Fossil, Oregon and the Painted Hills

Deep in the high desert of central Oregon, past the tumbling tumble weeds and hovering hawks seeking out their prey…past the fragrant sagebrush and long forgotten ghost towns…lies fossils and vibrantly painted hillsides ancient and unique to Oregon.

Digging for Fossils

You heard me right. Fossils…to be found in the tiny town of Fossil. No joke. That’s the name of the town. With one gas station and a whole lot of friendly characters. The day I was there they cordoned off the main drag to make way for an impromptu parade lasting about five minutes with a few cowboys on horseback and one lonely float full of school kids throwing candy to the locals lining the street.

But I digress.

I came here to find some fossils. Now, don’t get your hopes up. These are not dinosaur fossils. Let’s leave those to the experts, shall we? Rather, these are plant fossils, ready to be dug up right behind the local high school, by anyone with five dollars and an adventurous spirit.

Fossil, Oregon


An Abundance of Plant Fossil Deposits

Enter the high school driveway and follow the signs to the back of the school. There you will find a small parking lot, and a small shed, where you can pay your honor-system $5 per person fee and help yourself to some garden tools to have the privilege of rummaging around the grounds behind the football field to find some fossils. (You must return the tools to the shed when you are finished.)

These plant fossils range anywhere from one million to 32 million years old (how’s that for narrowing things down?). Many of the fossils found are distant relatives to similar species found in Eastern Europe and Asia (possibly when the Earth was one big ‘Pangia’ land mass?)

As it happened, I was fresh out of cash, so I followed the small trail to the fossil site, where some people were already digging at 10 in the morning, and watched them for awhile. Still, this is a great place to bring your kids – they get to have a unique and educational opportunity to have some fun!

Digging for Fossils

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Fossil, Oregon

On to the Painted Hills

About 1 ½ hours south of Fossil is the Painted Hills. The winding roads on this stretch of land will guide you through fragrant sagebrush, and mountains off in the distance. Pull your car off to the side of the road at one of the many viewpoints and just take in the utter quiet. Snap a few stunning photos and be on your way.

The scenery on the road to Fossil.


Painted Hills

A true geological wonder

Hiking the five trails in the Painted Hills is super easy, as all but one is less than a mile long, with no real elevation. But there is little shade in the heat of summer, for this is the high desert after all! So bring a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water, and you will get a feast for the eyes. If you find yourself here in the off season, expect an equal chance of rain and thunderstorms.

As you enter the Painted Hills area, I recommend turning left to visit the information center for maps and detailed information. They also have restrooms and a picnic area here, so it’s also a good stop after you’ve done your exploring. If you just want to get your hiking and eye candy on, turn right.

Them thar clay hills have plenty of iron in them, and they are oxidizing. Hence the magnificently rich earthy tones of red, gold, and just a hint of lavender. As you meander through the hills, it is like walking through a giant palette of color, brought to you by minerals of ancients past. Throw in a bit of magnesium in with the iron, and orange makes its debut on your senses. It’s like you’re walking on Mars, only here you can breathe!

Painted Hills

Where to Stay 

Condon – Hotel Condon

Mitchell – The Oregon Hotel

Prineville – Rustler’s Inn  OR  Stafford Inn


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About Me

Hi, I’m Susan, a travel writer based in Portland, Oregon. THANKS for stopping by my Pacific Northwest travel site! This blog focuses on Pacific Northwest travel, but also is a place showcase all of my travels, and is a great place to start when planning your next vacation to my area of the world. Please e-mail me or leave a comment, I’m here to help!

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