Painted Hills is one of the three units that make up the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, located in Wheeler County, Oregon. The Painted Hills is so called for the colorful layers and banded striations that occur on its hills corresponding to various geological eras, formed when the area was an ancient river floodplain. The spectacular colors appear almost unnatural and hand-painted.
The unique colors that streak the clay rich hills and mounds were formed over 35 million years ago by volcanic ash layers deposited by ancient eruptions when the area was a river plain. Over time, the layers of ash containing different minerals compacted and solidified into the various bands of colors seen today. The black soil is lignite that was vegetative matter that grew along the floodplain. The grey coloring is mudstone, siltstone, and shale. The red and orange hues are from laterite soil that formed by floodplain deposits when the area was warm and humid.
Moreover, the colors shift and change throughout the day as well as through seasons and different weather due to the varying angles of the sun. The best time to visit the hills is after a rainstorm when every color is intensified. Colors range from burnt red, amber, orange, yellow, and gold, with streaks of black and grey. Between April and May, rivers of small yellow flowers run down within the cracks of the reddish hills creating strong leading lines and colorful contrast. The sight draws hundreds of landscape photographers and artists to the place. Another busy time of the year is in winter, after a light dusting of snow. The stark white of the snow juxtaposed against the colorful striations makes for a strong composition.
The Painted Hills unit is open year-round with easy access for all visitors. There are a handful of well-marked trails to guide you through the park. There are well maintained picnic areas parking places and great information signs explaining the various geological and natural processes that occurred here through different eras.
A similar multi-colored, multi-layered landscape is seen in Danxia in China.
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