With their unique colorful layers, the Painted Hills of Oregon is a truly awe-inspiring landscape that almost seems out of this world. So if you are looking for one of Oregon’s most unique landscapes, Painted Hills should be at the top of your list.
Located in a rather remote part of eastern Oregon, these vibrantly colored slopes are well-worth the visit. Explore the extraordinary hues painted among the hills, and it will take your breath away when you set your eyes on them.
What are the Painted Hills
The Painted Hills are located in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument just north of Mitchell, Oregon. They are the most visited of the three units within the park and can be crowded on weekends. The hills get their name from the striped hues of red, orange, yellow, green, black, and tan running across their slopes.
This alienesque landscape formed around 35 million years ago when various climate patterns created stratified soil layers of various colors. The color of each soil layer depends on the climate pattern during that period. For example, the red colors were formed during a warm and wet climate period. As one of the 7 wonders of Oregon, the Painted Hills truly do appear to be painted by mother nature.
There is also a grass picnic area at Painted Hills, restrooms, a ranger station kiosk, and five hiking trails. The road through the park is a well-maintained gravel road and can be tackled with any car.
If you have more time, you should also explore the other two units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument—the Clarno Unit and Sheep Rock Unit. However, do note that the travel time between each unit can be upwards of one hour.
So if you are planning on seeing them all in a day, you will need to budget your time at each stop. Fossil lovers don’t want to miss the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center at Sheep Rock, which features an excellent showcase of fossils.
Hiking in the Painted Hills Oregon
Hiking the five trails in the Painted Hills is the best way to take in the excellent views of this truly unusual landscape. However, if hiking isn’t on your agenda, you can still get awesome views of the painted hills just from your car when driving through the park.
The trails are well marked and easy to find as they all start from the parking areas located along the park’s main road. Although all of the hikes within the park are short, they offer incredible views of the painted hills and are highly recommended.
Painted Hills Overlook Trail
The Painted Hills Overlook Trail is an easy 0.5 miles / 0.8 km (roundtrip) trail that offers an expansive view of the Painted Hills. The trail is wide and fairly level, making it friendly for almost any age and hiker level. Parking is abundant at the trailhead, though, since this is the most popular trail within the park, it can be busy during peak seasons and weekends.
Carroll Rim Trail
At 1.6 miles / 2.6 km roundtrip, this is the longest and most strenuous trail within the Painted Hills unit. The trail climbs over 400 feet / 120 m to reach the Carroll Rim, where you will be rewarded with a sweeping panoramic view of the entire Painted Hills basin. There are several benches along the hike where you can relax and take in the views.
Insider Tip: This is a must-do hike for anyone wanting the best views of the park.
Painted Cove Trail
Short and sweet, this trail gives you a vivid experience of the martian landscape. The trail starts on a boardwalk that takes you directly through several vibrant red hills. The total trail’s length is just 0.25 mile / 0.4 km roundtrip but is well worth exploring as it offers the most up-close views of the Painted Hills.
Leaf Hill Trail
The Leaf Hill Trail is also just a 0.25 mile / 0.4 km roundtrip and features an ancient hill exposing the area’s past landscape. At the trailhead, a sign explains that the area long ago was a deciduous forest, which brings us to the name Leaf Hill where many fossils of leaves have been found.
Red Scar Knoll Trail
Also known as Red Hill, this vibrant red mound can be viewed by strolling along the 0.25 mile / 0.4 km roundtrip trail. It is easy and mostly level and ends at the base of the Red Scar Knoll.
Where to Stay Near Painted Hills
The Painted Hills are located in a rural and a rather remote part of Eastern Oregon. This makes finding nearby lodging difficult or impossible.
If you are looking to stay nearby the Painted Hills, you will have to camp or book an Airbnb. The closest hotels are located in Prineville, which is about a one hour drive.
Camping Near the Painted Hills
Camping around the Painted Hills is an excellent option if you plan to spend more than one day or want to relax and take in the surrounding scenery. There is plenty to explore in the area, from a handful of interesting small Oregon towns to ancient fossil beds.
Here is our list of some campgrounds near Painted Hills, Oregon:
Priest Hole Recreation Site
Located on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, these campsites are free. This camping area is reached by driving north from the Painted Hills ranger station on a moderately maintained gravel road. There is no water or electricity, but it has vault toilets. A big plus for this site is its location on the John Day River, which can be great for a dip during the summer months.
Burnt Ranch Campground
There is dispersed free camping located on BLM land. The road to the campsites on the river bar requires a 4×4 vehicle. However, the campsites near the boat ramp can be reached with a 2WD car. It’s a nice trail along the John Day River.
Mitchell City Park
Located in Mitchell, Oregon, which is about a 20 minutes drive from the Painted Hills, this is a park setting with tent and RV camping. The amenities include water, restrooms, and electricity. Don’t expect a wilderness setting, but it’s one of the closest places to camp for visiting the Painted Hills.
Ochoco Divide Campground
This is a small campground located in the Ochoco National Forest near the Ochoco Summit along highway 26 between Prineville and Mitchell. There is no water or electricity, but it does have restrooms. You will find well-spaced campsites in a forest setting with a mix of large conifer trees. The campground’s elevation is around 4700 ft, which means temperatures can dip down to freezing almost any time of the year.
Getting to the painted hills
It’s a great day trip from Bend, though, given its remote location, you can expect a good bit of a drive to reach the Painted Hills. Bend, Oregon is the biggest nearest city, which is 90 miles away and a two-hour drive. If you plan to spend more than a few days visiting Bend, exploring the Painted Hills makes a great day trip and offers a mix-up of scenery from Central Oregon’s high desert.
To reach the Painted Hills from Bend, head northeast to Prineville, then follow Highway 26 to Mitchell over the Ochoco Mountains. Just a few miles before reaching Mitchell, take a left and follow the Painted Hills’s signs.
To reach the Painted Hills from Portland, you should budget 4-5 hours. The most scenic option from Portland is to follow the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway, which takes you through eastern Oregon’s ancient landscapes. You will pass by Shaniko, which is worth a stop to check out this interesting ghost town.
Painted Hills Oregon FAQ
The Painted Hills are located 9 miles north of Mitchell, Oregon.
From Bend, drive to Prineville, then turn onto Highway 26 towards Mitchell. Drive one hour until you are 3 miles away from Mitchell. Turn left and follow the signs to the Painted Hills.
The Painted Hills are 4 hours from Portland, Oregon.
There are many things to do in the Painted Hills:
– Visit the Painted Hills Overlook
– Hiking the 5 trails through the Painted Hills
– Bicycle the Painted Hills Scenic Bikeway
– Visit the town of Mitchell, Oregon
Yes, there is camping nearby the Painted Hills. The closest camping areas are Mitchell City Park and Priest Hole Recreation Area.
The Painted Hills offer a truly bizarre landscape that is definitely worth visiting.
The painted hills are a fragile landscape. Walking on the Painted Hills damages the landscape and causes erosion. Please take the Don’t Hurt the Dirt pledge when visiting.
Yes, dogs are allowed at the Painted Hills, Oregon. Please keep your dog leashed and pick up after them.