Unveiling the Wonders of the Painted Hills, Oregon

by | May 7, 2018 | Adventures, Camping, Eastern Oregon, Family Fun, Hiking, Interesting, Photography, Road Trips, Things To Do, Travel | 0 comments

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Central Oregon's Painted Hills is one of those awe-inspiring things you have to see in person.  Photos simply aren't enough to convey how impressive this prehistoric landscape is. 

Many Oregonians have never been to the Painted Hills or don't realize something this amazing lies in the Eastern part of our state.  A drive out to see the Painted Hills, Oregon is well worth it, and something that families will enjoy.

painted hills oregon

When is the Best Time of Year to Visit the Painted Hills?

If your aim is to take beautiful photos of the painted hills, we suggest visiting in the spring or fall when the colorful clay is wet.  Moisture helps bring out the colors and makes them deeper and more vivid. 

Wildflowers are also blooming in the spring and trail up the cracks in the hills.  The spring and fall also bring out fewer visitors and have milder weather for hiking.

Remember that any time of year, the late afternoon sunlight offers a spectacular viewing time for the Painted Hills of Oregon.

Oregon Painted Hills
Some suggest visiting the Oregon Painted Hills in spring or fall when the clay is wet, as moisture makes the colors more vivid. Photo by Tyler Willford | That Oregon Life

The summer is also an amazing time to visit if you love warm weather and camping.  While there is no camping at the Painted Hills, there are a variety of different campgrounds in the area.  See our map at the bottom of the article for campground locations.

Keep in mind that lighting also affects the colors of the hills.  Try viewing the hills in the early morning light, at mid-day, and during sunset. 

Thunderstorms or cloudy days can also provide dramatic lighting that will change your view of the hills.

The Oregon Painted Hills are also open in winter.  Check here to make sure the park will be open on the days/times and time of year you want to visit.


painted hills oregon
The Painted Hills in Eastern Oregon offer up an ever-changing dramatic landscape. Photo by Kathy & Sam via Flickr CC2.

The Painted Hills Offer An Unprecedented Look Into Oregon's History

The earthen pigments coloring the hills of Painted Hills have been slowly and gradually produced over centuries by a series of geologic events. From volcanic eruptions to changes in climate to gradual erosion, the palettes seen today are the results of years of natural history.

Whether you're an experienced geologist or just curious about our planet's evolution, this otherworldly landscape is a perfect place to uncover our Earth's secrets.

According to Dr. Ralph W. Chaney, “No region in the world shows a more complete sequence of Tertiary land populations, both plant and animal than the John Day Basin.”

painted hills oregon

The Painted Hills Are Only A Small Piece of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

The layers and vibrant hues of colorful clay and rock layers showcase climate change in Oregon's history, and fossils hidden within have helped paint a picture for scientists about plant and animal evolution and plant life in the area.

This part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument has formed over 35 million years ago. The magnificent unique colors that streak the clay-rich hills and mounds will mesmerize you.

Over many years, layers of volcanic ash containing different minerals were said to compact and solidify into the various bands of colors in the vibrant hills that visitors can see today.

The Painted Hills unit is just one of three units in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The others are the Sheep Rock Unit and Clarno Unit.

Well worth a stop when visiting is the spectacular Thomas Condon Paleontology Center where you can take in the massive collection of Pacific Northwest fossils on display there.

Wildlife in Painted Hills Oregon

Spot Spectacular Wildlife

Painted Hills is full of breathtaking wildlife. Enjoy incredible views of deer, elk, and birds peacefully roving throughout the area. Get up close to rare species like salmon flies, lizards, and wild mustangs who call the landscape home.

Spend a day outdoors and witness for yourself the extraordinary beauty that Painted Hills has to offer.

Scientists have determined via fossilized plant material that Oregon was once a wet semitropical area that had tropical trees including palm and avocado. 

Research across the John Day Fossil beds area has turned up fossils of early horses, camels, giraffes, deer, large cats, elephants, giant sloths, tapirs, and a wide variety of other animals.

Oregon Painted Hills

How Much Time is Needed at The Painted Hills?

If you're going to take a trip to Painted Hills Oregon, we recommend you make it a two-day trip so you can also have time to see the Sheep Rock Unit and see the Palisades at the Clarno Unit

Before you go, research which campsites are open and keep in mind that not all nearby lodging is open during the off-season.

One of the greatest things about this area of Central Oregon is the lack of light pollution, so you may want to spend a night or two just to do some stargazing.

Visiting Painted Hills Oregon

What To Know Before Visiting Painted Hills Oregon

In order to get to the Painted Hills you'll be traveling to a beautiful, yet remote and rural area of the state.  Cell service is not always available, potable water is only available for part of the year, and many of the gas stations offer limited hours and have not switched to pumps that offer self-serve after hours. 

It's important to plan ahead.

painted hills oregon
Photo by Gary Randall
  • Bring extra water and snacks.

  • Make sure to get gas before nearby gas stations close for the evening.

  • Tell family and friends where you're going and when you'll be back as you may be out of a cell service area during your visit.

  • If you'll be spending the night, research accommodations in advance.

  • Download offline maps on your Google Maps app

Also, know that the roads leading to all three units of the Fossil Beds are winding and can add travel time to your trip.  Travel time is often longer on these roads than GPS units indicate, so take this into consideration.

painted hills oregon
With a variety of campgrounds near the John Day Fossil Beds, the Painted Hills are a destination for those wanting to get out and explore Oregon's natural beauty while spending a weekend with family or friends. Photo by Kathy & Sam via Flickr CC2.

