The Painted Hills of Oregon are located within the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and have been designated one of the official Seven Wonders of Oregon for their otherworldly natural beauty.
These striped relics provide insight into an ancient world for scientists and geologists. However, they are equally enjoyed by rockhounds, photographers, and casual visitors alike.
As a native Oregonian and professional landscape photographer, it means something 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 in your itinerary.
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Oregon Painted Hills General Information
- Location: Central Oregon, USA
- Established: October 8, 1975 (John Day Fossil Beds National Monument)
- 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.
- Managed by: The National Park Service (NPS)
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 Oregon Painted Hills national park map from the national park service. 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
Hiking Distance: 0.25 miles roundtrip
Painted Cove Trail 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
Hiking Distance: 0.25 miles roundtrip
Leaf Hill Trail 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
Hiking Distance: 0.25 miles roundtrip
Red Scar Knoll Trail 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 have a look!
Painted Hills Overlook Trail
Hiking Distance: 0.5 miles roundtrip
Painted Hills Overlook Description: This short, easy trail provides the best views of the Oregon Painted Hills. It is the most popular and heavily trafficked trail in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
A short, relatively flat and ADA-accessible walkway leads you through the heart of the Painted Hills Unit. From here, you will discover distinctive views of the rolling striped hills for which the area is named.
The Painted Hills Overlook trail is the one hike in the park that every visitor must see on their visit.
Carroll Rim Trail
Hiking Distance: 1.6 miles roundtrip (400ft elevation gain)
Carroll Rim Trail Description: The Carroll Rim Trail is the most difficult hike in the Painted Hills of Oregon, but it is still relatively short and should be easily achievable for most visitors.
The reward for undertaking this 400-foot climb is the only aerial view of the Painted Hills of Oregon that you can enjoy without access to the sky.
If you have the time and physical ability, I highly recommend the Carroll Rim 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.
1. Go Stargazing
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.
2. Go storm chasing!
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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
The first thing to note is that credit cards are not accepted in many local businesses, so be sure to bring cash!
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. Unfortunately, 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 near Mitchell
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.
Accommodation near the Painted Hills of Oregon
While there are a few accommodation options in Mitchell, these are pretty limited. If you want to stay as close to the park as possible, 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 the most options for accommodation in Prineville but it is located about an hour away from the Painted Hills.
Camping in the Painted Hills of Oregon
There is no camping permitted within the Painted Hills National Monument boundaries!
The closest official campsite to the park entrance is the Bridge Creek Campground. During peak season (from May to October), sites can be reserved in advance. Throughout the rest of the year, sites are only available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
There are also options for freedom camping nearby for those who are self-contained. The easiest way to find them is with a camping app such as iOverlander. However, Google Maps also provides some options if you try a search for “camping near Mitchell“.
Fun Facts About the Oregon Painted Hills Unit
- The Painted Hills derive their name from the banded striations and colorful layers that correspond with 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 yellow tones are more prominent. 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 throughout its three regions: Painted Hills, Sheep Rock Unit, and Clarno.
- The area is known for having an abundance of fossils. The collection of 40,000 fossils includes early horses, camels and rhinoceroses. Learn more about this impressive fossil history at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center.
- These fossils were first discovered in the late 1800s by troops collecting and transporting gold in the area.
- The Painted Hills of Oregon are considered one of the 7 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 occurring 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.
Is the Painted Hills Oregon worth visiting?
Yes! In fact, the Painted Hills are one of the official Seven Wonders of Oregon, a distinction that recognizes the most beautiful natural places in the state. The otherworldly landscapes you will discover here are incredibly photogenic and guaranteed to leave a lasting impression.
When is the best time to visit the Oregon Painted Hills?
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is open all day, year-round. The best time to visit the Painted Hills Unit is typically around the end of May. This is when you can expect clear roads, small crowds, and seasonal wildflower blooms.
In addition, the Milky Way is clearly visible in May for night visitors who wish to do some stargazing or astrophotography.
The summer and fall months are also good times to visit. Conversely, winter is the one time to avoid. Snow tends to mask the colorful banding that makes the region so beautiful and also causes hazardous road conditions.
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 right now? Are they open year-round?
Yes, the Painted Hills and all other units of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument are open right now and year-round. While the gates remain open at all times, check local road conditions as these can be inaccessible following winter snowstorms.
Where should I stay when visiting the Painted Hills Oregon?
Mitchell is the nearest town with accommodation to the Painted Hills, but options and activities are very limited in this small town. Prineville will be the best place to stay nearby if you require more options and services.
If you are willing to camp, the only place to stay nearby is at the Bridge Creek Campground. RVs and campervans that are self-contained will find a handful of available options outside the park boundaries for freedom camping within your vehicle.
Is the Painted Hills of Oregon a dark sky reserve?
The Painted Hills are yet to be designated an International Dark Sky Reserve despite boasting some of the darkest skies in Oregon.
Photographing the Painted Hills
The Painted Hills are an incredible natural landscape and you’ll undoubtedly want to capture some photos! While it is possible to take 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 love it. However, beginners may wish to consider an entry level DSLR.
- 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 and night photography.
- 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.
Other Oregon & Regional Guides
The Painted Hills are just one of the Oregon bucket list things to do nearby. If you are planning an extended visit to the Pacific Northwest or crossing the border to Northern California, you may find some of the following guides useful as well.
- The Best Things to Do in Oregon: Nature, Arts, Events, & More
- The Most Magical Waterfalls in Oregon
- The Official 7 Wonders of Oregon Ultimate Guide
- Top 15 Places to Visit in Oregon for Nature Lovers
- Top 10 Places to Visit on the Oregon Coast
- Southern Oregon Photography Locations
- Southern Oregon Coast Guide
- Waterfalls of Southern Oregon Complete Guide
- Silver Falls State Park & Trail of Ten Falls Complete Guide
- The Complete Thor’s Well Guide
Washington & PNW Guides
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!