Painted Hills – An Oregon natural wonder

Painted Hills, Oregon

It is easy to see why the Painted Hills are designated as one of Oregon’s Seven Wonders. The Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument , located nine miles northwest of Mitchell, Oregon, is 3,132 acres in size.

Painted Hills Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (US National Park Service)

If you visit the Painted Hills after rainstorms move through the area, the colors will look more intense from the recent moisture. The colors are striking no matter what season it is. It is like looking at a parfait of luscious layers spread out before you. The deep crimson and black layers at the base of the hills contrast with the sandy browns and golds of upper layers.

Formation of the Painted Hills

The color of the hills is due to volcanic eruptions and changes in climate. Over 35 million years ago this area was part of a river flood plain covered by thick forests of semitropical plants. Abundant ash fall and lava floods helped to shape most of the formations. Erosion started about five million years ago. The area was later subjected to immense forces that tilted the layers downward to the east. Basalt floods hardened and protected softer layers underneath from erosion. Over time the layers of ash and vegetation-rich soil became exposed.


The strata in the John Day formations include Big Basin (28-39 million years ago), Turtle Cove (22-28 million years ago), Picture Gorge Ignimbrite (28 million years ago), Haystack Valley (20-22 million years ago), and Picture Gorge Basalts (16 million years ago).

  • The red color bands formed when weather conditions were warmer and wetter. Rainfall during that time period ranged between 31 – 53 inches per year. Ponds and lakes were common in the area.
  • The yellow and tan color bands indicate drier weather conditions. Rainfall was between 23 – 47 inches per year. Today the average rainfall here is 12 inches per year.
  • The black spots indicate manganese concentrations. Plants that fixed the manganese in the soil likely grew in these areas.

Plan your visit

The Painted Hills are extremely photogenic so don’t forget a good camera, phone, or other device. You will want to bring back a memory of the surreal landscape.

The Painted Hills website gives a brief overview of the five trails in the area. They range from ¼ mile to 1.6 miles in length.

If you have time, be sure to check out the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center nearby. It’s amazing!

5 thoughts on “Painted Hills – An Oregon natural wonder

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