Your Guide to Exploring The Painted Hills—Oregon's Most Alien Landscape
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The Painted Hills: Oregon’s Most Alien Landscape

The Painted Hills are a truly bizarre and alien-looking landscape in Eastern Oregon.

With rust, sand, tan, and grassy-colored layered hills, scarlet scarred slopes, and charming old-time towns dotted in between, the Painted Hills is a must-visit when you’re on this side of the state.


Get our curated list of the best adventures, things to do, and places to grab a brew loaded onto your maps with just two clicks!

About The Painted Hills

The Painted Hills is arguably the most popular unit in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and as soon as you lay eyes on it, you will realize why thousands of people make the trip every year.

The layers of the earth reveal millions of years of history, one color at a time. This area is distinguished by the vibrant hues of orange, black, tans, and red that ‘paint’ the hills in a series of stripes.

Another hiking trail in the Painted Hills.
As you can see, the Painted Hills is a beautiful place to explore.

The views change throughout the seasons, with spring being popular for its stunning display of yellow and purple wildflowers.

The Painted Hills unit covers 3132 acres, so you should be able to cover this one unit all in one day.

Note that while one day is enough for Painted Hills, you’ll need more time if you want to make it to the other two units in the John Day Fossil Beds (Clarno and Sheep Rock).

READ MORE: Your Guide to The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Things to Do at Painted Hills

1. Go For a Hike

There are five trails in the Painted Hills Unit of the monument, each with a different starting point and its own parking area along the main road that winds its way through the hills.

All the trails are relatively short but will give you some great views of the hills and vibrant colors.

A map of the Painted Hills.
Use this map to guide you around the Painted Hills.

Overlook Trail0.5 miles round trip, easy – This trail covers 0.5 miles and is relatively flat the whole way. The short path offers sweeping vistas of the surrounding hills, with plenty of opportunities for photos.

Carroll Rim Trail1.6 miles round trip, medium difficulty – This is the longest trail in this area of the monument. However, it is still easily walkable. There is a climb of 400 feet, so it may not be suitable for everyone, but the climb will be worth it for the panorama of the Painted Hills once you reach the summit. There is a bench at the end, so you can rest your feet and take in the views for longer.

Red Scar Knoll Trail – 0.25 mile round trip, easy – Just 0.25 miles off the main road are hills of bright red and yellow clays. You’ll see a hill with dramatic color shifts. This is likely to be the last trail that you do as it is the furthest area of the unit, and is not very heavily trafficked.

Red Scar Knoll Trail in the Painted Hills.
Red Scar Knoll Trail in the Painted Hills.

Painted Cove Trail – 0.25 mile round trip, easy – The Painted Cove Trail takes you on a 0.25-mile roundtrip through hills of incredible color. The hues here are at some of their most vibrant, and you can get very close to some of the tinted claystone. At one point, you’ll pass over a boardwalk to protect some of the more sensitive soils. This is perhaps the easiest in all of the Painted Hills.

Leaf Hill Trail0.25 mile round trip, easy – Leaf Hill is perfect for those with an interest in the area’s fossils. 30 million years ago, the area was a deciduous hardwood forest. Paleontologists have extensively studied this area for years. Along the way, you can learn more about the history and research that has taken place here through interpretive signs and fossilized leaf exhibits.

READ MORE: 37 of the Best Oregon Hikes You’ve Got to Check Out

2. Cycle the Painted Hills Scenic Bikeway

Cycling along the Painted Hills Scenic Bikeway offers a whole day’s worth of stunning scenery.

View of the Painted Hills in Oregon

The road is very popular with cyclists who come for the hard climbs but then thrilling descents. There are also plenty of places to pull over along the road to catch a photo or two, or just take in the view.

The bikeway features a hub and spoke design, meaning there is a range of routes and loops to take depending on how long you have to enjoy the ride.

3. Check Out the Views at the Painted Hills Overlook

This is likely the most famous view of all the fossil beds, and the great thing is, it is easily accessible without having a strenuous hike to reach it.

