Last Updated on May 2, 2021
The Painted Hills Oregon is one of the state’s most unique and bizarre landscapes. At first glance, you’ll really feel like the landscape is otherworldly. The area is special because of the history it preserves; each color and layer of the Painted Hills represents a different period in geological history. According to the National Park Service website, the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument “preserves a world-class record of plant and animal evolution, changing climate, and past ecosystems that span over 40 million years.”
What Are Painted Hills Oregon?
The Painted Hills, a geologic site in Wheeler County, Oregon, is one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon and this was one of the stops we were most excited for. From the photographs we had seen, we were sure it would be impressive, and it sure was.
Painted Hills is one of the most unique places to visit in Oregon. Standing there and looking out over the bizarre landscape, it really felt like Mother Nature had outdone itself with what looked like an airbrushed painting. However, it is completely natural from years of various minerals weathering over the ‘hills’. Also, entombed in the natural hills are well-preserved plant and animal fossil records which span more than 40 of the 65 million years of the Cenozoic Era. The area was once an ancient floodplain. The martian looking landscape gives an incredible geology lesson through the multilayers of color created 35 million years ago. Through multiple volcanic eruptions and climate changes, nature formed what you see today.
Helpful Tip: Don’t forget to pack your sunscreen. When we visited during the summer it was HOT.
How Many Acres Are Painted Hills Oregon?
The Painted Hills cover 3132 acres. It is one of three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument along with Sheep Rock and Clarno. The Painted Hills are the most popular part to visit. Since the park is on the smaller side, you can see the sights in a day.
There isn’t a visitor center within the park, so do your research before you go. That is also where this post will come in extra handy! The road through the park is a well-maintained gravel road and is easily drivable with any vehicle. However, there is a grass picnic area at Painted Hills (perfect to enjoy lunch surrounded by the breathtaking scenery!), restrooms, and a ranger station kiosk.
Helpful Tip: You may not have cell service because the Painted Hills is located in a rather remote part of eastern Oregon. If you download the offline version of Google Maps, you’ll still be able to navigate your way around easily.
How To Get To Painted Hills Oregon
The Painted Hills Unit 9 miles northwest of Mitchell, Oregon just off of highway 26. The closest big city is Bend, Oregon, and is a two-hour drive away. If you’re traveling from Bend, take US-26 five miles east of Mitchell, turn right at the signage for John Day Fossil Beds – Painted Hills Unit.
If you’re wanting to visit the other units of the John Day Fossil Beds, be aware that they are not close by. The Sheep Rock Unit is just over an hour away and the Clarno Unit is almost 2 hours away. If you’re planning on visiting them all, you will have to plan your time. You’ll also want to make time to stop in at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Centre. We didn’t have high hopes for the free visit, but we walked in anyway and were quite impressed. Huge murals depicted all kinds of extinct animals and had hundreds of items of remains of the ancient flora and fauna on display. The fossils will amaze you! There’s also the option to watch a short movie. Outside the Centre are gorgeous dramatic rock formations and the John Day River winds through the area.
We drove from Portland after picking up a friend for a road trip. It was a five-hour drive with the windows down and belting out our favorite tunes. From Portland, take US25. You’ll turn onto Burnt Ridge Road and follow the signage for the Painted Hills.
Who Is John Day? Why Is He So Important?
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is named after the John Day River that flows through it. The river has been an important part in eroding the land to expose the fossil bed and create what you see before you today.
John Day was a member of the Pacific Fur Company’s overland expedition, from Missouri (1810) to the mouth of the Columbia River. When descending the Mah-hah river in April 1812, he and his partner were robbed. After they were rescued, the story was well-known at the trading post. Every time someone pointed out the river, they spoke of John Day. By the 1850s, the Mah-hah river was renamed the John Day River.
Hiking In Painted Hills Oregon
There are five short hiking trails to give you different perspectives of the unique landscape. The trails are all well-marked and easy to find from the parking areas along the park’s main road. While you can still get fabulous views from the car, the best way to experience the Painted Hills and witness mind-blowing views is by doing the hikes.
Painted Hills Overlook Trail (0.5 miles)
This is the most popular trail in the park. An easy 0.8km and family-friendly trail, you get a wide-ranging view of the Painted Hills. You’ll find signs describing what you’re looking at and the trail ends at the best viewpoint after climbing 100 feet.
Painted Cove Trail (0.25-mile loop)
It is illegal to walk on the Painted Hills, and it is not possible to get this close elsewhere. However, that makes this trail really cool. We loved that wandering a short boardwalk, you could get up close and personal with the different colored clay hills.
Carroll Rim Trail (1.6 miles round trip)
This hike features fantastic panoramic views, and one of the best views, of the Painted Hills. The trail climbs 400 feet with several switchbacks, so expect a bit of a steep climb.
Red Scar Knoll Trail (0.25 miles)
The newest trail in the Painted Hills, this trail is mostly level and ends at a knoll made of bright yellow and red clay. The trailhead is at the end of Bear Cree Road. The trail only gains 25 feet over a tenth of a mile, so this is a good trail option for everyone. The red clay is iron red paleosol. It shows that a warm and wetter environment once existed. The yellow soil shows a a drier environment, where there was not much water.
Leaf Hill Trail (0.25-mile loop)
While no fossils can be found today along the trail, the Leaf Hill area is a site of extensive paleontological research. The area long ago was a deciduous forest, which is why the area is called leaf hill and why many fossils of leaves have been discovered. An interpretive exhibit shows examples of a few leaves that were found.
Know Before You Go
Are The Painted Hills Worth It?
Yes! These days you never know what to expect with how people manipulate photos for social media, but this is a real natural wonder!
When Do The Painted Hills Have The Best Color?
There are a few things to consider when timing your visit to see the Painted Hills. After a rainfall, the colors of the Painted Hills are intensified because of the extra moisture. Consider visiting in the afternoon, when the yellows, golds, reds, and blacks are more vibrant. Lighting and moisture content can also change the appearance of the hills throughout the day.
When Is The Best Time To Visit The Painted Hills?
Visiting during the summer can get HOT. We recommend visiting the Painted Hills in mid-spring or fall. The weather will be cooler and your visit more enjoyable.
Are Dogs Allowed At Painted Hills Oregon?
Yes! The Painted Hills National Monument is dog-friendly; making this visit perfect for the whole family. Please clean up after your dog.
Why Can You Not Walk On The Dirt At Painted Hills Oregon?
Is There Camping Nearby Painted Hills Oregon?
Yes, there is camping nearby in Mitchell City Park and the Priest Hole Recreation Area.
Can I Fly My Drone At Painted Hills Oregon?
Painted Hills Oregon is a no-drone zone.
Pin It For Later!
Have you ever been to the Painted Hills? What were your thoughts? What are your favorite Oregon sights?
Updated March 2021