Set against the rollicking hills of rural Eastern Oregon are fossil remnants of an ancient ecosystem. Hidden within striking rock faces of angular and crumbling sediment, the Painted Hills Unit in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument are a must-see for out-of-towners and Oregonians alike. With adventure on the agenda, my husband and I set out for Mitchell, Oregon, excited to witness the incredible beauty of the Painted Hills.
What to Do:
Painted Hills Unit
- Scenic viewpoints and trails (3-4 Hours)
Sheep Rock Unit
- Thomas Condon Paleontology Center (1-1.5 Hours)
- Scenic viewpoints and trails (0.5-1 Hour)
- Dig up fossils in Fossil, OR behind Wheeler School (1+ Hours)
A Rich History
Imagine, 45 million years ago, the Painted Hills Unit in Eastern Oregon covered in lush rainforests. Over the next 20 million years, the landscape would shift to a deciduous forest-like climate. Millions of years later, it would then transition to savannah grasslands similar to what can be seen today. The John Day Fossil Beds feature one of the most complete fossil records in the western hemisphere. They capture the passage of time through the evolution of species, climate change, geography and geology.
Mitchell exudes an old west, pioneer town feel, with a dusty main street flanked by rows of connected shops differentiated by faded wooden signs. It’s set in Wheeler County, just 9 miles from the Painted Hills. Consequently, Mitchell is the nearest option if you’re looking to stay in the Painted Hills area. It’s the type of small town where everyone knows everyone else, with only a few sparse eateries, a single hotel, and to our surprise and delight, a brewery. There are no stores open late into the evening. Therefore, if you’re planning to stay in Mitchell and arriving late at night, make sure to eat beforehand or pack food. I’d also recommend filling up on gas before getting into town.
Review of the Historic Oregon Hotel
We arrived late on a Friday night and had no problem checking into the historic Oregon Hotel. Rebuilt in 1904, the hotel has a rustic charm that perfectly complemented the mood of our trip. The hotel is quaint but affordable, and the most convenient option we could find for our purposes. It has a lot of character—think squeaky beds and a claw foot bathtub (no shower). But the staff was very friendly and we ultimately enjoyed our stay there. In addition, the hotel offers a “continental breakfast” of muffins and coffee.
If you want something more substantial than the hotel’s breakfast, there’s a grocery store located right next to the hotel that makes it easy to pick up snacks, drinks and other items during the day. Down the street are a couple diners, including the Sidewalk Café and Little Pine Café, in addition to Tiger Town Brewing Company. The brewery was offering a Sunday morning fried chicken and mimosas brunch, which we were tempted to try but couldn’t due to time constraints.
Painted Hills Unit in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
The Painted Hills made me feel as if I had stumbled into the Great Valley from the movie The Land Before Time. This actually isn’t too far from reality (or at least an ancient reality) since 45 million years ago, this part of Oregon was actually covered in dense tropical jungles. We headed over to the Painted Hills on Saturday morning around 10AM. It was about a 15-20 minute drive, and easy to find.
I’d recommend stopping by the information station/picnic area on your way in. Just follow the signs and it will be on the left. You can pick up brochures about the Painted Hills viewpoints here. There’s also a bathroom, very small gift shop and fossils enclosed in a glass viewing case. Signs clearly mark the way to each of the viewpoints, which you can travel to by car.
The Four Viewpoints
The Painted Hills Overlook Trail (1/2 mile round trip) offers the best view of the angular sections of vibrant reds, yellows, oranges and browns of the Painted Hills. Most noteworthy is the Carroll Rim Trail (1.6 mile round trip), where you can climb to a panoramic overlook of the Painted Hills. If you can handle the 400 feet elevation gain, the view from the top is definitely worth the hike up. This trail is much narrower and steeper than the gradual incline of the Painted Hills Overlook Trail, so if you have small children you may want to skip this one.
The third trail, Red Scar Knoll Trail (1/4 mile round trip), lets you venture through a wooden-planked walkway. It loops around a sloped close up of red clay hills. In addition, small exhibit signs reveal bits of history as you walk along. This is the closest view you can get of the rocks themselves. The fourth trail, Leaf Hill Trail (1/4 mile loop), shows examples of fossil leaves that have been found in the area. It’s an easy walk and worth doing.
Thomas Condon Paleontology Center
On Sunday we checked out of the hotel early and drove over to the Sheep Rock Unit. It took a little over an hour to get to the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center from Mitchell, OR—so make sure to plan accordingly. The paleontology center was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. While the exhibit area itself is small, entry is free, so I definitely think it’s worth a visit. The paleontology center covers most of the Age of the Mammals, and there is a tremendous amount of content, including a vast array of fossils, interactive dioramas and more.
There’s even an eighteen-minute presentation on the history of the area. If you have kids and they can handle the long car ride, this is a great educational stop. There’s also a restroom and small gift shop. You can spend a short or long amount of time here and still get something out of it.
Blue Basin, Cathedral Rock & Foree Trails
Further north, you’ll take a turn straight past the striking Cathedral Rock. You can also choose to make a stop at the Blue Basin area. Beyond that you’ll find Foree and the Flood of Fire (0.4 miles round trip) trail. In addition, there’s the Story in Stone (0.3 mile round trip) trail, which takes you past remarkable views of blue-green claystone formations that contain fossils of animals that lived 25-30 million years ago. Most noteworthy is the Story in Time trail. While you can see the cliff from the main road, the view is much more impressive close up!
The Clarno Palisades
The Trail of Fossils in the Clarno Palisades offers views of partially exposed plant fossils. On your way up to the top of Arch Trail, you’ll pass two huge petrified logs exposed on a cliff high above you. Head to the end of the trail and you’ll be rewarded with views of a natural stone arch and amphitheater built right into the cliff wall. While the Arch Trail is a bit steeper than the Trail of Fossils, it’s worth the walk if you’re up for the mild incline to the top.
The drive from the Clarno Palisades to Fossil, OR is a little over an hour. Herds of deer seemed to be waiting for us in greeting as we made our way into town. If you’re looking for lodging in Fossil, the Wilson Ranches Retreat bed and breakfast may be worth checking out for future trips!
Fossils at Wheeler High School
We stopped at one of the only gas stations (or perhaps the only) in town to fill up. Just down the street is Wheeler High School. Here, you’ll find one of the closest public fossil dig spots to the Clarno Palisades and Painted Hills. Since the dig site is behind the High School, it’s easy to find and accessible 24/7. Anyone can dig for fossils for a recommended $5 donation. For big groups and families, the recommended amount is cheaper based on your party size. While they have some tools and buckets that you can use to dig, we’d recommend bringing your own tools and container if you’re serious about finding fossils.
What We Found
We found an entire bucket’s worth of loot—mostly of dawn redwood fragments and other plant fossils. Just being able to find these fossils right beneath the ground was pretty amazing. However, it’s pretty dirty work. Therefore we’d recommend wearing boots or tennis shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty, and packing wet wipes and a towel to clean up with after.
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a must-see for anyone interested in Oregon’s rich natural history or those just looking for an adventure. The weekend trip offered a sufficient amount of time to see both the Painted Hills and Sheep Rock Units. It’s trips like these that have the incredible effect of making one feel very small in a beautiful and ancient world. We hope to make another trip back in the future!
Questions or comments? Planning your own trip? I’d love to hear from you!