The Ultimate Guide to the Painted Hills Oregon

The Ultimate Guide to the Painted Hills Oregon

As we turned into the park, we held our breaths with anticipation. We’ve seen thousands of photos from Painted Hills and it has earned its place on Oregon’s 7 Wonders, but we were still skeptical about whether or not the hills would be as vibrant as they are in photos. After all, we know the power of photoshop. As we rounded the first bend to get the first glimpse of the Painted Ridge, we both exhaled with relief. The hills showed streaks of reds, oranges, and yellows!

The Ultimate Guide to the Painted Hills Oregon - best hikes, best things to eat, see, and where to stay near the park // localadventurer.com

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Last Updated: July 28, 2018     First Published: June 30, 2017

Want to find a National Park Unit near you? Find out using this list (There are over 400).

Painted Hills covers 3132 acres and is the most popular of the three units that make up the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The great thing about this park is that it’s pretty small so you can do all of it easily in a day. Unfortunately, there isn’t a ranger station or a visitor center, so if you just show up, you may be a bit confused on what there is to see. Hopefully, this guide will come in handy and show you everything you need to know about the park.

THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO THE PAINTED HILLS OREGON

HOW WERE THE PAINTED HILLS FORMED

When you’re looking at the Painted Hills, you’re getting a look into history. The colorful layers represent different geological eras. The red is laterite soil from a time when it was warm and humid, the gray is mudstone, siltstone, and shale, and the black is lignite that used to be plant life.

The unique colors formed over 35 million years ago. Different volcanic eruptions and changing climate patterns mixed with different types of soils, minerals, and plant material resulted in what we see today.

DIRECTIONS

The Painted Hills Unit is located just off Highway 26, 9 miles northwest of Mitchell, and 75 miles east of Bend. map Get the coordinates here.

Keep in mind that if you’re planning on visiting the other units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, they are quite far from each other. The Sheep Rock unit is just over an hour away and the Clarno Unit is almost 2 hours away.

DRIVING THE PAINTED HILLS

Painted Hills has one main road taking you from the front of the park to Red Scar Knoll, the last trail. Each offshoot is well marked.

More: The Ultimate Eastern Oregon Road Trip

Painted Hills Map + The Ultimate Guide to the Painted Hills Oregon - best hikes, best things to eat, see, and where to stay near the park // localadventurer.com


THE PAINTED HILLS HIKES AND TRAILS

We had no idea until we arrived, but this is not a park for hikers. Although there are a few short trails, most of them are simply to get a better view or different perspective of the hills. Of all the trails, don’t miss Painted Hills Overlook Trail and Painted Cove Trail. They are by far the most photogenic. I’ve listed the trails in order of when you will see them as you drive through. We ranked them below with *** being the best and * being the ones you can skip if you don’t have time.

Carroll Rim Trail** (1.6 Mile Round Trip, 400 ft elevation gain, Easy-Moderate)

This is the most difficult established trail in the park and gives you panoramic views of the Painted Hills. That’s not saying much though since most trails happen to be relatively flat.

Panoramic Views of the Painted Hills from the Carroll Rim Trail + Everything You Need to Know About Visiting the Painted Hills Oregon // localadventurer.com

Painted Hills Overlook Trail*** (1/2 Mile Loop, 100 ft elevation gain, Easy)

This takes you to an overlook over one of the largest sections of hills and the postcard view of the park. You walk parallel along it giving you different vantage points of Painted Ridge and plenty of photo opportunities.

More: Photo Diary of Painted Hills at John Day Fossil Beds

Painted Hills Overlook Trail - one of the 7 Wonders of Oregon // localadventurer.com

Painted Cove Trail*** (1/4 Mile Loop, Easy)

This is a very popular spot for Instagram. The boardwalk portion of the trail takes you through vibrant red hills, then you can climb up a few stairs and see them from above.

Painted Cove Trail + Best Hikes in the Painted Hills - one of the 7 Wonders of Oregon // localadventurer.com

Leaf Trail Hill* (1/4 Mile Loop, Easy)

See a site of extensive paleontological research on this short loop trail. No fossils can be seen along the trail, but an exhibit shows a few examples of leaves that have been found here. Unless you’re really into fossils, this one isn’t the most interesting hike.

