25 October, 2016

Seeking Adventure: Painted Hills / John Day River (Oregon)


Oregon has some of the most diverse and natural terrain you can find in any state in the US, from lush green forests to high deserts, and almost everything in between. Departing early from Portland, we set out to explore some of the high desert areas on the east side of the Cascade Mountains in central Oregon. Heading east from the city, we drove through Mt. Hood National Forest and over Mt. Hood, through the small town of Prineville and through the Ochoco National Forest. Our final destination was a very secluded camp spot on the John Day River, which would be our cycling base for the next couple of days and also put us within ten miles of some of the most scenic gravel roads in and around Painted Hills National Park.

But before setting up camp, we decided a thorough tour by bike was in order, or at least as thorough as we could get on the first afternoon.

Rock Talk

If you’ve never been to this area, whether you have a predisposition for geology or not, we would highly recommend it. Otherworldly in its appearance, the Painted Hills received their name from the stratifications in the dirt. The yellow, gold, and red hues can change daily based off of light and moisture levels. The different layers and colors were formed when the area was an ancient river floodplain and correlate to different geological eras, millions of years ago.

Gravel abounds

Geologic predilections aside, the real reasons for our trip were the dirt and gravel roads through and around the park, which made for some pretty spectacular riding and exploring. If you do happen to visit, just make sure you stay off (riding, touching, etc.) the protected hills!

Ten miles up the road from our camp we found a pristine gravel road where we were able to access the Painted Hills before heading back in the opposite direction along the John Day River. The Painted Hills area isn’t huge, but the surrounding area abounds with remote roads begging for exploration.

Camp shootout

At the conclusion of our rides we went for well deserved swims and clean-ups in the river before spending some quality time with the bb gun—which we picked up in Prineville on the way over— and tested our marksmanship while shooting at empty beer cans. There was heated discussion over who earned the unofficial title of expert sharpshooter, so we will have to keep better track on our next trip.

Night moves

Our camp was positioned on a bend in the John Day River, and within walking distance of some great fly fishing. Night fall led to exploration with headlamps, long exposure shots, and tall tales around the camp fire. The lights built into our Big Agnes tents provided a nice, glowing backdrop to our campsite.


The following morning began with a big breakfast at camp before gearing up to ride S. Twickenham Road. Twickenhan passes through high canyons and drops down to the John Day River from Highway 207, eventually connecting back up with Burnt Ranch Road near our camp from the night before.


Before packing up and heading home, we made it up to Clarno and around a new prehistoric dig site. The ability to newly survey an area for prehistoric remains is a testament to the remoteness of said area. We also got a break from the weather, and the cool and overcast conditions from the morning were replaced with hot afternoon sun as we concluded our exploration.

No cars, no other bikes, no other people; it was a good combination of remote, quiet, and beautiful. The Painted Hills is a reminder that the great and sprawling wild west which so many of us have seen in films, but never experienced, is still out there. Put your two wheels to the dirt and go explore the frontier.