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Painted Hills

Wheeler County: a vast exhibition of prehistory

Written by Oregon Media

Wheeler County: a vast exhibition of prehistory

The least populous county in Oregon reveals plenty of charms, from modern bluegrass to family river floats to some of the most significant—and most beautiful—geology in the state. Home to fossil beds, ancient oceans and the gateway to the John Day River, the region also beckons sightseers ready to explore the Painted Hills, one of the 7 Wonders of Oregon.

learn about fossils, then go find some

The Paleo Lands Institute Center in Fossil is a community-run information hub and the gateway to the ancient forests and sea floors that lay beyond. Maps, travel itineraries and well-informed staff will get you pointed in the right direction for your forays into the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Bonus: Don’t leave town without visiting fossil beds behind Wheeler High School, which deliver artifacts of ancient flora and fauna—the only ones in the region that you are free to pick up and take home.

Painted hills hike in Wheeler County Take in the beauty of the Painted Hills unit

One of three areas at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, the Painted Hills are one of the most photographed places in Oregon. Rusted reds and copper orange mix with ochre and emerald to create this spectacular color splash. Several trails offer short hikes to sweeping vistas of the area. Another geological wonder is the Clarno Unit, where the towering Palisades hold the 44-million-year-old preservation of a near-tropical forest. Along the Painted Hills Scenic Bikeway, bike-friendly businesses such as Painted Hills Vacation Rentals, River Bend Motel, Spoke’n Hostel and Wilson Ranches Retreat enhance the journey.

float the mighty john day river

The Wild and Scenic John Day River begins as a mountain stream and finishes as an desert river, cutting through a massive canyon. In spring and summer, raft and relax on the relatively peaceful and warm-watered river with few rapids. Perfect for a family or multigenerational float, the John Day is an excellent choice for swimming and floating in the sunshine of the high desert.

Wheeler County Bluegrass Festival Jam at the Wheeler County Bluegrass Festival

Held annually on the lawn outside of the historic county courthouse in Fossil, the Wheeler County Bluegrass Festival features three days of music, workshops, local food vendors, camping and jamming. Bring your lawn chair and get your music on.