We travel a lot and make a point of visiting truly unique places. Oregon’s Painted Hills are truly unique among natural wonders and a must-see sight. When you visit John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, this unit will undoubtedly be the highlight.
Oregon’s Painted Hills are considered one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon. And they totally are. Visiting the Painted Hills really is a treat and it’s perfect for nearly any sort of traveler. We’re going to share with you why we love the area, best hikes, and how and when to visit the Painted Hills.
What you'll find...
- Where are Oregon’s Painted Hills
- Need to Know Before Visiting the Painted Hills
- Hiking trails at Oregon’s Painted Hills
- More of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
- Things To Do Near Oregon’s Painted Hills
- Where to stay Near Oregon’s Painted Hills
- Travel like a pro
Where are Oregon’s Painted Hills
Some might consider it Central Oregon and some might call it Eastern Oregon, but Oregon’s Painted Hills are located somewhere between the two. One of the three major units of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument the Painted Hills is a combination rolling landscape and jagged canyons. The canyons are what lead to the hills themselves, but half of the splendor and fun of exploring the area is the diversity of the geology and sites.
The closest towns to the Painted Hills unit are Mitchell, Fossil, and Prineville, Oregon. And of course Bend, Oregon is off in the distance. Mitchell, the closest to the Painted Hills and Sheep Rock Units, is the smallest of the towns. It’s a blink with only a few small shops and restaurants. Most people visiting the Painted Hills will be driving (rent a car on Discovercars.com) from Bend (so many great breweries in Bend!), but there are some options for where to stay near the Painted Hills that are closer. See below
Getting to Oregon’s Painted Hills
John Day Fossil Beds National Park is split into three main units: the sheep Rock unit which includes the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center and the Blue Basin, the Clarno unit which is known for it’s palisade rock formations, and then the Painted Hills unit. Each is worth visiting, but let’s focus on just the one for now.
Drive times to Oregon’s Painted Hills and other amazing hiking areas from nearby towns are:
|Painted Hills||Blue Basin||Clarno Unit||Smith Rock|
Need to Know Before Visiting the Painted Hills
Once you are within the Painted Hills unit the services and facilities are very limited. You will want to pack quite a bit of additional water and either a full lunch or a fair amount of snacks. If you are traveling with kids and visiting Oregon’s Painted Hills for a whole day, you better bring plenty of food. Between the heat and the hiking, even though the trails are very mild, kids are going to get hungry and thirsty fast.
The only restroom facilities are located at the Painted Hills overlook trail head. Make sure before you leave that spot, or if that’s where you are finishing, that you let everybody use the restroom. Since there are strict rules about leaving the trails, you won’t be able to pee in nature. #TheMoreYouKnow
Something else you should know before you visit the Painted Hills is that the main road going through the whole unit is gravel. If your plan is to drive a gorgeous fancy car with an impeccable paint job and come back perfectly clean with no scratches or dust you should think twice. The roads are well-maintained but they are gravel and dusty.
What makes the hills painted?
I don’t want to spoil the fun of learning as you read the different signs and placards along the trails, but the history of the area is fascinating. When you consider the colors of the Painted Hills and Blue Basin their coloration makes sense: the combination of volcanic ash, sedimentary rock, lava flows, and decayed organic matter give the Painted Hills their remarkable color. As you are hiking don’t just go past all the signs; actually take the time to read them and learn a bit.
Best Time to Visit the Painted Hills
Since the Painted Hills are in the desert / high prairie of Central Oregon, summertime can be very hot there. The best time to visit Oregon’s Painted Hills is actually in mid-spring or fall. Both times will give you better, cooler weather and with more chances of rain, you’ll get to see the Painted Hills change color with precipitation.
Another benefit of spring, which I think is the absolute best time to visit the Painted Hills, is that given the right conditions flowers will be in bloom all around the Oregon desert. While it may not be a super bloom like happens in Joshua Tree National Park or in the Palm Springs canyons, it’s beautiful and shows how full of life the desert can be.