Leaf Trail Hill Hike, Painted Hills, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Eastern Oregon // localadventurer.com

Red Scar Knoll Trail* (1/4 Mile Round Trip, Easy)

This is the newest trail at the Painted Hills and takes you to two sides of a hill colored bright red and yellow. It’s the brightest hill in the park that we saw.

Red Scar Knoll Trail + Best Hikes in the Painted Hills Oregon // localadventurer.com

NOTE: PLEASE HIKE RESPONSIBLY

Please, please, please, hike responsibly. They have signs posted everywhere reminding you to stay on established trails, but we saw plenty of random trails made by people going off trail and even saw people walk onto the hills. You’ll see footprints on random hills throughout the park and because the landscape is so fragile, they’ll stay there for a long time ruining it for everyone else. Thank God for photoshop, but I’m not appreciating the extra time spent editing out ugly footprints.

More: 21 Best Hikes in the Columbia River Gorge Oregon

Footprints, Hiking the Painted Hills Oregon // localadventurer.com


WHEN TO PHOTOGRAPH THE PAINTED HILLS

Sometimes it’s hard to tell how places will look in person when all you see are photos on Instagram and Pinterest. Even as photographers, there have been plenty of times where we’ve been disappointed, not realizing the photo we saw was extremely photoshopped.

How the Painted Hills look depends on the light and moisture levels. The yellows, golds, blacks, and reds may look bright during one part of the day but dull during others. During our visit, we arrived mid afternoon and stayed until sunset.

Naturally, like most things, the hills look best late afternoon close to sunset. Golden hour will bring out the red tones and give it that glow. During mid-day, the colors were clear as well as long as the hills were getting direct sunlight. Once it was backlit or shaded, you would lose the colors. The area doesn’t get much rainfall throughout the year, but if you manage to come after a rainfall, the hills will be even more saturated with color. You can also enhance the colors with these filters (72mm, 77mm, 82mm)

Everything You Need to Know About the Painted Hills - One of the 7 Wonders of Oregon // localadventurer.com

We’ve heard that on cloudy days, the reds look faded but the golds and yellows seem to be brighter. Let us know if you go on a cloudy day and it appears that way!


WHERE TO STAY NEAR THE PAINTED HILLS

Camping is not allowed in any of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument units. There are a few motels in the nearby cities, but we decided to stay just outside of the city of John Day since we were headed further south the next day.

The Victorian Lane B&B is a beautiful B&B style home. Andrea greeted us warmly as we arrived, offered us cookies and tea, and showed us to our room. We were planning on leaving really early the next morning so she put together some breakfast burritos and fruit for us to take to go. We hope to visit again and spend more time on their beautiful property.

The Victorian Lane Bed and Breakfast in John Day Oregon // localadventurer.com
The Victorian Lane Bed and Breakfast in John Day Oregon // localadventurer.comThe Victorian Lane Bed and Breakfast in John Day Oregon // localadventurer.com

If you do want to camp, this map shows the known campgrounds near the three units of the monument as well as services available in towns. Dispersed camping is also allowed on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands without a permit, but keep in mind the boundaries may be unclear so a map is recommended.


WHERE TO EAT

There are no food options within the Painted Hills. There is a picnic area if you want to bring your own food, otherwise, you’ll need to check out some of the surrounding small towns. Keep in mind that there aren’t many options and many of them are closed random days of the week. But between cafes, stores, and restaurants, you can find yourself a decent meal.

Mitchell (30 minutes away)

  • Mitchell Stage Stop / Little Pine Cafe (open Tues-Sat 11-7) – where we ate! Jacob ordered the burger and fries and I ordered the grilled cheese with onion rings.
  • Sidewalk Cafe (open Fri-Sat 7-8, Sun-Mon & Thurs 7-7)
  • Bridge Creek Cafe (temp closed)

Dayville (1 hr 15 minutes away)

  • Dayville Cafe (open Wed-Sat 7-8, Sun 8-6)
  • South Fork Mini Mart (open Mon-Sat 7-8, Sun 8-7)

Spray (1 hr 20 minutes away)

  • Lone Elk Market & Cafe (open Mon-Sat 6-7 Cafe 6-6, Sun 6-6 Cafe 6-5)

ADDITIONAL TIPS

  • It’s best to come with a full tank of gas or fill up when you see a gas station. There was a gas station at Mitchell, but Oregon requires someone to pump your gas and stations have limited hours.
  • Plan your trip around the light that you want!
  • If you’re staying after sunset, be careful as you drive to your accommodations. We almost hit 3 deer and 1 elk as we drove to John Day.
  • Road tripping around Eastern Oregon? Check out our guide with all the best stops.

