Erosion is a natural process that can create spectacular art. Just consider the Painted Hills, located in eastern Oregon about nine miles northwest of Mitchell.
The area is part of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument; some might say the Painted Hills are its crowning jewel, with its jaw-dropping colors of orange, yellow, pink, rust, tan and more all colliding in a layered spectacle of Earth's geological past.
The Painted Hills are considered one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon, and as Travel Oregon puts it, "Seeing the hills makes you feel a bit like you’ve stepped onto another planet, though you’re actually taking a peek into our own earth’s history. The sunset hues of the hills are ever-changing with moisture and light levels, making each visit to them different."
The area was a river flood plain that has transformed again and again as the climate has shifted, which has allowed layers upon layers of different matter to build up over millennia. Each layer revealed through erosion represents a different era, pointing back in time to everything from volcanic eruptions to lush tropical landscapes.
According to a U.S. Geological Survey, the black soil is fossilized or carbonized vegetative matter, the grey coloring is mudstone, siltstone and shale and the red coloring is ancient soil formed by floodplain deposits.
The hills hold not only the colors but also the fossils to prove their age. Among the fossils found here are those of prehistoric species long gone from the continent, such as camels and saber tooth tigers, as well as the ancient ancestors of familiar species such as horses and dogs.
Hiking is possible throughout the Painted Hills for those who wish to explore on foot. You can follow short quarter-mile trails that lead you closer to the foothills to examine the strata up close, or trails that range from a half-mile round trip to a 1.5-mile walk that features a rise in altitude so you can take in stunning vistas.
The Painted Hills is a perfect location for photographers. One piece of advice all visitors share is to follow the common-sense approach of visiting during sunrise and sunset for the richest colors. The time of year you visit is of less consequence because every season — and every weather pattern — holds something unique.
The National Parks Service writes, "The yellows, golds, blacks, and reds of the Painted Hills are beautiful at all times of the day, but are best lit for photography in the late afternoon. Changing light and moisture levels can drastically affect the tones and hues visible in the hills. The seasons can also change the look of the Painted Hills radically. Spring brings the yellow and purple wildflowers that grow in drainages and sluices of the hills. Winter can blanket the hills in a white coat, concealing the once vibrant hues until the snow melts, revealing interspersed stripes of gold and red."
If you plan to visit, note that drinking water is available May through September, but outside of those months be sure to bring your own. And if you want to catch the Painted Hills during an extra spectacular color display, try visiting during April and May when wildflowers are in bloom.