Hiking trails at Oregon’s Painted Hills
Something very important to know before you visit the Painted Hills is that the entire area is protected. It is a part of the National Park Service and as such, damaging it is a felony or a misdemeanor. Stay on the trails, do not remove any fossils or interesting things that you find, and pack out any trash that you bring in. Do not discard of food items even though they are compostable, because that is not natural to the area and you should not teach the wildlife to eat human food.
You’ll notice signs in several places that say “don’t hurt the dirt” (#donthurtthedirt). This reminder comes from the National Park service and is exactly what we noted above: stay on the trail, don’t litter, leave the special things where you find them.
Also, because it is a National Park, the use of drones is PROHIBITED.
Painted Hills overlook trail
If you happen to visit Oregon’s Painted Hills during the rain, this might be your favorite place. The Painted Hills overlook trail is a short 1/2 Mile round trip trail with a gradual incline. There are several spots along the way that you can stop and appreciate the view and there are even benches in a couple of places.
In this area you will see one of the most striking sites of the Painted Hills: rolling hills with layers of red and yellow leading to seasonal stream beds. The view is dramatic and one of a kind.
If you have time or are able to visit the Painted Hills on different days, try to visit in the morning and in the evening. just like how impressionist artist Claude Monet painted the Rouen Cathedral at different times a day because it looked so different in every type of light, the Painted Hills change their color and depth as the light changes or when the rain falls. It’s worth making time to visit the Painted Hills overlook trail at different times.
- Trail length: ¼ mile+, very easy (1/2 mile round trip)
- Additional trail: found going the opposite direction of the Overlook Trail, the Carroll Rim trail is also easy at just 1.6 miles round trip.
When to Visit the Painted Hills Overlook Trail
Because the primary view of the red and yellow hills along the Painted Hills overlook trail is to the South, if you visit in the morning you will be getting glare from the early morning sun until it is directly overhead at noon. The best photography is going to happen afternoon and into the evening. If you are there too early the direct sunlight will wash out your images and is difficult to edit to recreate the memory of what you actually experienced.
Painted Cove Trail and Boardwalk
Wow! I keep on saying that Oregon’s Painted Hills are unique, and they truly are but the Painted Cove trail highlights what makes the Painted Hills so remarkable. The Painted Cove Trail winds through red cinder mounds and lavender ash deposits. Surrounded by yellow and gold hills with a perfect blue lake in the distance, this is one of the most colorful landscapes we’ve ever experienced.
[jaw drops to floor as I look at photos again]
The Painted Cove trail is perhaps the easiest in all the Painted Hills. Nearly the entire trail is built on a boardwalk to protect the fragile landscape and only a small portion of it is gravel. The rocky portion goes up to an overlook with a truly amazing view, but if you need a fully accessible trail or aren’t confident on the dirt trail the view from the boardwalk is beautiful as well.
- Trail length: ¼ mile loop, very easy
Photography tips in the painted cove
Because the painted cove trail is a loop you will get a variety of angles and lighting. It’s gorgeous any time of day and no matter the placement of the sun you’ll be able to create some great pictures.
Something to keep in mind when you are photographing the Painted Cove is that the down low perspective can make for more dramatic shots that really capture the color and the unique textures of the area.
Tip: be sure to check out our article on our top tips for the best travel photography. We cover in greater depth some techniques and ideas that Nate travel photography easy and awesome for anyone.
Fossil Leaf Trail at the Painted Hills
If ever there were a hiking trail on Earth to be appropriately named it is this one. The Fossil Leaf Trail takes you around another unique geologic feature: a mound dirt and shale that I swear is 80% leaf fossils. While it doesn’t initially look exciting, this is one of the more unique features of Oregon’s Painted Hills.
As you walk along the Fossil Leaf Trail if you pay attention to some of the rocks that you’re walking on or even just stare at the piles on the other side of the wooden fence, you will start to pick out small leaf fossils that are scattered all around the area.
The strangeness of this particular trail cannot compare with the previous two trails we’ve talked about. The Fossil Leaf Trail is a must stop when you visit the Painted Hills. This trail made our family think about and talk about all of the potential for fossils and unique finds all around us that we just walk past every day. It was eye-opening to walk along and get a taste of how expansive geologic time actually is.