WHAT TO PACK

NEARBY

More: 101 Things to Do in Oregon

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The Ultimate Guide to the Painted Hills - One of the 7 Wonders of Oregon // localadventurer.comHow to Spend a Perfect Day at the Painted Hills in Eastern Oregon + where to eat, stay, and more tips // localadventurer.com
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ESTHER + JACOB

Esther and Jacob are the founders of Local Adventurer, which is one of the top 25 travel blogs in the world. They believe that adventure can be found both near and far and hope to inspire others to explore locally. They explore a new city every year and currently base themselves in Portland Oregon.

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This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. We visited the Painted Hills for the first time last year and they were completely magical! So want to visit again. Completely agree that sunset is the best time for light. There’s some really fun shadow play to be had. Thanks for the awesome guide.

    1. Thanks for reading, Liana. :) It is magical, and you’re right. The shadows make such interesting shapes as the light moves.

  2. Lovely photographs! I’d really like to explore eastern Orgeon

    1. Thank you, Rachel! We love eastern Oregon. Some of our favorite places in the state are there.

    1. I hope you get to visit! It is very pretty and the trails are more like a stroll than a hike. :)

  3. We just moved to Portland four months ago and have been trying to take advantage of seeing as much of Oregon as we can on weekends and Portland during the week. We’ve crossed off three of the “Seven Wonders” so far, including the Painted Hills. They are gorgeous. The actual park itself was a little disappointing in size and the time it takes to drive between all three John Day parks; we only did two, but worth the visit. Since there is no tree cover, it can get hot very quickly. There is a small ranger station/gift shop with information on all the John Day parks near the picnic area, as well as bathrooms (pit toilets though). The rangers do lead walks through the park, but you have to check the NPS calendar.

    1. It is such a small park, so I can see for most people that it can be underwhelming. For us, since we’re photographers, we’re waiting in one spot for hours waiting for the perfect light / shot, but I wouldn’t go back for the hiking alone. I definitely think it’s beautiful to see once, but we’re not in any hurry to go back soon since there is so much to do and see around Oregon.. though I would love to try photographing it in more stormier conditions. We did go to all three units and the Visitor center, which we’ll be writing about soon too. ;) Did you do any of the ranger-led walks? We’ve usually enjoyed those at other NPS units.

      I think everything in East Oregon takes such a long drive though. You have to put a lot more work to visit certain spots unlike the coast, gorge, and central. We just did a road trip through it, and one day we drove over 10 hours and others we were averaging 6-7. Eep! Hope that doesn’t deter you though from visiting the other parts. Happy exploring!!

      1. It’s true, the distances from place to place in Eastern Oregon are great. But the scenery in every corner is grand and the heritage attractions and small communities in between are well worth stopping along the way. The best way to experience Eastern Oregon is to engage in conversation with the residents and learn from them the best kept secrets and what makes the place and the people tick. Please take your time, when possible and get to know us.

        1. Hi Janet. We completely agree with you! We tried to do the entire Eastern Oregon from top to bottom in one week, and only in hindsight realized it was way too ambitious (we spent most of our time in the car). We’ll be sharing more of our experience on the blog soon but definitely would recommend others take at least three weeks or if it’s only a week to stay and explore a specific area.

  4. Stunning pictures! Now I have to plan a trip to Oregon soon to see it in person!
    xo, Scarlett

    1. Thanks so much, Scarlett. Hope you get to see it soon!

  5. Such a beautiful park! It reminds me a bit of the Painted Desert in AZ, but so much more up close and personal.

    1. Oh I haven’t been to the Painted Desert, but yes it does look very similar. Is it blocked off so that you can’t get up too close to it?

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