A Natural Wonder: The Painted Hills, Oregon

The Painted Hills

The Painted Hills [photo: Portland Monthly Magazine.]

Every so often, Nature throws something at us that looks more like art than nature. The Painted Hills in the USA are one such location. The hills are made up from numerous different coloured layers that formed in a river floodplain about 40 – 50 million years ago. It is part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in the state of Oregon. The astonishing range of colours seems to change with the time of day and the weather. These rocks are very soft and easily eroded, meaning that plants just cannot become established, leaving the area bare of vegetation.

The painted hills are full of fossils of vertebrates including prehistoric horses, early elephants and rhinos, camels, sabre-toothed tigers and crocodiles roaming amongst a dense tropical forest against a background of volcanoes. The layers are coloured black, grey, red and yellow. The black layers are lignite, a type of soft coal that has been formed from the peat created as the dense vegetation died and partially rotted. The grey layers are formed from mudstones and shales that were laid down as the area was periodically covered by the sea. The main colours are reds and yellows, these represent the soil that was formed from volcanic ash.

Taught science for 16 years at a secondary school in the East Midlands.