Priest Hole

5 Star Route / Published May 2013

This is a 5 Star Route, meaning that it is a highly curated, premier riding route.

Looking for a numinous (adjective: having a strong religious or spiritual quality; indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity)connection to nature on one of the top gravel rides in Oregon? Then head to the Painted Hills for the Priest Hole ride, which is not about a father getting into trouble, but is a gravel bike loop from the Painted Hills park to the Priest Hole primitive camping area. It includes a divine climb on gravel … a heavenly paved downhill that cuts through a deep canyon … glorious farmland …. two water holes for taking a dip in and an an angelic ridge that takes you above Priest Hole. And a devious ending … with a few popper hills along the river and rolling uphill to finish off the journey.

For the EXTRA CREDIT you can take a tour of the Painted Hills which is always spectacular. (For us that never happens as we are whipped from the ride and end up straight back at the cars without even enough energy to DRIVE the extra distance. But we are sure that YOU will have the extra energy. Good luck with that!)

Adventure / Gravel Route

Loop: 42 miles / 3500 ft gain
– Surface: 2 gravel sectors, 19.5 miles total
Technical Difficulty: Moderate
Tire Size (recommended minimum): 40mm
eBike Friendly: Yes
– Location: Mitchell, Oregon

Strava | GPX file | Cue Sheet | Legend

When we like to ride this …

Spring and Fall. (May and early June is best for flowers.)

The Start

Painted Hills picnic area.  Pit toilets, no water. From Highway 20, take Burnt Ranch road north 5.4 miles, turn left onto into Painted Hills area, go 0.2 miles and turn left again into the picnic area.
Lat / Long: 44.6545, -120.2518

Terrain & Riding: What to expect …

Beautiful hills that explode with color. Ranchlands. Vista views of the John Day River.

The ride is deceptively more difficult than most anticipate. The first 25 miles go by quickly, but a majority of those miles are on pavement. The one gravel sector is usually hard-packed and fast. From mile 25 it is mostly gravel and dirt roads where the riding is more demanding with pitches up to 10%. The last 5 miles look flat but are not, there is a slight incline 1 to 2%. This section can be the crux of the day for some!

Difficulty[what this means]

  • Technical Difficulty: Moderate
    Intermediate. Due to length and some short steep pitches (15+ %) coming out of Priest Hole / John Day river.
  • Navigation: Moderate
    There are not a lot of turns on the ride but knowing which turn cues are important.
  • Locale: Rural
    There is little to no traffic along the way.

Highlights & Anchor Points

John Day Fossil Beds: Painted Hills / ~ Start of Route

The John Day Fossil Beds are made up three separate units: Clarno, Painted Hills, and Sheep Rock. The Painted Hills is the most visited. The red and tan colors of the Painted Hills are composed of fossil soils from deciduous forests over 33 million years ago. These soils are very fragile (so please be sure to stay on the trails and Don’t Hurt the Dirt!) There are five small trails (0.25 miles to 1.3 miles) to hike and see more viewpoints of the surrounding area. Different times of the day and seasons can bring out different tones in the soils but the afternoons are best lit for photography as well as wildflowers in the Spring. [National Park Service]

Cow Crossings / ~ mile 3

As soon as you turn out of the picnic area and onto the paved road, there is often a lot of cattle nearby. Many of them also cross the pastures and are sometimes in the roadway. Use caution.

Gravel Climb / ~ mile 5.6

The first main sector begins around mile 5.6. You will begin the climb right out of the gate!

Climbing the Hat / ~ mile 11

Around mile 11 you will continue climbing for ~4 more miles but a bit more gradual and on paved road. Watching the climb profile on the bike computer made this section look like we were climbing a witch hat! Up/down with a pointy top (but we promise it is not very pointy on bike.)

Descending Through the Canyons & Into Priest Hole / ~ mile 16.5

Descending on a paved road and through the canyons makes the climb worth it! You first descend on pavement then after turning onto a gravel road you will do a little bit more climbing before descending again into the Priest Hole Recreation Site. The gravel descent has some more looser, and chunkier rock in spots than earlier in the ride. It is easy to get going fast down this descent but watch out for those looser spots.

Priest Hole Recreation Site / ~ mile 32

The Priest Hole Recreation Site is open year-round for swimming, fishing, camping, and hiking. There is an outhouse available for restrooms. [Bureau of Land Management]

Food & Water


Other Notes

1) We recommend a red blinky light for the paved sections.

2) When passing cattle: (a) determine if there is a bull within the herd, if so keep your distance and use caution, (b) pass as a group, slow up your speed, and keep to the opposite side of the road. The goal is not to increase the stress of the animals and their young, something which is detrimental to their development.

Ridden and Reviewed by …

Gravel Girl / Team Dirty Freehub

She loves a good day of gravel, like most people like a good book. She’s always amused by the outdoors and the wild adventures. Gravel Girl is a Co-Founder of Dirty Freehub.

Captain O / Team Dirty Freehub

He should have “Never Stop Exploring” tattooed on his chest! He loves adventures on bikes and is a Co-Founder of Dirty Freehub.


Revision History

  • April 2022 updated to the new guide format
  • August 2018 updated
  • August 2013 originally published

Love Where You Ride!

The National Park Service asks for your help to keep the Painted Hills preserved.
  • “Keep the hills beautiful by staying on trails.
  • Protect wildlife by keeping your pets leashed and picking up after them.
  • Maintain the natural soundscape by leaving your drone at home.
  • Preserve the knowledge of the park by only taking photos of fossils.”

The Ride!


Coming soon…

Keep it Local!

Now before you go dashing back to the city life, we recommend that you consider staying at the Spoke’n Hostel which is a cyclist’s favorite just up the road in Mitchell. 

Also, check out Tiger Town Brewing for delicious post-ride fuel and drinks.

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