The Painted Hills are one part (or “unit”) of a three-part Oregon national monument: The John Day Fossil Beds, located in Eastern Oregon. They’re all pretty cool, but I think this is my favorite.
Over millions of years, ancient Oregon volcanoes spewed ash that fell, then transformed into these breathtaking mounds of crimson, gold, and ebony claystone (bentonite). Lacy fossil leaves and metasequoia needles were found here — evidence of a once-damp, rainforest-like climate almost impossible to imagine today.
Smart travelers pack a camera — during spring, otherworldly parfait-like layers of color brighten after a rainstorm, and more than 22 varieties of vibrant flowers blossom in the hills and valleys. In the summer, the bright red hills almost seem to show off beneath brilliant blue skies.
From a distance, the ground looks velvety, or like the playground surfacing now so popular. But it feels like hardened mud. Bentonite expands as it absorbs water, then cracks and breaks as it dries. Today, bentonite clay is used in kitty litter, among other things.
Boardwalks weave around the bright red mounds for the gentle (but otherworldly) 1/4-mile Painted Cove hike that even a preschooler or baby-jogger stroller can manage. It’s very hot out here though, with few shady spots. Slather on the sunscreen before leaving the car, and if you decide to go on one of the non-paved, more strenuous hikes that cross the Painted Hills, then bring lots of water for everyone. A mile doesn’t sound far, but in 90-degree temperatures in midday sun, it feels like a slog.
A picnic area is available; pack a picnic, because there are not many food options are nearby, except for the nearby dead-end town of Mitchell, Oregon, nine miles from the Painted Hills. Half of the town’s buildings appear to be sinking into the earth, a ghost town in the making.
We ate an unforgettable breakfast at the Little Pine Cafe. Three words: Ice cream pancakes. They were somehow both scary and awesome. The kids loved them (of course), and I liked the cafe’s decor. The service was fast and friendly, and the menu is stacked with classics like onion rings and burgers. It felt very old-school Oregon. We still talk about that cafe. See? Unforgettable.
If you want to find more great places to go this summer with kids, head to Delicious Baby’s Photo Friday.