If there’s anywhere in the state that could be described as “otherworldly,” it has to be the Painted Hills. Located about 9 miles northwest of the tiny town of Mitchell and just minutes off Highway 26, the undulating mounds aren’t green or forested like much of the terrain west of Mount Hood—nor are they plain and brown, which is what you’d expect in the High Desert. Instead, some of the hills are a deep brick red and covered with a million tiny cracks, evoking the surface of Mars. Other areas are striped in yellow, gold and black, similar to Jupiter’s swirling clouds. All these layers of color, which dazzle under a blue sky and bright sun in the late afternoon, are actually a record of climate change over millions of years. Scarlet bands, for instance, are evidence of a warmer, wetter climate (rainfall would’ve been 31 to 53 inches per year) that then give way to tans indicating the region grew drier. There are five trails in what is one of three units of the John Day Fossil Beds, and you’ll hardly break a sweat on any of them. The longest is 1.6 miles, so it’s possible to tackle them all in a couple of hours. But the two not to miss are the Painted Hills Overlook, which pushes above the tallest and longest of the streaked mountains, with crevices creating the look of a gripped fist, and the Painted Cove Trail, whose boardwalks weave through the alienlike crimson contours.
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