Central Oregon A Photographer’s Dream Route

Painted Hills panorama

Just when you think you have seen it all by sheer luck you find an incredible new road virtually unknown to the general public. Just outside of Bend, Oregon located in Central Oregon is a road that took us by surprise. It’s a photographer’s dream! We planned on visiting the Painted Hills a colorful sandy mountainous area layered in deep reds, gold and yellow colors. A very rare geological wonder that is hard to find anywhere else in the world.


Map of the Fossil Beds Loop which I now call the photographer's dream route

A map of the route we took than I now call “The Photographers Dream Route”.


We knew it was going to be a long day so with the alarm set for 6 a.m. we were off and running. A short drive from Bend along Highway 97 is Smith Rock. This well known and rock climbers paradise stands like a sentry overlooking the high desert. The crags of the rock give character to this park as you walk the small trail above for a grand view. For a longer trek with a little more effort take the trail to the bottom of the small canyon along the Crooked River. We didn’t have enough time but if you are a hiker you could spend the whole day hiking trails at Smith Rock.


The rock climbing face of Smith Rock

The rock climbing face of Smith Rock


Smith Rock Oregon

The upper trail at Smith Rock.


Entrance to Smith Rock in Oregon

Grand View as you are driving to the entrance.


Backside of Smith Rock near Bend Oregon

And we almost got a reflection shot on the way back to the highway. We could have sat there all day admiring the view of Smith Rock!


Back onto Highway 97 we drove to Madras. Taking the winding almost uninhabited road to Antelope we only saw 2 other cars along the way. Once a small historic pioneering village in the ’1980’s Antelope made headlines when Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh over took the town with his cult followers. Thousands infiltrated the area and ran out families who had been there for generations. Antelope was a popular stagecoach stop for travelers making their way to the Columbia River. That was until the Columbia Southern Railway started service around 1900. At one time Antelope had a population of thousands but today there are only about 46 people living there permanently. Talking to “Fred” a local resident I asked if there are any original families living there at this time. He said unfortunately only one is left. She is a 96 year old lady who purchased her house back after Rajneesh left. She actually lives in the room she was born in to this day.


Antelope garage in Oregon

False store front garage, one of the few remaining historic buildings here.


Original church built in 1897 at Antelope Oregon

Built in 1897 the Antelope church still has services to this day with a regular attendance of about 20.


Old shacks in Antelope Oregon

A few of the outbuildings still left in town.


Old building in Antelope Oregon

My favorite structure in town is where they created the newspaper for the area. Its small but for its time it packed a punch!


Antelope and the Palisades a photographer’s dream

After an hour walking around the old town and talking with the friendly locals we hopped in the car to continue our journey. This is where it got really good! About 15 minutes from Antelope we came around a bend in the road and were hit by the most incredible rock formations anywhere. It was so great I yelled at John “Stop the car now!”. We were almost speechless at the beauty and intriguing sight. Craggy towering rock spires stretching up into the perfectly blue sky had us undone. Evidently the few other travelers on this road had the same experience. Everyone stopped in the small parking area and started climbing up the rocks to have a look. The trail may have taken all of 10-15 minutes but I just had to make the climb. The Palisades at the Clarno have this amazing way of looking like faces are etceched into the rocks if you look carefully. John on the other hand saw some old wooden buildings across the road and decided to venture out that way instead. Meanwhile talking to the other climbers we enjoyed sharing our thoughts and out of the 7 other cars only one was Oregon. Six out of the seven were from California and all were in Oregon to find land to buy. Due to the drought and over population they are all moving to Oregon. The other couple were from Japan and wanted to get a glimpse of the Wild, Wild West!


The Palisades Clerno Unit fossilized mountains in Central Oregon

This is what we saw as we rounded the curve. It was totally unexpected!


The Palisades Clerno unit in Central Oregon

We almost thought we were in New Mexico with this kind of rock formations. On top of that we had a beautiful spring day to enjoy this outing.