Note: this is for sure one of the most important “don’t hurt the dirt” areas. DO NOT remove any fossils that you may find along the trail. Even though you might not be seen removing fossils is it illegal and makes it so that future visitors don’t get to discover the same sort of amazing find that you did.
- Trail length: ¼ mile loop, very easy
Red Scar Knoll trail
When you visit the Painted Hills, the Red Scar Knoll Trail, aka Red Mountain aka Red Scar Knot, is probably going to be the last trail that you do. It’s at the farthest area of the Painted Hills Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and is not heavily trafficked.
What makes the Red Scar Knoll trail so unique is its presence among a whole bunch of other plain and ordinary hills. It is literally the ONLY hill of its type in the immediate vicinity.
When you first park be sure that you get on the CORRECT trail head. There is a utility road that looks just like a larger trail to the west side of the parking area, or to the right. You want to park your car and go TO THE LEFT, or to the east. That is where you will find the trail that leads you to and around the Red Scar Knoll (or knot or mountain…).
This trail is very short and easy with the one main site being the Red Mountain. As you hike though take note of how one side of the mountain is yellow and the other is deep red. It is fascinating and is a perfect example of two buckets of paint being dumped from the heavens onto one big mound. This trail embodies all that is strange and cool about Oregon’s Painted Hills.
- Trail length: ¼ mile loop, very easy
Things to Watch for on the Red Scar Knoll Trail
The main sight on this trail is clearly the Red Mountain and you can’t miss it. Try to observe the mountain as you go around it, and watch it change colors as you circle it (like I said above). So amazing.
Tip: use a stead cam doing a time lapse as you walk around the Red Scar Knoll. You can quickly see the mountain turn from red to yellow (and visa versa).
Also, keep your eyes peeled though for wildlife such as jackrabbits and coyotes. With so few people in this part of the National Park, there is a fair amount of wildlife.
One of the most fascinating sites is very small and something you might have to specifically look for: beetle galleries. Beetle galleries can be seen on the dead tree trunks that line this trail. Unfortunately the Painted Hills have seen a lot of the old forest decimated by bark beetles. What they leave behind though are remarkable works of art carved into the trees.
More of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
Since you’ve come all this way you might as well check out at least one more colorful spot (and maybe some other points of interest). John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a very unique National Park. It’s split up into the different units which are each very unusual. Yes, Oregon’s Painted Hills are the iconic site at John Day Fossil Beds but there’s more!
Fossil History at Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center
We always stop at the Visitor Centers within National Parks. We’re sure to get stamps in our National Park Passports as well as to learn what we can about where we’re visiting. The Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center is really interesting with great exhibits about the many prehistoric animal fossils found in the area, as well as information about the Painted Hills.
Names for Thomas Condon, the first State Geologist of Oregon, the visitor center is full of hands-on learning opportunities as well as an active paleontological practice, studying the many finds around the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument area. It’s worth a stop!
Hiking the Colorful Blue Basin at John Day Fossil Beds
Pop over to the Sheep Rock Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. There are several hikes that you can do but for a totally different landscape and a totally different color palette do the Blue Basin Overlook trail or the Islands in Time trail. Here you will see the blue valleys and gulches that have been carved out over millions of years. The dirt and rocks range from a pale gray to a deep jade or in the right light, an aqua or sky blue. For the shorter hike do the Islands in Time trail. Out and back it is just over a mile and a half round trip.
Note: along the Islands in Time trail you will see some different fossil displays. These are replicas and not actual fossils that have been left in the ground. Cool for learning, but not real. Real fossils can be seen at the visitor center.
Fossil and Palisades at the Clarno Unit
A bit further away and to the north is the Clarno Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. While it may not be colorful like the Painted Hill or Blue Basin, the Palisades of the Clarno Unit are pretty neat. Huge stone walls and spires in the high prairie make for interesting hiking near Fossil, Oregon.
As you do the trails at the Clarno Unity, watch for fossils in the rocks and boulders lining the trail. There are countless examples of prehistoric plants and leaves, just sitting in plain sight. It’s nature’s scavenger hunt and is really fun to go through with kids.
