The Painted Hills in Oregon are a geological wonder known for their vibrant colors and interesting patterns. Visiting the Painted Hills is a must during an Oregon road trip and will make you feel as if you’re being transported to another planet. It’s such a nice variety to explore this part of Oregon compared to the lush, moody forests and stunning coastline. To make the most out of your visit to Oregon’s Painted Hills I’ve created this complete guide with all the information you need. From the best time to visit, what not to miss when visiting the Painted Hills, and some of the places to stay near the Painted Hills in Oregon.
Where are the Painted Hills in Oregon?
The Painted Hills are situated near the charming town of Mitchell in Central Oregon and are part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. With a total of three sections, called units, spread across Oregon, the Painted Hills unit is the most famous. The other units are called ‘the Clarno unit’, which is 55 miles northwest of the Painted Hills located, and ‘Sheep Rock unit’ which is 44 miles east located.
What are the Painted Hills?
The Oregon Painted Hills are a collection of colorful rolling hills consisting of layers of ancient volcanic ash and minerals. This geological wonder is included in the prestigious 7 Wonders of Oregon list. And that is not for nothing, because the fossils discovered at the Painted Hills have played a crucial role in helping scientists understand the evolution of animals such as cats and dogs. By analyzing the Painted Hills Oregon fossil beds from the Tertiary Period, scientists can trace the development, adaptations, and changes in these species over approximately 50 to 5 million years ago. The fossils act as a window into the past, helping researchers understand how different animals evolved and adapted to environmental changes.
Each unit in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument presents distinct geological features. The Painted Hills showcases colorful soil and scenic patterns that provide insight into the changing climate millions of years ago. The red and orange bands within the hills reflect the once-tropical climate, transitioning to a golden hue approximately 34 to 32 million years ago as the area became cooler and drier.
Nowadays you can explore the Painted Hills via five short and easy trails, ranging from 0.25 to 1.6 miles. Along the way, interpretive signs offer fascinating insights into the science and history of the area’s geology. This makes your visit not only a treat for the eye but also an enriching experience.
Are the Painted Hills in Oregon worth visiting?
Yes, absolutely! Renowned for their breathtaking and otherworldly beauty, Oregon’s Painted Hills offer a unique geological spectacle with vibrant colors and mesmerizing landscapes. Exploring these hills gives a completely different experience than hiking through the lush Pacific Northwest forests or soaking in Oregon’s rugged coastline. It is a bit off the main road trip route, but absolutely worth the detour, especially if you plan on staying in Bend to explore the Smith Rock State Park for example. We loved visiting the Painted Hills. Not only for photography but also to see with our own eyes how these layers of ancient soil reflect the history of life on Earth.
What is the best time to visit the Painted Hills in Oregon?
To get the most out of your visit, I highly recommend visiting the Painted Hills Oregon on a clear day. Sunlight will enhance the brightly colored soil while a cloudy day makes the colors a bit more dull. If you have sunlight with a bit of clouds then the shadow play on the Painted Hills is truly mesmerizing and very interesting to capture for photography.
The best time of the year to visit the Painted Hills is late spring and early fall. Both seasons provide pleasant temperatures and the wildflowers during spring or autumn colors add extra ambiance to the scenery.
If you visit during the summer months then make sure to get there early morning or late afternoon, early evening. Visiting during the winter months is possible as well, however snow may cover the knolls from late November through March. While this period offers the advantage of having the Painted Hills mostly to yourself, there’s a possibility that the snow could obstruct the view of their spectacular colors – which is, after all, the essence of the experience!
The best time of the day to visit the Painted Hills is either early morning or late afternoon to take advantage of the soft light. However, if your road trip planning doesn’t allow you to get there around these times, then don’t worry. Even during midday, the Painted Hills are mesmerizing to visit. Just make sure to avoid the middays during summer months as there is no shadow along the trails.
How long do I need to explore the Painted Hills?
The Painted Hills area is small with a gravel road that is only 3.5 miles long from the first viewpoint until the last walk. A total of 5 short walks provide a closer look at the stunning landscapes. And the best thing is that these walks don’t require extensive hiking. The longest Painted Hills walk is only 1.6 miles and the others range from 0.25 to 0.5 miles. Therefore you don’t need hours to explore this area. If you want to do all the walks I would allow 2 – 3 hours. But if you’re short in time then you can see most of the area in an hour.
What to do at the Painted Hills in Oregon?
There are several things you can do at the Painted Hills of Oregon such as hiking, photography and wildlife observation. But taking in the scenic views is what it’s all about. And the best way to do this is by walking the short and easy trail of the Painted Hills. You can spot the Painted Hills from the gravel road. However, if you’ve made it all the way to this spot, then I would highly recommend spending around 1 – 2 hours to see all the beauty of this landscape.
Besides exploring the unique Painted Hills, you can also visit the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center in the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Here you can see the exhibits and learn about the rich paleontological history of the region, including the fossils found in the Painted Hills.
