Travelogue Oregon: The challenge of the Painted Hills

Stiff climbs, lonely roads and breathtaking (and colorful) geologic wonders

Travel Oregon
The 67-mile Mitchell-Service Creek Loop starts and ends in the sleepy hamlet of Mitchell, Oregon.

The 67-mile Mitchell-Service Creek Loop starts and ends in the sleepy hamlet of Mitchell, Oregon (click to enlarge).

Editor’s Note: This post is courtesy of Travel Oregon.

There was barely a soul stirring when I rolled into the tiny hamlet of Mitchell, Oregon, on a damp Tuesday morning. With no cell service, I had to rely on traditional methods of figuring out what the weather was going to do — ask a local. It’d been pouring all morning, and no one likes starting a ride in the rain.

With 67 miles and more than 7,000 feet of climbing through some extremely remote terrain, my time on the Mitchell-Service Creek Loop was looking to be a soggy journey. But I played the waiting game for a couple hours, and by noon the skies began to clear. Time to roll. But not before packing an arsenal of just-in-case gear.

On Highway 207 to Service Creek, you’ll rarely see more than a handful of cars.

On Highway 207 to Service Creek, you’ll rarely see more than a handful of cars (click to enlarge).

I climbed away from Mitchell on Highway 207, also known as the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway because it cuts a path through ancient rock formations.

For anyone who loves long, peaceful days on a road bike, the Mitchell-Service Creek Loop is a must. Endless views of colorful rock formations offer a stunning visual tale of the Earth’s history. But make sure to bring your climbing legs. There’s a lot of uphill pedaling on this ride.

After a steady climb through high desert dotted with juniper trees, the landscape gave way to verdant ranchland where cattle graze. Around mile 10 you pass the turnoff for Girds Creek Road, the return route that makes the Mitchell-Service Creek ride more lollipop than loop. Fifteen miles in and I’d counted three cars. On the gently winding Donnely Grade descent to the John Day River, the road was mine alone.

The Donnely Grade descent on Highway 207 takes you to the John Day River.

The Donnely Grade descent on Highway 207 takes you to the John Day River (click to enlarge).

After descending into a deep rocky canyon, I hit the flattest part of the ride, the bridge across the John Day River at Service Creek. The only other flat section was another couple hundred feet of bridge that crosses the John Day at Twickenham during the return leg. Otherwise, this ride trends up or down. The good news is that the climbs are never too steep. The bad news is they go on for what seems like eternity. From Service Creek, I made a left on Highway 19 and climbed about a dozen miles and nearly 2,000 feet toward the Butte Creek Summit at just under 4,000 feet in elevation. Service Creek Lodge sits at the base of this climb, making it a great place to refuel before the big effort.

The palate of colors along Rowe Creek Road is stunning, especially on an overcast day.

The palate of colors along Rowe Creek Road is stunning, especially on an overcast day (click to enlarge).

This long, gradual incline provided plenty of time to appreciate the surrounding geologic wonder. The towering cliffs of ancient rock reminded me of Colorado’s Western Slope, a world apart from the first 10 miles, which resemble the endless ranchlands of the Sierra Nevada foothills west of Yosemite.

After nearly an hour of steady climbing into an alpine forest, I made a left on Rowe Creek Road and was rewarded with an equally long and gradual descent back to the John Day River in Twickenham. The vistas were again stunning thanks to a broad color palate of red, beige, orange, green and even violet courtesy of the blooming roadside flowers.

The Mitchell-Service Creek Loop ride crosses the John Day River twice.

The Mitchell-Service Creek Loop ride crosses the John Day River twice (click to enlarge).

The next eight miles up Girds Creek Road back to Highway 207 was my favorite part of the ride, winding up a narrow canyon lined with ancient, moss-laden rock that towers several thousand feet above the road.

Girds Creek Road climbs through a tight canyon.

Girds Creek Road climbs through a tight canyon (click to enlarge).

When I wasn’t staring in awe at the rock formations, I was daydreaming about the frozen pizza and beer waiting for me back at the RV. When the daydream was over, I found myself still climbing, so I daydreamed about how good a hot shower was going to feel. When I was done with that daydream, I was still grunting uphill so I started daydreaming about reaching the top of the mountain and how damn good it was going to feel. But even after that daydream, I was still climbing. Eventually my daydream turned into reality, and was rewarded with an extended descent back into Mitchell.

After 11 miles of climbing out of Girds Creek, the route crests verdant grasslands before descending the final half dozen miles into Mitchell.

After 11 miles of climbing out of Girds Creek, the route crests verdant grasslands before descending the final half dozen miles into Mitchell (click to enlarge).

Bottom line, the Mitchell-Service Creek Loop is a challenging day on the bike. There are two stiff climbs, and the downhills are so gradual you still have to pedal to maintain speed. But if you’re not in a hurry – which you shouldn’t be – the descents are perfect for sightseeing. Traffic is light, and with long sight lines, you can literally see cars coming a mile away. If you do see one, wave to the driver. They’ll usually wave back.

An optional dirt road route passes the Painted Hills, part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

An optional dirt road route passes the Painted Hills, part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (click to enlarge).

For those seeking extra adventure and who are not afraid of a little dirt-road riding, cross the John Day River in Twickenham, then go right onto unpaved South Twickenham Road. After about five miles, turn left on Burnt Ranch Road. This sends you right past the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, home to the beautifully colored ancient mounds of earth known as the Painted Hills.

Check out this summer’s 7 Bikes for 7 Wonders scavenger hunt. We’re hiding seven custom-made bikes around Oregon for someone to find and ride. For full details and rules, please visit traveloregon.com/7bikes7wonders. To learn more about the state and all it has to offer, check out TravelOregon.com.

Photo Thumbnails (click to enlarge)
About the author: Kurt Gensheimer

Kurt Gensheimer thinks the bicycle is man’s most perfect invention. He firmly believes ‘singlespeed’ is a compound word. He sometimes wears a disco ball helmet. He is also known as Genshammer. He is a Gemini and sleeps outside in a hammock.


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