The Painted Hills of Oregon are located within the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and are considered one of the seven natural wonders of Oregon. These striped relics provide insight into a world forgotten for scientists and geologists, but are equally enjoyed by rockhounds, photographers, and casual visitors alike.
As a native Oregonian and local photographer, it says a lot that I consider the Painted Hills of John Day one of the top 5 places to photograph in the entire state. Small as it is, there is so much to see!
If you find yourself planning a visit to this remote region of Central Oregon, study this guide carefully. In addition, be sure to allow time for some short hikes, stargazing, and at least one sunset / sunrise in your itinerary.
If you have discovered this travel guide as part of a larger Oregon road trip and are looking for more inspiration, consider opening some of our other guides to the region in another window for future browsing:
- Top 10 Oregon Coast Photography Locations
- Best Places to Visit in Oregon
- Top 15 Waterfalls in Oregon
- Thors Well Guide (an Oregon hidden gem and world wonder!)
- Silver Falls State Park
- Southern Oregon Coast Photography Guide
- Best Places to photograph in Southern Oregon
- Southern Oregon Waterfalls Guide & Roadtrip Itinerary
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Oregon Painted Hills General Information
- Location: Central Oregon, USA
- Established: October 8, 1975 (John Day Fossil Beds NM)
- Nearest Town: Mitchell, OR
- Size: 3,132 acres
- Annual Visitors: 88,571 (2020), 197,091 (2019) (includes visits to all three units within John Day Fossil Beds NM)
- Entrance Fee: There are no entrance fees for regular recreation in any of the three sections of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, including the Painted Hills Unit.
- Hours of Operation: Officially sunrise-sunset, but the park remains open throughout the night.
Map of Oregon Painted Hills Unit
You will find useful maps for your visit to the Painted Hills of Oregon and John Day Fossils Bed NM below.
Official John Day Fossils Bed National Monument Map
Below is the official monument map. You can find a downloadable version of this map and others for John Day Fossils Bed NM on the NPS website.
Interactive Google Map of the Painted Hills of Oregon
We’ve also put together an interactive Google Map of Oregon Painted Hills, featuring all of the sights and places we mention within this blog post. Click here or on the image below to open the map in a new tab.
Hiking Guide to the the Painted Hills of Oregon
There are five total trails in the Oregon Painted Hills. All of them are short and easy, with the longest totaling just 1.6 miles with a modest elevation gain. Below is a brief description of each trail with photos and information for what you can expect to see. They have been listed in order of shortest distance to longest for easy reference.
Painted Cove Trail
Distance: 0.25 miles roundtrip
Description: This short and sweet loop trail is an absolute must-see. An elevated walkway meanders around a particularly colorful hill, providing an easy stroll and a moment of amazement. Look carefully as you walk and observe an extraordinary color palette unlike any other you will find throughout the Fossil Beds.
Leaf Hill Trail
Distance: 0.25 miles roundtrip
Description: A short interpretive trail for those curious about the origins and history of the region. While this is not the most photogenic or visually appealing hike, it is informative.
Red Scar Knoll Trail
Distance: 0.25 miles roundtrip
Description: Also known as the “Red Hills” trail (as indicated by road signs within the park), the quick walk delivers visitors to a large and brightly colored clay hill painted in yellow and red. Don’t expect to spend too much time taking things in, but it is worth the quick jaunt to be sure.
Painted Hills Overlook Trail
Distance: 0.5 miles roundtrip
Description: This is easily the most popular and heavily trafficked trail in the park. A short, relatively flat walkway leads you through the heart of the Painted Hills Unit. Discover distinctive views of the rolling striped hills for which the area is named. The Painted Hills Overlook trail is the one must-see for every visitor.
Carroll Rim Trail
Distance: 1.6 miles roundtrip (400ft elevation gain)
Description: The Carroll Rim Trail is easily the most difficult in the park, but is still relatively short and should be easily achievable for most visitors. The reward for undertaking this 400-foot climb is the only aerial views of the Painted Hills of Oregon you can enjoy without access to the sky. If you have the time and physical ability, I highly recommend the trail for the distinct panoramic views it provides.
