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John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon

Updated: Mar 6

Originally published in Outdoor Photographer

Location: The Painted Hills Unit is just one of three units that comprise the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. This unit alone contains over 3,000 acres of unmatched beauty, unique even to Oregon. The monument gets its name from the John Day River, the longest undammed river that flows into the Columbia. The three units together combine for a total of 14,000 acres. At John Day Fossil Beds, paleontologists have found fossil remains of animals and plants dating back 40 million years. The Painted Hills Unit is located about 50 miles from Prineville, Oregon. From Prineville, travel east on US 26/Ochoco Highway for about 44 miles. Turn left onto Burnt Ranch Road for approximately 1.5 miles. Burnt Ranch Road becomes Bridge Creek Road. You’ll travel approximately five miles on Bridge Creek Road. Use caution when driving this gravel road, and be sure to gas up and get any supplies you might need in Prineville.

Thunderstorm, Painted Hills, Oregon - Michael Kish Photography
Thunderstorm, Painted Hills, Oregon

Weather: The Painted Hills Unit is hot and dry in a semi-arid climate. July and August are the hottest months, with temperatures reaching more than 100 degrees F. Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and water. Late-afternoon thunderstorms can bring brief rainfall, but the average rainfall for July is only a half inch. Most of the annual precipitation comes from snow during the winter months. Evenings can cool down dramatically into the low forties, so come prepared for hot and cold weather extremes.

Painted Hills Unit, Oregon
Painted Hills Unit, Oregon

Photo Experience: At the Painted Hills, you’ll be able to hike several different trails, ranging from 1⁄4 mile to 11⁄2 miles, all offering their own unique photo opportunities. These hiking trails allow you to get up close to the Painted Hills. The Carroll Rim Trail is about 11⁄2 miles and has an elevation gain of only a few hundred feet. At the top, you’ll have a breathtaking view of the Painted Hills and the surrounding vistas. A polarizing filter and a sturdy tripod are essential items, along with a good selection of graduated ND filters. Wide-angle, macro, and telephoto lenses are excellent choices, depending on your preferred shooting style. Wildflowers dot the landscape, offering some great photographic opportunities. A good telephoto lens comes in quite handy for wildlife shots. More than 40 species of mammals inhabit the area, including elk, cougar, and coyotes. The site also has many species of birds, reptiles and amphibians.

Best Time: Summer is the best time to visit. The sunsets are like no others you’ll ever see. The occasional thunderstorm adds another element to the landscape, creating dramatic cloud shots. The low light of the sunsets brings out the varied hues of red, orange, black, and tan of the hills. You should arrive at least two hours before sunset to scout the best spots from which to photograph, and be ready to shoot because your window of opportunity is small, and it closes fast!


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