Garrett sitting on the bench taking in the view at the Painted Hills Outlook.

It shows off the stunning hills and dramatic landscape, and shouldn’t be missed on any trip to the fossil beds.

4. Go For a Scenic Drive

The Painted Hills unit has a main road that will take you from the front of the park to Red Scar Knoll, which is the last trail.

This is an ideal activity if you are not a hiker. It still gives you lots of great views with little to no effort!

5. Make a Pit Stop in Mitchell

Located just nine miles away from the Painted Hills is the town of Mitchell, situated in a rugged but beautiful canyon. The massive formation of Mitchell Rock looms over the town, with White Butte and Black Butte visible in the distance.

The Painted Hills is nine miles from the town of Mitchell.
The town of Mitchell near the Painted Hills.

This is a popular stop-off point for visitors to the Painted Hills, thanks to the restaurants, hotel, and camping facilities.

Stop in at Tiger Town Brewing for a quick beer and bite to eat to keep you fueled for the rest of your ride. Speaking of fuel, it would be smart to fill up here since your choices are limited.

Where to Stay at the Painted Hills

Mitchell City Campground – You might not get to spend the night in the wilderness, but this campground in Mitchell makes a great base for exploring the Painted Hills. It’s a first-come-first-served situation, with 4 RV spots and an open lawn for tents.

Ochoco Divide Campground – Set in a beautiful ponderosa pine forest is the Ochoco Divide Campground, located at the summit of Ochoco Pass, close to the Painted Hills Unit. There are 28 campsites here, which are open between May and November.

Cabin at Horsecreek Ranch – this one-bedroom cabin near Prineville might look like a barn from the outside, but step inside and you’ll find all the mod cons you need for a comfortable stay. There’s also a large shaded porch for enjoying views of the ranch and surrounding Ochoco forest.

👉 Accommodation in Mitchell

READ MORE: 29 Awesome Things to Do on an Eastern Oregon Road Trip

Tips for Visiting The Painted Hills

  • Keep your eye on the weather as your travel plans near, as it will give you a better idea of the sort of clothing you need to wear.
  • The facilities and services in Painted Hills are very limited, so make sure you have snacks and plenty of water with you.
  • The only restroom facilities are located at the Painted Hills overlook trailhead; there is a strict rule about not leaving the trails, so make sure you use these.
Nina standing in front of the Painted Hills in Oregon.
The Painted Hills Overlook is a great spot to take photos.
  • The main road that goes through the unit is gravel, so don’t expect your car to come out perfectly clean without a scratch on it. They are pretty well maintained, but certainly very dusty.
  • The whole of the Painted Hills is protected; therefore, damaging it in any way may be considered a felony. Be sure to pack out any trash that you bring in and do not remove anything you find in the park. One more time—DON’T wander off the trails either!
  • The best photography opportunities are going to happen in the afternoon or evening, as you won’t be getting the glare from the sun. Colors are especially vibrant after a heavy rain shower.
  • It is free to visit The Painted Hills, but any donations would be appreciated.
  • Make sure your car is full of gas when you visit, as there won’t be anywhere to fill up in the unit. Mitchell is the closest gas station.
A hiking trail in the Painted Hills.
One of the many bizarre landscapes on the hiking trails.

Packing List For The Painted Hills

  • Sunhat, sunglasses, and sunblock – The Painted Hills can get very hot, and due to the nature of the environment, there is minimal shade. Pack your sun protection!
  • Water – This should be essential, and make sure you pack a lot of it as there are few places to pick some up while in the park. This is especially important if you plan on doing lots of hiking.
  • Camera – The Painted Hills are one of the most beautiful sites in Oregon, so you are not going to want to forget your camera.
  • Hiking Shoes – Although the trails are relatively short, a good pair of hiking shoes will come in handy, especially on some of the more rocky gravel trails. 

We hope this post helped you plan an epic trip to the Painted Hills! Check out more of what eastern Oregon has to offer and other fun adventures in Oregon.

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