A kaleidoscope of colours brightens up the otherwise arid landscape at Oregon’s Painted Hills, where stratifications in the soil dating back millions of years created an incredible natural phenomenon.
Ranked as one of the 7 wonders in Oregon, the formations look like something you’d see on Mars and are part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Along with the vibrant hues of claystones in all colours of the rainbow, there are fossils and a paleontology centre where scientists study 50 million years’ worth of animal and plant evolution.
From the best hikes to photo tips to must-do spots, here’s everything you need to know about visiting the Painted Hills in Oregon.
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Where are the Painted Hills of Oregon?
The Painted Hills are in central Oregon near the town of Mitchell. They’re a two hour drive northeast of Bend, and a three hour drive if you’re coming from somewhere in the Columbia River Gorge like Hood River.
There are three ‘units’ that make up the 1400-acre John Day Fossil Beds National Monument: the Painted Hills, Clarno and Sheep Rock units.
Clarno has towering, volcanic rocks, a diverse range of plant life, and is close to the town of Fossil where you can dig for fossilized souvenirs. The Sheep Rock Unit near Dayville is the most developed area, with a number of trails, overlooks, a museum and paleontology centre.
The best Painted Hills trails
The road that winds between the Painted Hills is only 3.5 miles long, so it actually doesn’t take much time to drive through the compact area. There are five trails throughout the park and almost all of them are quite short and flat, which makes it easy to explore all of them and still have plenty of time left in the day to check out the Sheep Rock or Clarno Unit.
Painted Hills Overlook Trail: 0.5 miles
This is usually everyone’s first stop since it’s the first pullout on the left heading in. The path starts at a pavilion with interpretive signs, and the easy half-mile walk has great views overlooking the rainbow hills.
Iron red paleosols indicate a warm and moist environment where the soil was usually damp, yellow and tan soils are where there were drier environments dominated by hardwood forests, and the black spots you’ll see in some areas are caused by manganese concentrations.
Painted Cove Trail: 0.25 miles
The Painted Cove trail is Instagram-famous and one of the most photographed spots in the Painted Hills, thanks to the wooden boardwalk that winds through vibrant red rocks. Rich volcanic ash fell in this area some 33 million years ago, and over time oxidizing irons stained the clay soils seen today, which are slowly rusting.
The hills are referred to by some as a ‘martian mosaic’, since the red clays are similar to the paleosols on Mars. Keep an eye out for the lavender-coloured section, which are the highly weathered remains of a rhyolitic lava flow and part of the Clarno Formation.
Carroll Rim Trail: 1.6 miles
The Carroll Rim Trail is the only legitimate Painted Hills hike, thanks to the 400 foot climb up for panoramic views. This is where you’ll find one of the best views of the multi-coloured landscape, and it’s neat to see the Painted Cove Trail from above.
Leaf Hill Trail: 0.25 mile
While Leaf Hill looks like your average tree-covered hill, it’s actually rich with the fossilized remains of plants dating back an astounding 30 million years. You can see them up close, but as the signs say don’t even think about touching them or taking one home as a souvenir.
Red Scar Knoll Trail: 0.25 mile
Also known as Red Hill, this path lives up to its name as it leads straight to a huge, scarlet-hued hill. However, peek around the backside and you’ll notice some green, so perhaps it should have actually been named Christmas Hill?
The best time to see the Oregon Painted Hills
Visitors are welcome year round, even during winter which creates a unique scene when white snow dusts the vibrant hills. Most people go to the Painted Hills during spring (wildflower season is April and May) or fall, since the summer heat can be quite extreme around here.
Photographers will want to time their trip for late afternoon, sunrise or sunset when the red, gold, green, black, yellow and lavender hues typically look their best.
Fun things to do near the Painted Hills
The Sheep Rock Unit near Kimberly is more developed, with a number of picnic areas, trails, and landmarks like a ranch and paleontology center. Highlights include:
Foree Trailhead: There are two short pathways here, called the Flood of Fire Trail and the Story in Stone Trail. Admire the light-blue and green coloured tufts, which are towering rock layers made of compacted volcanic ash. Interestingly, the terrain is always changing since precipitation erodes the surrounding claystone.
Story in Stone is marked by badland outcroppings, while Flood of Fire leads to an impressive overlook where visitors can see colourful geologic formations across the valley.
Thomas Condon Palaeontology Center: Scientists study plant and animal evolution at this palaeontology centre, which also hosts a number of exhibits open to the public. There’s an orientation video outlining the history of the area, presentations and real fossil specimens on display.
Cant Ranch: This ranch dates back to the early 1900s, and was built by Scottish immigrants James and Elizabeth Cant using lumber milled near Mitchell. It was always full of people, whether it was the couple’s four children, ranch hands sleeping in the bunkhouse, a schoolteacher living with the family, or neighbours staying over after a raucous midnight supper. The building now serves as headquarters for the John Day Fossil Beds.
Where to stay near the Painted Hills Oregon
While it’s possible to see the Painted Hills during a day trip from places like Bend or Hood River, with so much to explore between the three units it’s worth budgeting for at least one overnight stay. While there’s nothing fancy, Mitchell, Dayville and Prineville are where you’ll find the most choices for hotels and motels.
If you’re equipped for it, camping near Painted Hills is the best way to maximize time in the area and enjoy the incredible scenery. While overnights aren’t permitted inside the units, there are more than two dozen RV parks and campgrounds where you can go camping near the Painted Hills. Click here for a map and booking information.
The Painted Hills Scenic Bikeway
Up for even more of an adventure? Explore the John Day Fossil Beds by bike! The Painted Hills Scenic Bikeway is a 130-mile route designed as a hub-and-spoke, with loops connecting the towns of Service Creek, Spray, Fossil, Mitchell and Kimberly. Click here for planning information and details about the terrain.
Final tips for seeing the Painted Hills
- Services: There’s no drinking water, and the only restroom at the Painted Hills is at the visitor centre at the front entrance. There are also restrooms at a few stops like the Mascall Overlook and Foree Trailhead which are both in the Sheep Rock Unit, and in the nearby town of Mitchell. Fuel can be hard to come by while driving between units since area gas stations have limited hours, so fill up your tank before heading in.
- Pets: Dogs are allowed on the Painted Hills trails, provided they’re on a leash
- Admission fee: Visiting the Painted Hills is free, enjoy!
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