What To Do And See At The Painted Hills

It's easy to arrive at the Painted Hills, get out of the car, look for a few moments, and say, “Ahhhh...ok, we've seen it. Time to go home.”, but if that's all you do you'll be missing out on these otherworldly landscapes.

Five trails will lead you to stunning views and different vantage points of the colorful layers of the Painted Hills or get you up close and personal with them. 

Walking on the hills is illegal as the clay and naturally occurring mineral layers are fragile and easily damaged, so please stay on the trail.

John Day Fossil Beds
A wooden boardwalk trail allows easy parking lot access for visitors while protecting the fragile clay hills for future generations of Oregonians. Photo by Tyler Willford | That Oregon Life

Trek Through Timeless Trails and Different Geological Eras

Embrace the natural patterns of the Painted Hills by hiking through the mysterious trails that lead you far and wide.

Amongst the rolling mounds and sharp ridges, you'll find yourself in awe of brilliant hues painted onto ancient rock walls that tell the story of this incredible landscape.

Whether you plan to take a short walk on a sloping path or meander through steep switchbacks, prepare for an adventure like no other!

Carroll Rim Trail

The Carroll Rim Trail is a 1.6-mile loop trail that offers stunning views of the Painted Hills. The trail is open year-round, but it is best to visit during the spring or fall when the weather is mild.

The Carroll Rim Trail begins at the Painted Hills Overlook, which offers a panoramic view of the Painted Hills. From the overlook, the trail climbs up to the Carroll Rim, which offers even more stunning views of the hills. The trail then descends back to the Painted Hills Overlook.

The Carroll Rim Trail is a moderate trail that is suitable for most hikers. The trail is well-maintained and easy to follow. However, the trail does have some steep sections, so it is not suitable for young children or people with mobility issues.

The Carroll Rim Trail is a great way to experience the beauty of the Painted Hills.

Painted Hills Overlook Trail

The Painted Hills Overlook Trail is a level, 0.5-mile trail that follows an old road to an overlook over one of the largest sections of hills in the Painted Hills National Monument.

The Painted Hills Overlook Trail begins at the Painted Hills Visitor Center. The trail winds its way along an old road that was once used by ranchers and farmers.

The trail is well-maintained and easy to follow. The trail passes through a variety of landscapes, including grasslands, sagebrush flats, and juniper woodlands.

The Painted Hills Overlook Trail offers stunning views of the Painted Ridge.

Painted Cove Trail

Painted Cove Trail is an easy .25-mile trail featuring a level boardwalk.  This trail gets you up close to the vibrant red-colored clay.

Leaf Hill Trail

This trail takes you to a heavily excavated site that has long been studied by paleontologists.  The .25-mile trail features interpretive signs explaining the history of the site.

Red Scar Knoll Trail

A mostly level .25-mile trail that will lead you on a tour of bright red and yellow clays.  Be aware that the trail signs for this trail read, ‘Red Hill Trail' instead of Red Scar Knoll.

Painted Hills in Central Oregon

Where Are The Painted Hills in Central Oregon, and What City is Closest to Them?

You will find this destination just 9 miles north of the small town of Mitchell, Oregon, in Wheeler County. We've highlighted a few camping options near the Painted Hills below. 

There is lodging in the small, nearby town, but you should do research before planning on staying at any of the campgrounds or hotels to be sure they are open and offer what you're looking for.

Painted Hills Oregon

Painted Hills Oregon Frequently Asked Questions

What are some tips for visiting the Painted Hills?

Here are some tips for visiting the Painted Hills:

  • Pack plenty of water, food, and sunscreen.

  • Wear comfortable shoes and clothing that you can move around in.

  • Be aware of the weather conditions and dress accordingly.

  • Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back.

  • Do not collect any rocks or fossils.

  • Respect the environment and leave no trace.

What are some things to do at the Painted Hills?

There are a variety of things to do at the Painted Hills, including hiking, camping, and taking guided tours. You can also take advantage of the picnic area to sit and enjoy your food. The Painted Hills are also a great place to simply relax and enjoy the scenery.

What are the best times to visit the Painted Hills?

The best time to visit the Painted Hills is during the spring (April-May) or fall (September-October) when the weather is mild and the crowds are smaller.

Remember that the Painted Hills don't look the same year-round due to the ever-changing light and moisture levels so you may want to visit during different times during the year.

The Painted Hills are open year-round, but they are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.

painted hills oregon

Final Thoughts

The Painted Hills are a truly unique and beautiful place. They are a testament to the power of nature and the passage of time.

The hills are a reminder of the many different life forms that have lived on Earth over the millennia. They are also a reminder of the importance of preserving our natural resources.

If you are ever in Oregon, I highly recommend visiting the Painted Hills. They are a truly unforgettable experience.

Have you visited Oregon's Painted Hills?  Let us know what you thought of this stunning natural landscape.  Tag a friend who would be interested in taking this summer road trip with you!

You will definitely want to head over to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument next.

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Written By Jessica Tomlinson

Jessica Tomlinson is a native Oregonian currently living in Southern Oregon. She has been blogging since 2006. She loves nature, photography, hiking, camping, and exploring Oregon's wilds.

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