Painted Hills Oregon hikes
Several walking trails weave their way through this otherworldly landscape. All different trails have their dedicated parking spot which you can easily reach by following the gravel road. Here are the 5 hiking trails of Oregon’s Painted Hills.
1. Painted Hills Overlook Trail
Distance: 0.5 mile / 0.8 km roundtrip
One of the best Painted Hills hikes is directly at the beginning of the reserve. The viewpoint offers incredible views of this Mars-like landscape with bright red, orange and yellow rolling hills.
The easy walk up to the viewpoint only has 30 meters of incline. Along the trail are several benches to sit down and take in the sweeping views of this dramatic landscape.
2. Carroll Rim Trail
Distance: 1.6 mile / 2.6 km roundtrip
The longest hike at the Painted Hills is the Carroll Rim Trail with 1.6 miles in length and 400 feet elevation gain. From this viewpoint adjacent of the Painted Hills you’ll have an elevated panoramic view of the Painted Hills Valley, Painted Cove and the Red Hill. It’s a great trail to realize how vast the area is and how many Painted Hills there are in total.
3. Painted Cove Trail
Distance: 0.25 mile / 0.4 km loop
This short but sweet boardwalk trail brings you the most close-up and personal to the Painted Hills with stunning red hills on either side of the path. With only 0.25 miles (0.4km) over a wooden boardwalk, you will get a huge reward for little effort.
The most exciting feature about this walk is that you get to see the spectacular hills with their striking color palette of vibrant orange, lavender and crimson from up close. You can easily see all the details and textures of the hills being this close.
4. Leaf Hill Trail
Distance: 0.25 mile / 0.4 km
While this is the least interesting walk as you won’t pass any colorful hills, it is an educative trail with informative signs that explain the area’s interesting history. Nevertheless, you will be surrounded by other green hills and stunning nature. Because this is the least busy trail of all, it’s a great option to get away from the crowds.
5. Red Scar Knoll Trail – Red Hill Trail
Distance: 0.25 mile / 0.4 km round trip
This is the last trail along the Bear Creek road which you follow when driving to all the short Painted Hills hikes. An easygoing short dirt path winds its way around a vivid red, orange, gold-colored clay hill. You can approach the hill closely but don’t make direct contact with the soil.
What causes the Painted Hills in Oregon?
The vibrant colors of the Painted Hills in Oregon are caused by the presence of different minerals and pigments in the soil. The hills are composed of layers of ancient volcanic ash, clay, and other sediments that have undergone various geological processes over millions of years.
The specific colors, including shades of red, gold, and brown, result from the presence of minerals such as hematite, goethite, and other iron-rich compounds. These minerals oxidize and undergo chemical reactions over time, contributing to the diverse and striking hues seen in the landscape.
The unique geological history of the region, combined with the presence of these colorful minerals, creates the visually stunning and ever-changing appearance of the Painted Hills. As a result, the hills serve as a natural canvas showcasing the intricate beauty of Earth’s geological processes.
If you want to learn about the geological features of the Painted Hills, then make sure to visit the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. Located in the Sheep Rock Unit of the monument, the center provides visitors with educational resources, exhibits, and information about the fascinating fossils found in the area, including those from the Painted Hills.
Most asked questions about the Painted Hills Oregon
Can you drive through the Painted Hills in Oregon?
Yes, it is possible to drive to each parking lot of the 5 different Painted Hills walks. A gravel road connects all the parking areas of each trail, so you don’t have to walk between the trails.
Are dogs allowed at the Painted Hills in Oregon?
Yes, dogs are allowed at the Painted Hills in Oregon. But they must be kept on a leash at all times to ensure the protection of the environment and the wildlife in the area. Additionally, pet owners must clean up after their dogs and properly dispose of waste in designated containers.
What are the best places to stay near Painted Hills in Oregon?
If you’re wondering where to stay near the Painted Hills in Oregon then I have some options for you here.
With Bend being the closest big city to the Painted Hills on a 2-hour drive (90 miles), I highly recommend checking the accommodation options in Bend. Bend is a lively city with plenty of other things to do in the surroundings such as exploring Smith Rock State Park and doing some amazing waterfall hikes.
What campgrounds are near Painted Hills in Oregon?
Camping near Painted Hills in Oregon is possible at several BLM spots such as the Lower Burnt Ranch, Burnt Ranch and Priest Hole. The Redhill Dispersed Campground and Big Bend Campground are other options, both with Tent and RV sites.
Tips for visiting the Painted Hills of Oregon
- Bring enough water and food. There are no facilities
- Arrive early, or late afternoon to avoid the crowds
- Practice the Leave No Trace principles
- Stay on the trail and wear appropriate footwear
- Bring sunscreen in the summer months, a hat and sunglasses. It can get super hot in the desert
- Be mindful of desert critters that live here such as rattlesnakes, scorpions and black widow spiders
More USA travel inspiration
I hope you enjoyed this complete guide about the Painted Hills in Oregon. For more USA travel inspiration, head over to our other guides.
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