Planning a trip to the Painted Hills in Oregon and wondering where to start?
If you’re anything like me, you may have seen pictures of this unique landscape and immediately wondered if the hills really are that colorful – or if it’s just social media hype (and good editing) at it again. 😅
After finally checking this destination off my bucket list on our Oregon road trip last summer, I can confidently tell you…
It’s a bit of both.
The colors you’ll see at the Painted Hills are truly stunning! But, certain areas in the park are more intensely vibrant than others. And the colors can vary in intensity throughout the day – and in different weather conditions!
In this post, I’ll walk you through planning your visit, from the best hiking trails to preparing for the day. I’ll also share all the important details we learned during our visit, including tips for the best places and time of day to see these vibrant colors. Whether you’re an Oregon local or passing through the state, this guide aims to make your Painted Hills adventure unforgettable.
Painted Hills Oregon Quick Facts
Painted Hills, Oregon, Guide and Overview
What are the Painted Hills?
The Painted Hills are one of the three John Day Fossil Beds National Monument located in Wheeler County, Oregon. They are famed for their rich, varying hues – from deep reds to bright yellows – that seem to shift and change in different lighting conditions. The red, yellow, tan, and black soil results from different weathering and soil compositions, reflecting various geological eras.
What causes the beautiful colors of the Painted Hills?
The vibrant colors of the Painted Hills are due to varying climatic conditions and mineral deposits over time. Each layer is an ancient snapshot of the history of climate change.
- Red Layers: Represent warmer, wetter periods with iron minerals oxidizing, resulting in a deep red hue.
- Yellow and Tan Layers: Indicate drier conditions, with the colors stemming from different soil compositions.
- Black Spots: These are manganese concentrations, adding dark, intricate details to the landscape.
Where are Oregon’s Painted Hills located?
Oregon’s Painted Hills are just 10 miles northwest of Mitchell. While not immediately adjacent to major towns, the journey to these colorful, historical hills is worth the trip to see this unique place.
How to get to the Painted Hills
From Prineville: Drive east on Highway 26 (US-26 E) for approximately 43 miles, then turn left on Bridge Creek Road (also known as Burnt Ranch Road). When you get to Bear Creek Rd (~5.6 miles), turn left into the Monument.
From Mitchell: Drive west on Highway 26 (US-26 W) for approximately 3.6 miles, then turn right on Bridge Creek Road (also known as Burnt Ranch Road). In approximately 5.6 miles, turn left onto Bear Creek Road to enter the Painted Hills unit.
Peek at the map below for the nitty-gritty on getting to the Painted Hills.
What to Do at the Painted Hills?
The Painted Hills is part of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, but you’ll find similar activities to other National Parks, ranging from outdoor adventures to educational opportunities and more.
The Painted Hills features several trails that are mostly easy to moderate (perfect if you’re a beginner at hiking!) offering a gentle yet rewarding way to explore the area. Each trail showcases the hills’ vibrant colors and unique geological formations.
Practice Your Photography
Late afternoon is your golden ticket for photography at the Painted Hills. As the sun starts to dip, the colors of the hills will be at their most vibrant, making for the best photos.
Most of the images I captured were earlier in the day due to our timing; however, as the sun started to change, it was easy to see the colors begin to pop. So, while you can capture the hills any time of the day, they will appear more washed out under the bright sun than if you can catch them at golden hour.
Also, it’s good to know that the colors can shift in intensity with moisture levels, so a little rain can mean a whole new scene.
Note: You’ll want to leave your drones behind, as they are prohibited.
One of my favorite things about places far from major cities is all the stars you can see without light pollution. The Painted Hills is one of those places! Because of its remote location, you’ll have a front-row seat for epic stargazing on a clear night. 🤩
Expand Your Knowledge of Fossils
Fancy a little prehistoric exploration? The Painted Hills have got you covered. Through the park, you’ll find information posted describing all the details of the ancient ecosystems and fossils that have been found here over the years.
Learn More About Climate Change
As you explore, take a moment to read the signs that tell the tale of the Earth’s changing climate. I was fascinated to learn that each stripe of color marks a chapter in time and the weather conditions that were present. It’s incredible to see how things have changed and adapted throughout history.
Best Hikes in Painted Hills
Hiking in the Painted Hills was my favorite way to take in the expanse and beauty of the park and I highly recommend it! Just be sure to plan your gear (and water) accordingly if you’re hiking in the heat of summer.
