Planning an Oregon road trip? If so, the Painted Hills, Oregon’s most unique geological feature, is a must-not-miss stop along the way. Amid the high-desert scenery of the central part of the state, the Painted Hills are a series of rolling knolls, striated with vibrant colors and stunning patterns, and look more akin to the landscapes you’d expect in Utah (or maybe Mars), as opposed to the moody Pacific Northwest.
So if you want to spend a day exploring the Painted Hills in Oregon, here’s everything you need to know to make the most of your visit to this incredible place.
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Table of Contents:
- What are the Painted Hills in Oregon?
- When to visit the Painted Hills in Oregon
- What to expect when visiting the Painted Hills in Oregon
- Tips for visiting the Painted Hills in Oregon
- Where to stay when visiting the Painted Hills in Oregon
What are the Painted Hills in Oregon?
The Painted Hills, outside of the quirky town of Mitchell, is the most famous of the three sections (called “units”) of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, spread across central Oregon (the Clarno unit is 55 miles northwest of the Painted Hills and the Sheep Rock unit is located 44 miles east).
This area offers one of the world’s best and most continuous collections of geological features, including fossils, from the Tertiary Period, which spanned from about 50 million years to 5 million years ago. In fact, the fossils found here helped biologists piece together the evolution of dogs, cats, camels, and some of our other favorite furry friends today.
Each of the three units in this National Monument offer their own unique geological features, with the Painted Hills’ colorful soil and mesmerizing patterns demonstrating the changing climate from millions of years ago. The red and orange bands found in the hills represent the once tropical climate of the region, which turned more golden-hued approximately 34 to 32 millions years ago, as the area became cooler and drier.
Today, you’ll find five short and easy trails that range from 0.25 to 1.6 miles in length, weaving between these vibrant hills and offering interpretive signs explaining the science and history behind this area’s geology for your nerdy viewing pleasure.
When to visit the Painted Hills in Oregon
The Painted Hills are awesome to visit most of the year, from about April through November.
It’s one of the best things to do during the spring in Oregon (especially in April and May), with colorful wildflowers blanketing the meadows between the hills- this is when my husband, Justin, and I visited and the weather was absolutely perfect. You do have a higher chance of experiencing rain during this period, but the hills actually look their most vibrant when wet with precipitation.
The summertime is dry, hot, and sunny, with temperatures reaching their annual highs (around 85°) in July.
Fall brings cooler weather and rainier skies, which, again, can make the saturated hues of the hills pop even more.
Snow can blanket the knolls in wintertime (late November through March) – while you’ll get the Painted Hills mostly to yourself during this period, there’s a chance the snow will prevent you from seeing their spectacular colors (… which is kind of the whole point!).
In terms of the best time of the day to photograph the hills, your best bet will be visiting in the late afternoon- the soft light illuminates the brightly colored soil, without washing them out.
What to expect when visiting the Painted Hills in Oregon
You’ll likely be headed to the Painted Hills from Bend, Oregon, the closest nearby large city, which is approximately two hours southwest of the park. Even if Bend wasn’t on your initial itinerary, I’d highly recommend planning a stop here- it’s one of our favorite cities in the Pacific Northwest, packed with amazing hikes and so many excellent craft breweries.
No matter which direction you come from, you’ll enter the park from Burnt Ranch Road (admission is free!) and first pass the parking lots for the Carroll Rim Trail on your right and the Painted Hills Overlook on your left. I’d suggest first continuing on to the furthest trail back, the Red Hill Trail, and, from there, working your way forwards (each trail has its own parking lot). Not only will you be closer to the exit when you finish the last of the five trails, but you’ll be saving the most dramatic views of the Painted Ridge for last.
If five hiking trails sounds daunting to you, fear not- these are more walking pathways than hiking trails, with minimal elevation gain and a combined length of less than three miles total (I did them all in flip-flops!). Assuming you start from the back of the park and stop at each trail, you’ll do the following (this page has a helpful map):
- The Red Hill Trail (also called the Red Scar Knoll Trail) is a flat 0.25-mile trail along a dirt path that leads around a large hill, composed of red, orange, and gold clay.
- The Leaf Hill Trail actually doesn’t offer any colorful hills itself, but instead winds 0.25-miles around a section that has been extensively excavated and studied by paleontologists.
There’s interpretative signs along the way that explain some of the fossilized leaves that have been found in this area over the years- and you might even find some yourself along the way (although please remember to follow the leave no trace principles and leave what you find!). Honestly, unless you’re with a fossil enthusiast or have little kids, it’s probably okay to skip this one.
- The Painted Cove Trail is the most Instagram-famous path in the park, with a wooden boardwalk that winds through rolling crimson mounds. Even though I’ve seen this trail dozens of times on social media, I was super surprised how short it is- the trail in total is less than 0.25 miles long, with the boardwalk section only lasting for a few hundred feet.
Regardless of its length, it’s the most up-close-and-personal you can get to the hills yourself- so it’s totally worth a stop!
- The Painted Hills Overlook trail is a 0.5-mile flat trail that leads to an overlook of the Painted Ridge, some of the most dramatic formations in the area with striated hills of yellow, black, and red stretching across the landscape in front of you.
- The Carroll Rim Trail is the most challenging hike in the park (but still totally doable for beginners), totaling 1.6 miles in length and rising over 400 feet in elevation. Here, you’ll climb to Carroll Rim, a ridgeline overlooking the Painted Ridge and providing panoramic vistas of the Painted Cove, the Red Hill, and the colorful hills surrounding the park.