Best Things to Do in the Oregon Painted Hills
For most, a visit to the Painted Hills will be a quick day trip with a short walk or two amongst colorful mounds of clay. However, I strongly recommend those of you with the time and ability attempt to organize your itineraries to include some of the activities below.
Stargazing in the Painted Hill of Oregon is the most overlooked activity to do in the area. Due to the remote location of this national monument, there is no light pollution whatsoever! Enjoy a sunset and stay nearby to witness a starlight show that will be difficult to beat anywhere in the world.
During the right time of year, night photographers can capture the Milky Way in full detail as it rises over the painted hills.
The Painted Hills and much of the high desert will often have lightning storms roll through during the summer months. This is not easy to plan for, of course, but those who have the ability and interest will witness something absolutely incredible as the colors and landscape transform in storm light.
Enjoy a birds-eye-view from Carroll Rim Trail
The only difficult walk in the Painted Hills Unit is the 1.6 mile Carroll Rim Trail. You will need to climb about 400-feet, but the reward is a unique and spectacular panoramic view of this otherworldly landscape.
As the monument is relatively small, even the casual visitor should have time enough to enjoy this short trek up the side of a ridge.
Watch the light and color change at sunset
As the evening light becomes warm and angular, mindful viewers will experience the Painted Hills transform. The color palette shifts as the light and shadow play begins to accentuate the details of the colorful layers.
Sunset is truly a special time to experience the park, and should be a part of any road trip itinerary through Central Oregon!
Planning Your Visit
We have covered all the best things to do and see in the Painted Hills of Oregon, but we still need to plan the logistics! If you are having trouble creating an itinerary for your visit, this section will help you plan a successful visit to the park.
When to Visit the Painted Hills of Oregon
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is open all day, year-round. The best time to visit the Painted Hills Unit is in the late-spring or early-summer, when the wildflowers are in bloom and the weather is reliable for sunset, sunrise, and night-sky viewing. However, the crowds tend to be larger this time of year as well.
Most would consider winter the time to avoid. This part of Oregon gets a lot of snow which makes driving and conditions questionable, and it also covers the layers and colors that make the Painted Hills region so interesting!
How Many Days to Spend in the Painted Hills
Most families or casual visitors will really just need one day to explore everything, including all five trails within the park. However, landscape and night photographers as well as enthusiastic nature-lovers will want to schedule an overnight visit if possible. This ensures at least one sunrise, sunset, and night of milky way viewing.
How to Get to the Oregon Painted Hills
If you are using GPS, the easiest thing to navigate to is the “Painted Hills Overlook”. Alternatively, most platforms will deliver you to the right location if you search for “Oregon Painted Hills”. However, it is worth noting that the Painted Hills are just one of the three units that make up John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Therefore, just be careful not to route toward a different section of the national monument(which can happen).
The Painted Hills Unit is located 9 miles away from the small town of Mitchell, and 85 miles (1h 40m) from Bend. To get there, take Hwy 26 until it connects to the scenic Bridge Creek Road. Follow this road as well as signs for the park. Don’t forget to enjoy the views along the way!
Gas and Supplies
The only gas station nearby will be the Pac Pride or the Little Pine Truck Stop in the town of Mitchell, and both are very basic. If possible, try to fill up in Prineville instead. Or, if you are traveling in from the north, set your GPS to stop at the Sinclair in the town of Condon on the way.
Where to Stay Near the Painted Hills of Oregon
There is no camping or accommodation within the National Monument boundaries. However, there are a variety of places to pull off and freedom camp if you are self-contained nearby, as well as a couple of campsites and accommodation options in Mitchell and Prineville.
While there are a few accommodation options in Mitchell, these are pretty limited. There are five lodging options listed on the Mitchell Oregon website. If you’re looking for a more local experience, AirBnb offers a variety of options, ranging from entire homes to private rooms within someone’s home.
You will find more options in Prineville but it is located a little further away from the Painted Hills.