Each of the five trails is unique, and we managed to cover all of them in just a few hours, taking our time to soak in the views and capture plenty of photos. We hiked them in the order below, starting from the park entrance and working our way in.
Most of the trails are fairly easy and would be great options for kids – just be sure they have good hiking shoes (I opted for hiking sandals) to support their little feet!
Here’s the lowdown on each trail:
Painted Hills Overlook Trail
- Distance: 0.8 miles round trip
- Elevation Gain: ~80 ft
- Difficulty: Easy
- More Details
This trail is fairly level and offers panoramic views of the Painted Hills. Benches along the way, including one under a pavilion at the trailhead, provide perfect spots to sit back and take in the scenery.
Carroll Rim Trail
- Distance: 1.6 miles round trip
- Elevation Gain: ~400 ft
- Difficulty: Moderate
- More Details
The Carroll Rim Trail offers a bit more challenge but is still doable for most. This trail is pretty narrow and winds up the hill to the top. As you ascend, the views get increasingly spectacular, making the effort well worth it.
Between you and me, this was my favorite trail in the park. While others get you closer to the colors, there’s something special about seeing them at scale from a bird’s eye view.
Just a heads up, though, that it can get super windy up there – I almost lost my hat!
- Distance: 0.25 mile loop
- Elevation Gain: ~42 ft
- Difficulty: Easy
- More Details
If you’ve seen any photos from Painted Hills, they’re likely from here. One of the most photographed trails in the park, the Painted Cove Trail features an accessible boardwalk that winds through the vibrant landscape, protecting the delicate soils beneath. It’s an easy walk that packs a punch with its stunning views.
Note: Though the boardwalk is accessible, it does not cover the entire loop, and the parking lot is gravel.
Leaf Hill Trail
- Distance: 0.25 mile loop
- Elevation Gain: ~22 feet
- Difficulty: Easy
- More Details
Leaf Hill Trail is an easy loop with educational signs sharing details about the area’s fossils and history. This area is known for the highly concentrated collections of fossils found here over the years – one scientist alone (Ralph W. Chaney) found over 20,000!
While it is super interesting to learn about this area, if you’re tight on time or limited on mobility, this is the trail I would skip. While you might miss a slight chance to see fossils, you won’t be missing out on any epic views or vistas.
Red Scar Knoll Trail
- Distance: 0.25 mile
- Elevation Gain: ~39 feet
- Difficulty: Easy
- More Details
The Red Scar Knoll trail is a short, mostly level walk that leads to a brightly colored hill. The vivid reds and yellows here are especially striking, making it a perfect spot if you’re looking for the most vibrant colors. It’s a quick and easy trail to end your afternoon of hiking. There’s also a bench as you approach the hill to sit and soak in the view before moving on to your next destination.
Tips for Visiting the Painted Hills
Plan for Limited Shade
Shade is a rare find at the Painted Hills. There’s a bit of cover under the trees at the picnic area and a covered area at the Painted Hills Overlook, but that’s about it. Most of the time, you’re exposed to the full brunt of the sun.
Pack plenty of sun protection such as hats and sunscreen – and remember to reapply! Despite multiple applications, I missed a spot on the back of my shoulders on one application and ended up with a tender spot the next day.
Bathrooms and Water Access
At the Painted Hills, facilities are basic. You’ll find a bathroom (think pit toilet style) and a water spigot at the picnic area. Beyond that, don’t expect to stumble upon any other amenities in the park.
It’s a good idea to plan accordingly and make this your first stop before hitting the trails and exploring. We made a beeline for the restrooms before hitting the trails and again on our way out of the park at the end of the day.
A heads-up for winter visitors: the water gets turned off to keep the pipes from freezing, so you’ll want to bring all the water you need if you’re visiting in the colder months.
As you enter the Painted Hills, the pavement changes to gravel. The road was in great shape during our visit, but remember that weather can change that, especially with heavy rains or snow.
We were in our truck, but honestly, we would have been comfortable in any car. The 4×4 and high clearance were optional in the park itself. That said, if you’re planning any dispersed camping on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land like we did, the extra clearance and power will come in handy.
