Camp for free: The Painted Hills

Have you ever driven east on the 84 past Hood River…past the Dalles…and just kept going?It’s vast, and open and there’s suddenly a peace of mind that comes over you, asyou drive down the open road with nothing in view. The dirt reaches up until it fades into the blue skies, and large wind mills speckle the hills as they roll by.
A few weekends ago, we packed up the Jeep and headed out for a weekend inEastern Oregon to see the Painted Hills and the John Day Fossil Beds. We took I-84 E for about an hour, just past the Dalles. It was here where we veered East on exit 97, and headed towards the 206. The scenery changed drastically from the flowing river and foggy forests of the gorge, to the dry terrain that blankets the hills as you head east through the wind farms.


30 minutes in on the 206 we came across a view point where you can see all 5 mountain ranges from one spot. It took my breath away. Shortly after this stop someone had to pee… again! So, we stopped at this abandoned house near Condon, Oregon to checkout the rickety building and take a bathroom break. With the sweet grass rustling in the wind, blue skies and clouds floating by it was hard not to be distracted and stay a while; but alas, we found ourselves on the road again heading South on the19-John Day highway towards Priest Hole Campground.



Less than an hour or so from our destination we turned down a dirt road towards the river. The road turned into a wide and windy single-laned adventure. It was gorgeous! The road began to wind through the tree-covered hills and the landscape quickly transformed into farmland and homesteads. I was starting to wonder if we had gone the wrong way. In the midst of my wonderings, we found a group of kind bike riders who were also enjoying the road. They calmed our worries of misdirection and assured us we were heading the right way, save for the lack of signs and people. Don’t be fooled by the vastness of the area, it is indeed exactly what you always hope for.

Tree-covered hills turned to desert like vegetation as we crossed over the John Day River on a tiny little bridge onto Twickenham Rd. Once you get to the end of where the GPS will take you, just carry on a bit further where you will finally see some signs for the Priest Hole Campground along the John Day River. Follow the dirt road to your right. You will go through a camp where there are several RVs which house local workers. Keep straight past the camp and you’ll find a nice, quiet spot along the river to setup camp. By this point you can see some painted hills in the distance across theriver, which is just a taste of what you will find at the National Monument. If there are no spots open there are a few other campgrounds that are free just down the river. To reach these, head back up to the road where you turned off for priest hole and make a right onto Twickenham Bridge Cutoff Rd, this is also the road that leads you to the Painted Hills Monument.
The riverside camp we chose was remote and beautiful…like a cove with a tiny little beach. It sat adjacent to beautiful basalt canyon walls and even further in the distance the painted hills. Even though free, this campground didn’t disappoint, it still had a vault toilet you could utilize about a half mile back towards the turnoff where Priest Hole Campground began. There is no running water besides the lovely river, so bring plenty of potable water for cleaning dishes, cooking, and drinking of course.
We had the opportunity to build a large fire on thehills edge, where we overlooked the beach and river that flows past. It was an excellent, long, pre-summer evening; where the wind died as soon as the sun dipped behind the hills and cool spring air fell on us like a soothing blanket after a hot and sweaty day.
IMG_1317.JPGIMG_1341The next morning we packed up camp bright and early while the air was still crisp and refreshing, and headed down the road to the Painted hills monument. We stopped at the Painted Hills overlook, the Painted Cove and Red Hill. These were three separate hikes. The first 2 were relatively short so we just snapped some photos and took in the beautiful colors. Painted Cove was by far my favorite with a beautiful boardwalk to protect the area from being trampled by tourists and would-be adventurers.


We decided to take a more picturesque route home through the Ochoco National Forest, the Warm Springs Reservation, and lastly, Mt. Hood National Forest. It was a gorgeous drive home: treelined highways, sun beams that glistened through the pines onto my face, and a slightly warm breeze with notes of jerky and camp fires wafting into my nose… I couldn’t of been any happier that day.


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