Oregon's Painted Hills

Time from Seattle: ~ 6 hrs

Packing List:

  • Road Trip Clothes - Baggy t-shirt, high-waisted shorts

  • 1 Dress

  • 1 Blouse

  • 1 Pair of leggings

  • 1 Shirt to sleep in

  • Sleeping Bag

  • Pillow

  • Hair refresher

  • Salt Spray

  • Sunglasses

  • Sunscreen

  • Birkenstocks

  • Sandals

  • Bug Spray

  • Toothbrush, toothpaste... you get the gist.

  • DSLR 5D Mark IV - 50 mm Lens

The Inspo

I'm going to be honest here and say that most of my road-trip inspiration comes from this magical place of discovery; a place hosting billions of adventures from across the globe. You guessed it, Instagram. If you've never used Instagram as a trip planner, I'd 100% recommend trying it; especially those visual learners out there!

Long story short, my friend Akanksha and I found the Painted Hills on Instagram one afternoon and wasted no time planning our next trip. After a few stops for snacks and Safeway gas, we sped out of Seattle on I-90 and cut down through central Washington on Highway 97. What's out there you ask? A whole lotta nothing. But a beautiful nothingness nonetheless. The first time I drove past the Cascade Mountains, I thought I was in an entirely new state. The trees slowly get more scraggly and disperse until there's eventually nothing but brush and red dirt. Urban Dictionary does a pretty good job of explaining life on the East Side... though I'm almost positive a West Side local wrote it.

Pro Tip: There's little to know service beyond Ellensburg so make sure to download your map beforehand.

A couple of hours later and you'll find yourself at the Columbia River Gorge - the Washington-Oregon border. Feeling thirsty? Stop by the small winery at the bottom of Washington's riverbank. Or if you're up for a little site-seeing, visit the Stonehenge Memorial right off of Highway 97 on the Lewis and Clark Highway. It's definitely worth a quick stop, as it's the only full-scale replica of Stonehenge.


Onward and... downward I guess, along the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway - otherwise known as Highway 97 which eventually turns into 206. We decided to take a quick scenic break at Oregon's Cottonwood Canyon for some fresh air and a couple quick pics.

Once you hit the tiny, postage-stamp town known as Condon, make a hard left onto Highway 19 - the final highway to the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. It's a windy one with a lot of elevation changes. I just happened to be dying of a head cold on this trip and the pressure build-up was unreal. So self-explanatory pro tip: avoid sickness or take some heavy meds...

Mitchell, Oregon

Last stop: Mitchell, OR - otherwise known as the Gateway to the Painted Hills. If you thought Condon was small... Mitchell is on a whole new level. We arrived tired and hungry at about 4 p.m. so quickly found our campsite at the Ochoco Divide Campground. Contrary to what the website tells you, only the group campsite can be booked in advance. All other campsites are first come first serve. This may just be the only campground that no one wanted to attend over the Fourth of July Weekend. We were lucky enough to find a spot without any problems, set up camp, cleaned up (for pics of course) and rolled our way back to Mitchell for a quality meal at their local diner, the Sidewalk Cafe and More. Rumor is they make their pancakes with ice cream. A stacked bacon cheeseburger for me and a chili dog for Akanksha, please. Did I say we were hungry?

ProTip: Stop by the gift shop across the way in the old 1900's building for the complete run-down of the town's history, the Painted Hills' history, and her personal history... She was more than willing to offer more information than we could've even thought to have asked for. She even invited us to a local birthday party at the small bar across the way.

All jokes aside, this town had something special. I've always had a soft spot for the "everyone knows everyone" dynamic. Not much cell service, and the photo above seemed to be about the only store there, but I could see how the population of 121 was living a happy and peaceful life in Oregon's forgotten hills.

The Painted Hills -

John Day National Monument

Okay so that was a long intro... but you made it to the part about the Painted Hills! Here's a little history: When you gaze upon these other-worldy hills, you're actually looking into over 50 million years of evolution and well-preserved plant and animal history, creating the colorful dirt you see today. The black specks are where plants once thrived, the orangey-yellow dirt is from dry, deserty conditions such as the current climate of the Painted Hills, and the reds are from a time where water once covered the area. It's said that these hills helped scientists come to the conclusion that Mars was once covered in water because the landscape is almost identical to the red dirt of the Painted Hills. Crazy right? So I've basically told everyone I've been to Mars... It's fine.

So now that you're looking up the Painted Hills on Instagram, you're probably wondering where you can find that insanely picturesque boardwalk, am I right? Take the first right past the Overlook towards the Painted Cove. There's a short trail that takes you through some smaller hills with incredibly vibrant colors. This is where you'll find the short boardwalk. It's magical, no joke. Gaze upon the larger hills at the Overlook to see more of contrasted colors of the area's ancient history. If you're feeling bold, hang out for sunset - the lower the sun, the more vibrant the hills. Even more bold? Some of the starry sky images I've seen are to die for, but don't forget your bug spray. Those mosquitos have no mercy.

We spent the night at the campground, woke up bright and early, grabbed some killer berry pancakes at the Bridge Creek Cafe, and hit the hills one last time. The hills' colors change depending on the light and we had yet to see their morning glow. They were just as beautiful, yet in an entirely different way. Even more vibrant reds took the place of each shadow juxtaposed against a bright blue sky. It was unreal.


A couple hours later and we were back on the road. The initial plan was to drive back through Portland and stop at Voodoo Donuts, but the traffic was getting bad. It was back to The Journey Through Time Scenic Byway. Couldn't complain.

-- For best image results, consider using a photo editing software such as Lightroom.

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