Park at the trailhead of the Geologic Time Trail and do the mellow hike to the Trail of Fossils (a loop). As you hike along the Palisades watch for the Clarno Arch, a natural bridge at the top of the lava flow walls.
Things To Do Near Oregon’s Painted Hills
As you are planning your visit you’ll see that you get to drive through the Ochoco National Forest to the West or the high desert to the east. Take time to enjoy some of the sights along the way if you can. The Oregon landscape is fascinating and you might just fall in love. Between Prineville and Painted Hills, we enjoyed spending an afternoon at Ochoco Lake and also hiking the Steins Pillar trail in the National Forest.
Another fun trip, and easy to add if you’re visiting the Clarno Unity at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, is the town of Fossil, where you’ll find the Fossil Museum… to learn about and see fossils found in the area. The town also has festivals in the summer and even some cool historic architecture to check out. Heading northwest out of Fossil, you can also visit the historic ghost town of Shaniko. There’s not much there, but it’s fun and totally Old West!
Those are easy, fun things to do near Oregon’s Painted Hills that you can add to your drive back to your home base or at the end of your trip.
Make the Painted Hills a Day Trip from Bend
Bend, Oregon is one of our favorite West Coast cities. It’s that perfect combination of Oregon cool and nature enthusiast heaven. There are many different day trips you can do out of Bend including the Newberry Volcanic Monument (obsidian hiking), you can also go on a LavaTube Cave tour and enjoy both panoramic views and an exciting underground environment or Smith Rock State Park (which we love!), and of course Oregon’s Painted Hills.
If you are staying in Bend the Painted Hills is about a two-hour drive. There’s not tons of traffic though and plenty of beautiful sights along the way so the drive is a breeze. I will say, the highway through the Ochoco National Forest is quite curvey so if you are visiting in the winter months you should a lot extra time to get to the Painted Hills if you are just doing a day trip from Bend.
Where to stay Near Oregon’s Painted Hills
Like we said, Bend is an easy home base to explore Central Oregon. There are some really cute accommodation options though as you start to go farther from the city. The town of Redmond and also Terrebonne have several small inns and private vacation rentals available. If you want to be as close as possible to the Painted Hills, Mitchell Oregon is your best bet. Search for Redmond/Prineville hotels here!
There are some wonderful vacation rentals in Central Oregon, perfect for a hiking getaway. Since there are great natural sites and lots of things to do near the Painted Hills, staying anywhere within an hour of John Day Fossil Beds NM is perfect.
Staying at the Painted Hills Cottages
We were fortunate enough to get to stay at one of the most unique and colorful vacation rentals we’ve ever visited. The Painted Hills Cottages in Mitchell Oregon is perfect for taking a step back from reality and losing yourself in the relaxation Oregon’s rugged landscape. We specifically stayed in the sunset Cottage at the property and loved having so much space to unwind and at the end of the day. Complete with air conditioning, fireplaces, it’s plenty of outdoor space including a star gazing deck, our Cottage was more ideal than we could have hoped for. Check rates and availability for the Painted Hills Cottages here!
There are several other cottages on the property, and each is different and perfect for different sorts of travelers and sizes of groups. The sunset Cottage that we were in actually slept around 20 people. We occupied the main floor but the basement had a foal dormitory room and bunk beds to accommodate guests who white want to do a retreat.
Also on property is a small art studio / yoga rim, a food truck that sometimes operates for special events, and lots of fruit trees that guests are welcome to pick from. But our favorite outdoor feature was definitely the stargazing deck where we enjoyed sunset and scene the Oregon night sky with minimal light pollution.
Really, The Painted Hills cottages is one of our favorite places that we have stayed in years. We are looking at returning during the winter months with friends to explore the area in the snow and when it isn’t 90° out.
As you can see visiting Oregon’s Painted Hills is really remarkable. It’s an easy trip and is totally unique to nearly any place else in the USA. Check out some of our other fun and interesting Oregon sites and let us know if you have any questions either about the Painted Hills, John Day Fossil Beds National monument, visiting Bend, or anything at all about the Oregon coast. We spend a lot of time in our neighboring state and are happy to help you do the same.
Travel like a pro
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