Eastern Oregon definitely gets less press than its beautiful counterpart – the coastline. The geography is very different, and luckily for us, so was the weather. After Halloween in Lincoln City (2014) we knew we needed to get out of the rain or we’d go crazy. A rather intense couple of driving days took us through Salem to Bend, to Prineville, and on to the Painted Hills Unit inside of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
When We Visited: November 3-4, 2014
Ages of Kids: 9, 7, 4
Where We Stayed: There is no place to camp IN the park. This one of the only parks we’ve done a drive through with the Airstream. We mostly just planned to have Sam take the day off work (except for a lunch meeting) and we left early from Prineville to the Painted Hills Unit, then the Visitor Center in the Sheep Rock Unit. Once we were done, we then drove to Clyde Holliday State Recreation Site, arriving after dark. The park was peaceful and we would definitely recommend staying there!
Inside of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument there are three different units: The Painted Hills Unit, the Sheep Rock Unit, and the Clarno Unit. Which you visit is largely determined by your vehicle type, and how much time you have as they are pretty spread apart. We had seen photos of the Painted Hills, so for sure that was on our list and then we needed to hit up the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center in the Sheep Rock Unit to get our Junior Ranger Books. We decided to save the Clarno Unit for a later visit since it was farther out of the way.
The Painted Hills are an impressive geological collection of varying layers of rock and clay. The reddish color had a pretty sticky, mud like consistency which was unsurprising since it had been raining. However, it IS clay so I imagine it is always a little sticky.
In addition to the short Painted Cove boardwalk hike that takes you up close and personal to the clay, there’s also a few overlooks with views like this one:
We also drove into the unit a little farther and hiked the short Red Scar Knoll Trail, which ended at this huge pile of yellow and red clay.
After leaving the Painted Hills Unit, we stopped a few miles down the road where we actually had cell coverage so Sam could make his work meeting. While he worked to the pay the bills, the kids and I whipped up a quick lunch. I love traveling with our refrigerator.
After that it was about an hour drive to the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center in the Sheep Rock Unit. We picked up our Jr. Ranger Books and then hung out in the children’s room for a bit while they worked on their school for the day
Since it was already afternoon and we didn’t have a ton of time, the ranger recommended hiking through Blue Basin on the Trail of Time. It was spectacular! I have never seen anything like these blue hills. It kind of reminded of us Bryce Canyon – only a different color. The kids were particular fascinated by the small GREEN creek running out through the canyon. The minerals from the rock seep into the water, and it had an almost paint-like consistency. Andrew had fun throwing rocks in and watching them spash!
On our way back to the Paleontology Center, we stopped by the Historic Cant Ranch to see how a family used to make their living in this canyon raising sheep. The Ranch is well done and super informative. There were signs everywhere about the type of equipment they used for farming, how they sheared the sheep, and generally what life was like on a ranch in the early 1900’s.
Lastly, we stopped back by the Visitor Center to finish up our books using the displays, and to pass them off with the ranger. Our kids got to wear ranger hats while they were getting sworn in. This was a first for us, and I don’t think any of the kids found them very comfortable!
Although we didn’t see everything, I felt like we developed a good appreciation for this park and what makes it special! We would definitely go back and would love to see the the sections of the park we missed.