If you only had time to do one hike in the park, I’d probably make it this one, given its stunning views (plus the Painted Cove- it’s so short and spectacular!).
All in all, you can plan to spend about two to three hours exploring the five trails of the park, depending on how quickly you walk and how many times you stop to take photos along the way!
The one caveat to the suggested route above- if you’re in my RVing fam and driving any kind of RV in the park, you should not go past the Painted Hills Overlook parking lot due to the narrow and curvy nature of the roads.
In fact, while Justin and I visited, we passed an RV that had flipped on its side off the road shortly after that parking lot- the owners were okay, but looked like they were having a no good, very bad day. The rest of the trails are pretty spread out through the park- i.e., to walk to the next closest trail, the Painted Cove, from the overlook’s parking lot, it would be a 2.4 mile round trip journey along a narrow, dusty road without sidewalks- so it probably wouldn’t make a ton of sense to walk to them from the overlook’s parking lot.
As such, if you’re interested in seeing more of the park than just the Painted Hills Overlook and Carroll Rim Trails (which are right across the street from one another), I’d try to arrange transportation other than an RV here, if you can swing it.
Tips for visiting the Painted Hills in Oregon
So what else should you know about visiting the Painted Hills before your trip?
- There’s limited services here, other than some simple vault toilets and drinking water, available from May through September, at the picnic area by the front entrance of the park. There’s no cell service here and the official visitor’s center is almost an hour away in the Sheep Rock unit.
So come prepared- bring a big ol’ refillable bottle with plenty of water (we’re in the dry high desert, y’all!), download offline maps on your Google Maps app, and bring any other snacks or food you may need.
- This area is incredibly unique and has been linked to some important geological and evolutionary discoveries. Let’s make sure this area stays open for years to come for other visitors to enjoy by treating it with respect and following the leave no trace principles, especially:
- Travel on durable surfaces: Stay on the maintained trails that are made of durable materials, like dirt or sand and do not, under any circumstances, walk on the Painted Hills themselves. On some of the hills, you could see footprints from other visitors who had taken it upon themselves to stomp all over (and in one instance, write their initials in) the sensitive soil. Please don’t be that guy.
- Leave what you find: This area is recognized as one of the best spots to find fossils from the Tertiary Period in the United States, which is rad in a Jurassic Park-y way. That being said, if you find any during your visit, leave them where you find them– not only for future visitors to enjoy, but some of these fossils are still being used by scientists today to figure out how our world works!
- While the Painted Hills are the most popular of the units in the John Day Fossil Beds, the other two units may be worth a visit as well, especially if you’re interested in geology or fossils.
The Sheep Rock unit is the more interesting of the two, offering a visitor center with tons of educational information about the area’s fossils and several cool hikes through blue and green badlands, similar to the ones found at the Painted Hills. Due to the Clarno unit’s remoteness and limited offerings (just three trails, each that are less than 0.25 miles in length), I’d only recommend stopping here if you’ve got plenty of time in eastern Oregon on your hands or you’re super jazzed about fossils.
While you could theoretically explore all three units in one day, I’d recommend limiting yourself to two- even the Painted Hills themselves are fairly remote and a visit to all three would mean you’d wind up spending more time in the car than actually out exploring!
Plus, if you’re willing to drive a bit, there’s SO much to see and do in this part of Oregon, from Smith Rock State Park, one of the 7 Wonders of Oregon, to Crater Lake National Park and the incredible Umpqua Hot Springs.
- If you don’t have time to go to any other units other than the Painted Hills, it’s at least worth making a quick stop in the unique town of Mitchell, located just 10 miles from the park.
The town, which retains some of its old Wild West buildings from the 1860’s Gold Rush, has a handful of quirky stores and restaurants, like Judy’s Place, which offers antiques and other curios, and Tiger Town Brewing Co., a locally owned brewery with live music and movies nights in the summer.
Justin and I stopped in the latter and were delighted not only by their tasty beer, but also that a town with a population of 142 had a restaurant with vegan options!
Where to stay when visiting the Painted Hills in Oregon
As mentioned above, I’d highly recommend doing the Painted Hills as a day-trip from the charming town of Bend, Oregon (Bend fangirl, here!) and booking a stay at the Oxford Hotel. This stylish boutique hotel offers views of the Cascade Mountains and is conveniently located within walking distance to some of the city’s best breweries and restaurants- plus there’s a hot tub!
Or if you’re more of a budget traveler, consider the Bunk and Brew, a funky hostel that leans into Bend’s beer scene. You’ll get a beer upon check in, there’s a food truck in the backyard and fun weekly events, like ski movie night, and a brand new sauna to relax in (you know, after all that tough “hiking” in the Painted Hills).
Alternatively, if you’re interested in camping near the Painted Hills, there’s some awesome Bureau of Land Management land right outside the park, where you can camp for free, like the Burnt Ranch Road Dispersed Camping or Sutton Mountain Dispersed Camping.
Most of the camping in this area is for dry-campers, but if you prefer to camp with hook-ups, check out the no-frills Crook County RV Park. At $40 per night for full hook-ups, it’s a much more affordable option than others located in Bend and while nothing fancy, it offers clean restrooms and friendly camp hosts.
The Painted Hills in Oregon are such a special gem and I hope you have the best time exploring them. Are there any tips I missed about visiting them? Let me know in the comments below.