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Painted Hills

Road Trip through the Painted Hills, Ancient Fossils, and Crafted Brews

Sheep Rock and The John Day River
Written by Oregon Media

Road Trip through the Painted Hills, Ancient Fossils, and Crafted Brews

Colorful hills, plenty of ancient fossils, scenic bike tours, desert hikes, delicious foods and locally crafted brews are to be discovered on this leg of your road trip tour.

Mitchell sits in steep and rolling hills on the east side of the Ochocos, a welcoming outpost surrounded by natural beauty. Mitchell’s most famous feature is the Painted Hills, one of three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and one of the 7 Wonders of Oregon. A road trip through the Painted Hills reveal land comprised of ash and soil in a myriad of colors, from rusted reds to copper to ochre to emerald to create this spectacular photographer’s dream.

Hike, Swim, Camp, Repeat

The Painted Hills area offers several trails to sweeping vistas. Another great place to stretch your legs is at nearby Owen Ranch, where an easy trail leads to a historic ranch house, boasting old orchards and grand cottonwood trees alongside a scenic creek. Views of geological peaks Mitchell Rock and Bailey Rock pop up along this trail. Also nearby is Priest Hole, the swimming hole locals love for hot summer days on the John Day River. Burnt Ranch Recreation Site has its own swimming hole, as well as a campground for outdoor overnighters and adventurers. In town, shop for geological treasures discovered by local rockhounds.

Fresh Air Creates Big Appetites

In Mitchell, grab wings and craft brew at Tiger Town Brewing, where stouts, porters and ales flow, along with live music and events during high season. Save room for pie at Bridge Creek Café, which also offers burgers and big breakfasts. Painted Hills Pastry makes remarkable French baked goods each day.

Sleeps and Spokes

Find a place to lay your head for the night at Painted Hills Vacation Cottages, where the charming cabins are only matched by the well-tended gardens outside. On your bike? The Painted Hills Scenic Bikeway runs through here, and cyclists find plenty of company in the area. Bike tourers and explorers find respite and community at Spoke’n Hostel, just a few miles east of the Painted Hills, where fifteen spacious beds, a full kitchen, community spaces, laundry facilities and creek-front tent camping are on hand. In downtown Mitchell, seek out the beautiful historical Oregon Hotel. Built around 1936, you’ll feel like you’ve traveled back in time when you see the quaint parlor, small but charming rooms, and shared bath down the hall.

Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center Science in Action

Between Mitchell and John Day, you’re surrounded by some of the most significant—and most beautiful—geology in the state. Find headquarters and interpretation for the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument between Kimberly and Dayville at the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center, named after the prominent 19th-century Oregon scientist who first recognized the significance of the fossil beds and did the first scientific collection and study of specimens. Colorful murals depicting ancient environments and the plants and animals that lived in them, fossil displays with over 500 specimens, and a fishbowl paleontology laboratory that allow the public to watch scientists actively studying fossils are some of the features that visitors enjoy. There’s an activity room for the kids and a terrific gift store.

Dayville Cafe road trip Respite and a Bite

Have a picnic across the highway from the visitor center at the historic Cant Ranch. Once the monument headquarters, the ranch is sometimes open as a museum, and is always a lovely spot to see the historic architecture and outbuildings of an old ranch. Don’t miss the view of Sheep Rock from the property.

Grab a meal in Dayville at the Dayville Café, featuring steak and burgers from local Painted Hills Ranch. Nearby is the Dayville Mercantile, opened in 1896, and still an old-fashioned dry goods store with over 8,000 products, and even a bike shop in back for those touring on wheels.

You’re still on the John Day River Farm Trail, so don’t miss more amazing local foods and farms including Bergin’s Organic Seeds, offering heirloom seeds for local growers, Prairie Springs Fish Farm, where they grow fish to stock ponds and lakes, and Happy Hen’s Egg Farm for cage-free eggs and fresh produce.

Beer at 1188 Brewing Company catch a flight, Pedal your bike and Fuel Up

John Day is the largest town on this road trip tour, and is also home to Grant County Regional Airport, serving both local pilots and visiting travelers. For much slower travel, consider hopping on your bike and touring the Old West Scenic Bikeway, one of Oregon’s scenic bikeways. Grab lunch and a brew at 1188 Brewing Company, John Day’s bustling and popular brewery. All beer is brewed on site, and many menu items are handcrafted from local produce and products.

Old Time apothecary

Steeped in history, John Day and the surrounding area was a gold mining region that drew thousands to its boomtowns in the late 1800s. A gem of interpretation about this era is the Kam Wah Chung & Co. Museum. This destination remains much as it was nearly a century ago when a thriving community of gold rush-inspired Chinese immigrants called the John Day area home. The Kam Wah Chung store and apothecary was at the center of the community, and today its shelves of well-preserved herbal and traditional medicines serve as a window into history.

The Mountains Are Calling

Take the time to explore the remote and scenic reaches of Grant County. Located east of John Day, the “Strawberries” (as they are affectionately known) are one of the most scenic and accessible mountain ranges in Eastern Oregon. More than 60,000 acres of land is set aside in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness, an area that includes Strawberry Peak and Strawberry Lake. Keep your eyes peeled for nearly 400 species of birds along with black bears and California Bighorn Sheep. There are several campgrounds here, and plenty of hiking trails to get you onto these gorgeous peaks. For the motorcycle lover, join BMW riders in John Day through the Strawberries for the Chief Joseph Rally.

Old West Scenic Bikeway Little Charm on the Prairie

In Prairie City, enjoy the best of the old and the new at Hotel Prairie, with a beautiful lobby, wine and beer lounge, patio and comfortable rooms with private baths (and even a charging station for your electric car). It’s your perfect base camp along Prairie City’s quaint main street, which offers antique stores, specialty shops and dining.

Big Skies, Large Luxury

On scenic Highway 395 south of John Day, visit Canyon City, where you’ll find multiple antique shops, the Painted Sky Art Center, Sels Brewery and the wonderful Grant County Historical Museum. Further south is Silvies Valley Ranch, a one-time working ranch, now modern golf resort that merges luxury and relaxation with an authentic Western ranch experience. Golf the 18-hole reversible course, the same course played two different directions. Feast on delicious and unique dining options, partake in exclusive outdoor experiences, and relax at the spa. A private airstrip is available for those wishing to fly directly on to the property.