Is your family itching to get out of the city? For those looking to swap the concrete jungle with some very old — we’re talking tens of millions of years old — rock formations, the Painted Hills make for a great destination. Rockhounds will especially love this place! Part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, the 14,000-acre park is located in central-east Oregon, and is roughly a 3.5-hour trek from Portland. This unlikely Oregon landscape lives up to its hype, and is worth the drive.
The park comprises three distinct areas, or units: the Painted Hills, Sheep Rock and Clarno. The Painted Hills has been dubbed one of Oregon’s Seven Natural Wonders. The striations of red, orange, tan and yellow, to black, green and even lavender — give the area that wow factor. Another cool thing to tell your kids: It’s the only park in Oregon established solely because of its fossils. Like rings of a tree, the layered topography reveals to visitors petrified remains of life 7- to 44-million years ago.
The vast park features lots of trails, and there are several short ones, perfect for families. The Painted Cove Trail is only .25-miles round trip and allows an up-close view of the reddish petrified dirt. And for an impressive view of the area, hike the 1.6-mile Carroll Rim Trail. At the top, you’ll see all the knolls comprising the Painted Hills (pictured above), and how time had layered and folded them into a muted rainbow.
Next visit Sheep Rock. The area gets its name from the bighorn sheep that once roamed the slopes (pictured below). But a true highlight of the area is the Thomas Condon Visitor Center. The visitor center houses more than 60,000 fossils and specimens. Walking through the Age of Mammals exhibition, which details life in the area from around 50 million years ago, makes for a fun, educational experience. Pro tip: You can even watch paleontologists at work as they clean and examine fossils! (Entrance to the center is free; it’s closed on Mondays.)
The national park is free to visit, and is stroller and wheelchair accessible with boardwalks, bridges and well-maintained trails and signage. Spring and fall are the best times to visit the park; in the summer, temperatures regularly rise to 90 degrees and above.
There are three towns touching the John Day Fossil Beds: Mitchell, Prineville and Fossil. Mitchell, is the smallest of the three, but is also closest to the Painted Hills. Cell phone service in the area is also spotty, so plan ahead by downloading driving directions and hiking trail maps.
And if you’re researching more family-friendly adventures, check out other fun places to visit here!
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