Oxidized minerals in volcanic ash spewed across the Eastern Oregon landscape thousands of years ago created these spectacular hills at the Painted Hills unit of the John Day Fossil Beds northwest of Dayville. The weathering of the ash caused this hill and others to take on reds, yellows, tans and flecks of black. - AP

Painted Hills offer colorful geological history

MITCHELL — Among the sagebrush and scrub trees that inhabit this portion of Eastern Oregon, it's easy to miss the aptly named Painted Hills. Only a small sign directs travelers along Highway 26 west of here to head north several miles to the Painted Hills.

There, hills infused with vertical stripes of reds, yellows, grays and specks of black rise from the plain. With the colors created from oxidized mineral deposits found in heavily eroded volcanic ash layers, the hills are unlike anything found elsewhere in Oregon.

The Painted Hills are one of three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. They spread out over 14,000 acres in sparsely populated Wheeler and Grant counties. The Painted Hills and the Clarno unit, between Fossil and Antelope, are located in Wheeler County. The Sheep Rock unit is located just east of Wheeler County, at the western edge of Grant County, near Dayville.

The John Day Fossil Beds rank third in annual attendance out of the four national parks and monuments located in Oregon. Crater Lake attracts the most visitors, more than 400,000 a year, followed by the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park with more than 200,000 annual guests. The Fossil Beds had 112,578 visitors last year, down from 124,704 the year before. So far this year, 101,040 guests have gone there, an increase of 19.5 percent. Highway 26, which leads to John Day and Vale, has less traffic than Highway 20 heading to Vale through Burns.

That and the relative remoteness of Eastern Oregon probably explains why more people don't visit the John Day Fossil Beds. Thomas Condon, a self-trained scientist and pioneer Oregon minister, was the first person to understand the scientific significance of the fossil beds.

The Irish native first visited the area in 1865 and was named the University of Oregon's first professor of geology at the school's founding in 1876 and continued there until 1907.

The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center at the Sheep Rock unit houses the monument's fossil collection.

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