Both Google Maps and any travel app will list a few places to freedom camp nearby (search Google Maps for camping near Mitchell and some will pop up). However, the only official campsite next to the park is the Bridge Creek Campground. During peak season, from May to October, sites can be reserved in advance. The rest of the year sites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Fun Facts About the Oregon Painted Hills Unit
- Painted Hills is so named for its banded striations and colorful layers, corresponding to different geological eras.
- 35 million years ago the area was an ancient river floodplain.
- The darker, black soil is lignite and was vegetative matter. The grey layers are mudstone, siltstone and shale. And the red layers are laterite soil, formed by floodplain deposits.
- Red soils come from a more tropical period, while the yellows are from a drier and cooler time.
- The tones and colors of the layers can appear very different depending on the time of day and weather during your visit. On cloudy days the golden and yelllow tones are more prominent, and on a sunny day the reds are more vibrant.
- It is an important area for scientists who have studied 50 million years of plant and animal evolution here. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument protects one of the longest and most continuous records of evolutionary change in North America.
- The area is known for having an abundance of fossils, with a collection of 40,000 fossils including early horses, camels and rhinoceroses.
- These fossils were first discovered in the late 1800s by troops that collecting and transporting gold in the area.
- The Painted Hills of Oregon are considered one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon.
- There are over 50 species of birds, 40 species of mammals, 14 species of reptiles, 6 species of amphibians, and 10 species of fish within the three units of the monument.
- The naturally occuring mineral layers are very delicate and damage can be seen from where people have wandered off trails – don’t be one of these people!
Frequently Asked Questions
Below is a list of the most commonly asked questions from future visitors of the Painted Hills Unit of John Day.
What causes the coloration of the Oregon Painted Hills?
The area that is now high desert was once an open floodplain. The colors of the Oregon Painted Hills are the result of climate change and erosion over millions of years.
How much does it cost to enter the Painted Hills Unit of John Day Fossil Beds?
There is no fee to enter any unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
Are the Painted Hills open year-round?
Yes they are, though roads can be inaccessible following winter snowstorms.
Is the Painted Hills of Oregon a dark sky reserve?
While this remote region boasts some of the darkest skies in Oregon, the Painted Hills have yet to be named an International Dark Sky Reserve.
Photographing the Painted Hills
The Painted Hills are an incredible formation and you’ll undoubtedly want to capture some photos! While it is possible to capture some great photos nowadays with smartphones, for the best possible photos you may want to consider a few key pieces of photography gear:
- Camera: We use the Sony a7riii and have been in love with it ever since the first photo we took with it. However, for beginners you may wish to consider an entry level DSLR. This will allow you to start getting to grips with manual settings and decide whether photography is something you enjoy enough to invest in.
- Lens: The lens we use most frequently is the Sony FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS as the zoom lens allows for the most diversity. We also often use the Laowa 15mm F2 for shots that require a wider angle.
- Tripod: A tripod is essential if you are shooting in low light, at night or for any other long exposure photography. When traveling, we use the Manfrotto Be Free as it’s lightweight and easy to carry on longer hikes. For times when we require something more stable, we use the Artcise Carbon Fiber Tripod.
- Filters: A Circular Polarizing (CPL) filter (CPL) or Neutral Density (ND) filter are very useful for allowing slower shutter speeds and for cutting glare on reflective surfaces, helping to bring out the colors. The best CPL and ND filters we have found are the quartz line from Polar Pro.
Final thoughts on the Painted Hills of Oregon
If you have read this far, you hopefully don’t need any more convincing as to why the Painted Hills of Oregon are considered a national treasure by locals and distant visitors alike! This strange landscape offers a sense of history, mystery, and intrigue unlike any other place in the world, but is particularly different from the mostly green nature for which Oregon and the Pacific North West are known.
I hope you have found this travel guide to the park informative and inspiring. But, whether you did or did not, all constructive feedback is encouraged! Please leave a comment below if you have any questions, concerns, or corrections that could help us improve our guide to the Painted Hills.
Oh, and if you haven’t already queued them up, don’t forget to scroll back to the first section to open some of our other regional guides!