Interestingly as John was checking out the old homesteads from the mid 1800’s he found the doors were open and all that the residents had owned were still in the homes completely intact. This area has a few remnants left from the past sheep herding days.

Remnants of an old western homestead in Oregon

Rustic, historic and beautiful all at the same time


Remnants of an old western homestead in Oregon

Bigger than we thought!


Remnants of an old western homestead in Oregon

Its so pretty I had to post another shot.


We found this drive is part of the John Day Fossil Beds with 3 separate sections referred to as “units”. This one here at the Palisades is named the Clarno Unit. You can find fossils with feathers, shells even some prehistoric bones if you have the time to explore. The second is the Sheep Rock Unit where millions of years of ash and particles create green rock formations. And finally the Painted Hills Unit, again millions of years creating layers of earth with reddish, blacks and golden tones. Definitely a photographer’s dream!

Up the road a couple minutes is an old sheep herding station. The corrals for the sheep are made out of tall thin tree stalks. The pioneers of the time had to use whatever wood they could find as the ride to town by horse and wagon could take a couple days. The view from the station of the rugged half butte is what you expect of the old west. You can imagine the hard working farmer’s fixing fence with sheep spread out throughout the deep valley.


Historic old sheep station in the middle of a desert mountain range with an old wooden barn and mesa mountain behind

Never saw anything like this before. The fences were tall, old tree branches with shabby bark still peeling off the wood. Its hard to believe they would hold a herd of sheep.


Remnants of an old western homestead in Oregon

Its hard to tell from this photo but the fence was about 10 feet high. Can sheep really jump that high?


The town of Fossil is a short drive from there. Its not a large town with maybe about 500 residents. We stopped long enough to take a quick look. The buildings have old time rustic charm with a few restaurants and shops. What put this place on the map is the ancient fossils you can find here, hence the name of the town. To see what they have dug up visit the high school for the small museum of interesting artifacts.

From Fossil its about a 1 hour drive to our next stop Mitchell. The time went by quickly though with pine trees and rugged mesa’s leading the way. Again we had an unplanned “WOW” factor as we came around a bend in the road and saw another crag formation but this time it was green. Never before have we seen green mountains! This is not an unusual sight in this area though, at Sheep Rock the layers of blueish-green hues dominate the landscape. Why you might ask? With millions of years of volcanic ash as the sediment layered it created this colorful strata. Although we didn’t have time to make it to Sheep Rock if you have two days in this area it would give you plenty of time to visit. There are some wonderful hikes along this range. The fossil beds here have found evidence of Woolly Mammoth’s and Saber Tooth Tigers. As ridiculous as it sounds rhinoceros bones have been found here too.


Not too far off the road to Mitchell

Not too far off the road to Mitchell


Sheep Rock near John Day in Oregon

This is the first time we ever laid eyes on a rocky green hillside. Very unique as it could be another photographer’s dream destination.



Arriving into Mitchell was like going back to the 1900’s. False store fronts with old equipment straddled along the small road. The town is very tiny but due to its close location to the Painted Hills it stays busy. When you talk about the old west this town was the perfect example, saloons, houses of ill repute, and a livery stable. As a stage coach stop gold miners would come here to replenish their supplies and have a day of drunken revelry. Today Mitchell is the gateway to the Painted Hills and draws small crowds throughout the year. What really makes Mitchell is the hotel, its a great stopping point if you decide you want to take your time touring this route.


Mitchell Stage Stop in Mitchell, Oregon

The Mitchell Stage Stop. This historic building is now a small deli and gift shop. As you can see the Mitchell Hotel is right next door.


The Painted Hills

Finally the reason we took this trip, the Painted Hills. With camera’s ready we drove the few miles to the sight. Taking a small road with a few teaser’s of painted hills along the way we were amused with the loose cattle and calves we had to drive around. One little calf was quite curious as to what were those human beings doing inside that car?


Painted Hills in Oregon

This is the view from the road of the first Painted Hill. Peeking at it as we drove by it looks like a 6 toed giants foot!


