The Painted Hills are a truly bizarre and alien-looking landscape in Eastern Oregon.
Rust, sand, tan, and grassy colored layered hills, scarlet scared slopes and charming old-time towns dotted in between—The Painted Hills are a must-visit when you’re on this side of the state.
While this post is all about The Painted Hills, make sure to check out everything you can see at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument as there are two other wonderful units here.
The Painted Hills in the John Day Fossil Bed National Monument
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. Millions of years of history are revealed in the layers of earth, 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. The stripes show a series of climate changes throughout history, while the rock also contains many fossils of leaves from 30 to 39 million years ago.
The colors and hills were formed over 35 million years ago by many volcanic eruptions and changing climate patterns. Layers of ash and soil mixed with mineral and plant matter, coupled with erosion, formed the hills that we see today.
The Painted Hills are stunning no matter what time of day you visit, but in the late afternoon, the light hits them in such a way, making them best to photograph at this time. Every rainstorm will intensify the colors greatly, with the bands of red and orange dotted with splashes of gold.
The windswept typography has sculpted smooth curves into the multicolored rock, which helps to add to the area’s beauty. 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. In fact, many come from Bend just for the day and are able to see the entire Painted Hills Unit. But you won’t make it to the other two in the John Day Fossil Beds (Clarno and Sheep Rock).
Hikes to Do At The Painted Hills
There are five trails in the Painted Hills Unit of the monument, each with a different starting point 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. Each path has its parking area and is well marked. There are several spots along the way where you can stop and appreciate the views, plus a few benches.
Overlook Trail – 0.5 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 Trail – 1.6 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.
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 Trail – 0.25 mile round trip, easy – Leaf HIll is perfect for those with interest in the fossils of the area. The area was once a deciduous hardwood forest, 30 million years ago. This area of land is one that has been extensively studied by paleontologists 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.
Things to Do at The Painted Hills
Painted Hills Scenic Bikeway – Cycling along the Painted Hills Scenic Bikeway offers a whole day’s worth of stunning scenery. The road is very popular with cyclists who come for the hard climbs but then thrilling descents. There are 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.
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. It shows off the stunning hills and dramatic landscape, and shouldn’t be missed on any trip to the fossil beds.
Fossil – The town of Fossil is just a short drive away, where there are a few interesting places to stop. The Oregon Paleo Lands Center and Gallery offers the chance to see a range of fossils and is an exciting pit stop.
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. Ideal if you are not a hiker, it still gives you lots of great views with little to no effort.
Visit the Town of 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, plus White Butte and Black Butte are both visible in the distance.
This is a popular stop-off point for visitors to the Painted Hills thanks to the restaurants, hotel, and camping facilities. Every Labor Day weekend, the town is host to the colorful and fun Painted Hills Festiva, where you can step back in time and enjoy this old fashioned event.
Stop in at Tiger Town Brewing for a quick beer and bit 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.
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 pack.
- When you are in the Painted Hills, the facilities and services are very limited, so make sure you have snacks and quite a bit of additional 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.
- 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 are 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.
- 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.
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, so you don’t get burnt.
- 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.
- Don’t forget to read our full guide on the John Day Fossil Beds, there are two more units to see aside from the Painted Hills.