Leave No Trace Principles
When visiting beautiful places like the Painted Hills, it’s up to all of us to do our part to take care of the land so that everyone in current and future generations can visit. While following Leave No Trace Principles is always a good idea, here are a few specific things you can do to help in the Painted Hills:
- Stay on the Trail: Enjoy the beauty without disturbing it – no touching with your hands, walking, or even throwing rocks on the hills. Take the “Don’t Hurt the Dirt!” pledge before you go to show your support.
- Take only Pictures: While seeing fossils today is extremely rare if you happen to see any, celebrate, then leave them where you found them (it’s prohibited to remove them).
- Pack it In, Pack it Out: The park has very limited services, including trash, so plan to pack out everything you take in to reduce your impact.
Visiting with Dogs
Have a dog you’d like to bring on a trip to the Painted Hills? Great news – dogs are welcome on the trails and in developed areas like picnic spots and overlooks. Just make sure they’re on a leash no longer than 6 feet and know they can’t join you inside John Day National Monument buildings.
A word of caution for summer visits: the heat can get intense, so it’s crucial to never leave your dog in the car.
Be Aware of Wildlife
Anytime you’re in nature, you share the space with wildlife – and the Painted Hills are no different. Keep your eyes out for desert animals such as rattlesnakes and scorpions. Listen for rattles, and, in particular, if you’re camping nearby, always check your shoes before putting them on.
John Day Fossil Beds are also cougar territory, so remember to stay alert. Hiking in groups is also best, and if you do encounter one, remember to make yourself look bigger and never run. For more detailed cougar encounter tips, check out this guide.
Prepare for Various Weather Conditions
Weather in the Painted Hills can vary throughout the seasons – or even a single day. It’s a good idea to plan accordingly so you’re prepared.
During the summer months, days can be super hot and sunny. But the nights can cool down significantly. For instance, during our visit, the daytime temps were close to 100°F, and nights dropped into the 50s and 60s. And during winter, freezing temperatures and snow are a possibility!
No matter the season, the key to comfort while hiking and exploring is packing layers that include something breathable close to your skin and warmer, insulating layers when the weather cools.
When is the best time to visit the Painted Hills?
The best time to visit the Painted Hills is spring (or fall) when you’ll find fewer crowds and enjoy milder temperatures. While each season has its own unique appeal – such as a dusting of snow in the winter – visiting in the shoulder seasons will mean more comfortable temperatures.
We visited in late spring and were still able to catch the end of the wildflower season. However, daytime temperatures were already rising to over 90°F.
Where to Stay When Visiting Oregon’s Painted Hills
Planning your trip to the Painted Hills and wondering where to bunk down for the night? Whether you’re after a cozy bed or a starlit campsite, there are options for every style and budget.
Nearby Towns for Accommodations
While there are no major cities near the Painted Hills, these two towns are your best for finding established hotels or vacation rentals within a reasonable driving distance.
- Mitchell: This small town is close (around 20 minutes away) but offers limited amenities. It’s quaint and charming, perfect for those seeking a quieter stay.
- Prineville: About an hour’s drive away, Prineville offers more lodging options. It’s a great choice if you prefer a town with more facilities and dining options.
Camping is a fantastic way to soak in the area’s beauty and enjoy some time off the grid. While there is no camping within the park, we used my favorite camping apps to help us find several options that are conveniently located for daytime visits.
Oregon has a lot of camping options, ranging from free campsites to established campgrounds with all the amenities. There are several options for dispersed free camping on BLM land surrounding the Painted Hills, a few designated campgrounds in the nearby town of Mitchell, or you can choose to expand your search for more campgrounds in the area.
Priest Hole Recreation Site
We opted to stay at Priest Hole Recreation Site, which was a short but somewhat rough drive past the Painted Hills Entrance. Our truck had no issues, but if you opt for this spot or some of the other nearby dispersed sites, having a vehicle with decent clearance and AWD or 4×4 is a good idea.
It’s located on BLM land along the river and has multiple sites. To get there, you’ll take a left when leaving the Painted Hills on Burnt Ranch Road, then turn right on Twickenham-Bridge Cr. Cutoff Rd and look for the turnoff to Priest Hole Rd on the left.
It was pretty popular, but we found a site around dinner time two nights in a row. Each night, we chose a different location (the second night was my favorite – see why in the pic below 😍), but we had plenty of space to spread out and weren’t too close to anyone.
Hotels and Retreats
Looking for a bit more comfort? While the town of Mitchell offers a few basic options, such as The Oregon Hotel or the Spoke’n Hostel, you’ll need to drive a bit further if you’re looking for lodging with more amenities.
