful and serene.
By the time we reached the car, the clouds had moved aside for the midday sun. Under direct sunlight, the hills were changing colors once again, appearing washed-out and subdued as we drove away. But I know the hills, with their mysterious shade-shifting quality, will eventually lure me back.
Next time, I plan to stay for the sunset.
— Reporter: 541-383-0351, email@example.com