Painted Hills, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon

This Article Features Photo Zoom

The Painted Hills are part of the John Day Fossil Beds in central Oregon. Located 75 miles east of Bend and nine miles northwest of Mitchell, the closest town to this national monument, the hills are dispersed over more than 3,000 acres with colorful geological strata that formed during cataclysmic events in ancient times when the region was a river floodplain. There’s a multiplicity of color, with yellows, golds, blacks, reds, dark lilac, grays and magentas, related to different geological eras. Red indicates laterite soil forming when this site was warmer and more humid. Yellow tones are a combination of iron and magnesium, while gray tones are composed of shale, mudstone and siltstone. A closer inspection of the hills from the Painted Hills Overlook reveals signs of animals in the silt, including cougar, pronghorn, mule deer and coyote tracks. At present, this very arid area is a fragile environment, and visitors are only permitted in designated areas and paths. There are four basic venues for photographers. The Painted Hills Overlook can be reached by car, then by a quarter-mile trail. This is a superlative viewpoint at sunset, especially with clouds above the distant mountains. If the sky isn’t cooperating, focus on the hills as a group or particular striations and undulations close up as abstractions. For panoramas, the three-quarter-mile Carroll Rim Trail is a more strenuous hike. The view from the top is spectacular, especially in late afternoon and early evening. A drive to the Painted Cove Trail leads to a quarter-mile path around a reddish hill, allowing for close proximity to the textured claystones. Finally, there’s a quarter-mile walk on the Leaf Hill Trail around a small hill that has been the subject of recent scientific excavation.

The weather is relatively mild, ranging from a low of 24º F in January to a high of 86º F in July. Given the dry conditions, it’s not surprising that precipitation is minimal throughout the year, but it can be cloudy. In January and February, there may be a dusting of snow.

Photo Experience
I routinely use a Hoya or Tiffen circular polarizer here, which helps to enhance contrast and highlight details in the hills. When there are cumulus clouds lit up orange, red or pink by the setting sun, I use Cokin grad ND filters (2- or 3-stop) to preserve detail in the foreground. Along with a Gitzo tripod and an Arca-Swiss head, I bring two Nikon D7100s and four lenses on all of my shoots, including those at the Painted Hills, a Nikkor 18-200mm zoom, 18-300mm zoom, 12-24mm wide-angle zoom and Sigma 150-500mm telephoto zoom. The latter lens is for capturing wildlife from a distance and close-up shots of the rising or setting moon. For landscapes and close-ups of hills and mountains, I have greater flexibility with a zoom like the 18-200mm or 18-300mm. I do a fair amount of photography in desert environments, so it’s advisable not to change lenses repeatedly in the field to prevent fine sand particles from working their way into the sensitive sensor.

Best Times
The best shots at the Painted Hills are taken when the setting sun illuminates the panorama. Generally, I arrive at least an hour before light is most ideal and scout the area for compositions. Given the temperate climate, successful photography is possible all year. In late spring, there’s the added opportunity of including yellow blossoms of chaenactis and bee plants in landscapes. Given the eastern exposure, this venue is best photographed in late afternoon and early evening. If possible, photograph the Painted Hills after a rainfall when the colors in the hills are increasingly saturated.

Contact: John Day Fossil Beds National Monument,

Kenko Extension Tubes

Essential Gear
When working in sensitive environments, it often makes more sense to extend the reach of your lens rather than getting too close to skittish wildlife or traversing dangerous terrain. Most often available in 1.4x or 2.0x magnifications, teleconverters and extension tubes enhance the focal length of a lens at a minimal trade-off to light transmission. A 100mm lens, for example, would become the equivalent of a 140mm or 200mm lens. Teleconverters and extension tubes are also affordable, and adding a single teleconverter solution to your kit is like doubling the range of focal lengths available to you.