Here are a few hotel suggestions that aren’t too far away for a day trip to the park:
- Brasada Ranch: Located about 90 minutes from the Painted Hills, this luxury resort offers stunning views and top-notch amenities.
- Wilson Ranches Retreat: A budget-friendly option, this ranch provides a unique stay experience a little over an hour from the Painted Hills.
- Country Inn & Suites (Prineville): This hotel is an hour’s drive from the Painted Hills for those seeking a balance of comfort and convenience.
While the town of Mitchell has limited hotels, there are a few more options for Airbnb or vacation rentals.
Here are a few options located a short drive from the park entrance:
- Spacious & Modern Painted Hills Vacation Home: Just a few miles from the Painted Hills in Mitchell, this home sleeps 6 with 2 beds and 1 bath.
- Sunset Cottage: Located in Mitchell, minutes away from the Painted Hills, it sleeps up to 18 in 3 bedrooms. It includes a dormitory-style bunk room downstairs and 3 bathrooms. You can book 10 guests on VRBO, but they also accommodate larger groups of up to 18 by request.
- Hollyhock Guest House: A quaint 1-bedroom cottage that sleeps 4, complete with a garden. It’s located 9 miles from the Painted Hills.
Other Nearby Things to Do
Interested in venturing beyond the Painted Hills Unit? Check out these activities and other units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument:
- Clarno Unit: Dive into some incredible geology, see the Palisades, and learn more about the animals that used to roam the area.
- Sheep Rock Unit & Thomas Condon Visitor Center: If you’re interested in learning more about the area, this is the spot you have to visit! The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, in particular, displays fossils from each era and walks you through incredible exhibits and murals. We loved seeing the variety of fossils on display and can’t wait to return with the kids!
- Rafting the John Day River: If you want more adventure, consider a rafting trip down the scenic John Day River. I’ve already added this to my wish list for our next visit!
What to Pack for a Trip to the Painted Hills
Because the Painted Hills are off the beaten path and there are few facilities nearby, you’ll want to plan and pack accordingly.
Here are the essentials to add to your packing list:
- Camping Gear: If you plan to camp nearby, this list has all the camp essentials you’ll need.
- Hiking Essentials: Though the hikes in the park are all reasonably short, you’ll still want to be prepared with the must-have items on this hiking gear list.
- Sun Protection: Sunscreen and Clothing, such as hats, lightweight SPF long-sleeve shirts, etc.
- Photography equipment, such as your cell phone or camera (I have this one).
- Water containers and extra water: Though you can refill your water at the spigot near the picnic area during warmer months, you’ll want additional water bottles or large jugs to refill from to keep you hydrated during your visit.
Are the Painted Hills Worth Visiting?
Absolutely, the Painted Hills are worth a visit! Their unique, colorful landscape offers a rare glimpse into Earth’s geological history. Ideal for hiking, photography, or just enjoying nature, the Painted Hills provide a memorable experience for all types of visitors seeking beauty and tranquility in the outdoors.
What is the closest town to the Painted Hills?
Mitchell is the town closest to the Painted Hills. It’s located just 10 miles away and offers a convenient base for visitors exploring the hills. It’s a small, charming town with basic amenities, offering visitors a place to grab a bite to eat or stay while visiting this unique natural attraction.
Are there any accessible trails or overlooks?
Yes, but it’s limited. The Painted Cove Trail has an accessible boardwalk portion, making it one of the best options for those with mobility challenges – though the parking area is gravel. Otherwise, access may be difficult for wheelchairs and strollers. However, places like the Painted Hills Overlook offer benches near the parking lot where those not up to a hike can comfortably take in the stunning views.
Final Thoughts on Visiting the Painted Hills in Oregon
It’s no surprise why the Painted Hills are one of the 7 Wonders of Oregon! The beautiful landscape of these colorful hills is unlike anything else.
Now you know all the insights and details you need for a fantastic visit to the Painted Hills. From scenic hikes to essential visitor tips, this guide is designed to ensure you get the most out of this unique Oregon treasure.
Whether through your camera’s lens, a leisurely walk on the trails, or a quiet moment under the stars, the Painted Hills offers plenty of unforgettable experiences.
As you plan your adventure, be sure to check out the best camping near the Painted Hills!
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