Dirt road to the Painted Hills in Oregon

These are only a few of the cows alongside the road. You can see him very well but the white calf ahead of us was the curious one.


Passing by the ranger station a skinny dirt road takes you to the first and probably most photographed spot for the Painted Hills. It was busy so we parked along the road and walked up to the trail. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was surprised that these hills were more sandy than rock. You could see footprints of animals who climbed up the smaller ones and hiker prints where they should not have gone.

The hills were smooth with rounded peaks and domes. It looks like someone painted red and brown pin stripes throughout the landscape.


Painted Hills near Mitchell Oregon

Our first glimpse of the Painted Hills. There are benches along the trail for those who can’t walk too far or photographer’s who forgot their tripods. Bench backs work very well in these instances!


Springtime at the Painted Hills in Oregon

Spring flowers were a nice addition to the otherwise arid landscape.


The Painted Hills Painted Cove trail in Oregon

It looks surreal as you walk along the Painted Hills Nature Path. It’s only a 1/4 mile walk and very easy.


The Painted Cove Trail at the Painted Hills in Oregon

Even these pictures don’t show how vibrant these small hills really are. This was our favorite area in the Painted Hills.


The Painted Hills was enjoyable and took about an hour or so to see what we wanted. The drive took us about 10 hours for the whole day. We left from Bend then returned to Redmond for the night. We would have stayed in Prineville but the hotels were sold out for the night and traveling with a dog makes it difficult to find a room last minute. Other than hotels, gas and food this route is completely free. We carried our Oregon State Parks parking pass just in case but never had a need for it.

This “dream” route was one of our favorite drives of all time. And our question is, after living in Oregon for over 25 years why did we not know about this exotic little gem?






  1. Beautiful photos! I need to get back to Oregon. The state has so much to offer beyond the coast which is the only part I have been.

    • Thank you! Can’t go wrong with a visit to the coast! Oregon is one of those states that has just about every kind of landscape imaginable. There really is so much more to offer travelers than expected. Hope you make it back sometime soon!

  2. Awesome photos of the amazing landscapes. I dig the rustic buildings too. Still have to make it out to Oregon though.

  3. Great photos! There’s so many hidden gems tucked into American states. I love just setting off in the car and stumbling upon these wonders!

  4. I’ve lived in Portland for a few years but haven’t yet made it out to central Oregon! Looks like there’s a lot to see! Beautiful pictures.

    • Thanks Maggie! You will love central Oregon and its not that far from you either. We found so many beautiful sights there. turn down a small dirt road it can take you to a waterfall, lake, unexpected caves or historic homestead. You never know what’s around the next curve.

  5. Oh wow! That IS pretty! I love, love LOVE the abandoned buildings! I’m a bit of an abandoned building connoisseur 😛

    Crystal recently posted… How to Kill a Man with Your Bare Hands

  6. This is so pretty! I would love to visit oregon!

  7. Wow! This is absolutely incredible, and I never knew we had painted hills like the ones I always see photos of from South America! Oregon is extremely high on my list of places to visit in the U.S. A friend recently moved to Eugene so I want to go visit for a couple weeks.

  8. Oregon is one state I have yet to visit and there is so much to see there. Your pics are beautiful ! Love all the beaten path gems, my kinda road trips!

  9. Looks very beautiful! Every photography’s dream 😀

  10. I can see why this is your dream route! So much to see and so diverse! Beautiful.

    • If you are a person who gets bored easily then this route is a dream route. No time to get bored on this “dream” drive! Perfect for all photographers with so much beauty.

  11. These photos want me to visit Oregon right now. What an amazing landscape and perfect for a road trip. Can’t wait to get there. My husband and I are planning to do the Panamericana in a couple of years. Really looking forward exploring the US. Such a beautiful country.

    • That would be an incredible trip taking the Pan-American Highway. With so much to see and all the different cultures I would think it would be life changing! Looking forward to following you through all your adventures and travels!

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