I discovered the Painted Hills Oregon on Instagram last year and couldn’t believe this park was in the United States! It just didn’t look real (and perhaps like it was a movie set about Mars, not a real-life place you can visit!) As we drove the road close to the park, we turned a corner and my jaw dropped as we were faced with a giant bright red hill. We weren’t even in the park yet and my fears that this Instagram famous spot was all photoshop was totally washed away. The Painted Hills Oregon are simply STUNNING.
Tucked away in Eastern Oregon, about 1.5 hours from Bend, are the Painted Hills unit, part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The Oregon Painted Hills made it on Oregon’s 7 Wonders list and I can see why. This area looks unreal, how can the earth be splashed with oranges, reds and yellows?!
If you’re heading to this gem, keep on reading for all my need to know travel tips and a map so you can easily navigate yourself to the Painted Hills and enjoy your visit! There isn’t a ranger station or formal visitor center with staff on hand, and you probably won’t have any cell service. I hope this guide helps you!
Painted Hills Oregon: Need To Know Travel Tips + Map
Spanning over 3132 acres, the Painted Hills unit is the most popular of the 3 units that make up the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, part of the National Park Service domain. Also known as the Oregon Painted desert, all the pretty colors on these hills are over 35 million years old. They formed when the climate as much weather and then later drier and hotter, making the different levels of color.
The other two John Day units are the Clarno Unit and Sheep Rock Unit, which I would have loved to visit if we had more time on this trip. They’re all spaced out and can take up to an hour to drive to each site, which is why most people choose to see the Painted Hills and leave it at that! You can also visit the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center at Sheep Rock if you or your little ones are really into fossils!
As I mentioned above, you will probably lose cell service on your way to the park from Bend. Make sure to set your Google Maps to the Painted Hills when you have service and not close out the map so you can still navigate! Just in case, make sure to also screenshot the below directions so you don’t get lost.
HOW TO GET TO PAINTED HILLS OREGON
- Head North on Hwy 97
- Connect to Hwy 26 and take it East towards Mitchell
- Drive through the Ochoco National Forest (about 1 hour)
- Look for brown signs mentioning the Painted Hills & Burnt Ranch Road
- Take a left on Burnt Ranch Road
- A few miles down, you’ll see the picnic area & colorful hills. You’re there!
There is a picnic area and bathroom outside the park. Stop here if you need to use the restroom, but keep on driving in to get to the trailheads. I suggest starting at the Painted Hills Overlook site to get started! This is where you’ll find a great overlook over a bed of painted hills.
PAINTED HILLS OREGON HIKING
So, the Painted Hills isn’t really a hiking spot. My husband and I weren’t keen on hiking, as it was a hot day out, so it was fine. The longest trail is the Carol Rim Trail and it’s about 2.8 miles round trip. Most of the trails are short, flat trails that are about .5 miles at the longest.
The famous photo (below) of the completely red hills is at the Painted Cove trail.
If you’re into fossils, make sure to swing by the Leaf Hill Trail which takes you around this hill that is the site for thousands of fossil discoveries. There’s even tons of signs about not removing any found fossils, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you could find some on the ground! (Just, don’t take them home!) We didn’t stop by the Red Scar Knoll Trail as it was starting to rain, but that’s another one you can stroll around.
Painted Cove Trail is where you’ll want to head to snap that famous shot of the boardwalk and red hills! It’s about 1/4 mile long and very easy to walk, but still really stunning. I loved turning the corner and seeing nothing but the red hills for a moment before turning again. It really does look like Mars!
To get the best photo here, have your photographer stand a bit on the hillside steps at the end of the boardwalk. Here they’ll be able to capture a great image of you walking Mars on Earth!
Best Time To Visit The Painted Hills
I recommend visiting the Painted Hills in the alter evening or as close to a golden hour as you can. The warm evening lights makes all the hills’ colors really POP in the best way possible! Of course, they are still stunning in the day time, but the softer evening light makes for better photos. Plus, it’ll be less hot!
Another great time to visit is right after it rains, as the water will make the color of the hills really come through. Have you ever noticed how after it rains, the grass seems greener? Same concept here! Just be careful for flash floods at the Painted Hills Oregon weather can be all over the place. While we visited we got hot sun, clouds, crazy winds and rain all within 20 minutes.
I also suggest visiting in the Spring-Fall as this area can get snow! Of course, if it’s light snow, the hills will be stunning in a different way but there could be a chance of road closures or getting snowed in. It’s in a pretty remote location after all!
Also, you may catch wildflowers in the spring. We visited in. Juen and saw the tail end of what I assume was a super bloom after all the rain this year.
What To Pack
The weather can kind of be all over the place here! Make sure you bring lots of water as it can get really hot, along with these:
- Hiking shoes for the trails
- Light jacket
- Full waterbottle + extra water
- Camera (zoom and 35mm lens should be good!)
- Pretty dress for photos (I suggest a white or yellow one to pop against the hills)
WHERE TO STAY NEAR THE PAINTED HILLS
Overnight camping is not allowed in any of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument units. BUT, there are a handful of really nice and better yet, FREE campgrounds just right outside the park! Which was good news for us as we were in a campervan.
We stayed at the Burnt Ranch Road campground which was about 10 minutes outside the park between the Painted Hills and HWY 26. I wrote detailed directions to this Painted Hills Oregon camping site along with a few others in this post that you should check out if you plan on camping!
If you aren’t a camping person, that’s ok! Mitchell is about a 20-minute drive away and has a couple of motels, the Oregon Hotel and Skyhook Motel look decent. Or, you can book an Airbnb like this one to spend the night in. But, if you are down for it, I highly recommend camping. Just make sure to bring enough supplies!
Where To Eat Nearby
We didn’t need to go into Mitchell for dinner as we were camping and brought our own food. But, these spots have good reviews online that you may want to check out if you’re looking for lunch or dinner!
I loved our visit the Painted Hills. It took just a couple of hours, this is not an all-day event. It still was 100% worth the drive out and I would go back again in a heartbeat to see these colored mountains, maybe in the winter this time to try and catch a light snowfall?
Looking for more Painted Hills Oregon images? Check out the hashtag on Instagram!
I hope this helps you travel Oregon and visit the Painted Hills! If you have any questions at all or tips ot add, leave a comment below! You can also always DM me o Instagram @thewhimsysoul if you need a speedy reply. Stay adventurous!
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Quick note before we begin, it got incredibly windy during your visit to the Painted Hills. You can read the transcript of this video on my blog post, which I’ll link you below, and I’ll also try to add captions, but just apologizing in advance for all of the wind in some of these clips. I hope you can hear okay.
Hey guys, what is up? We got our van right here. Painted Hills are behind us, and we are about to go show you around this super hidden Oregon gem. The Painted Hills are kind of what they sound like. They are these giant red-striped hills with this gorgeous red rock soil sand.
The Painted Hills are kind of out in the middle of nowhere. They’re about an hour and a half east of Bend, Oregon, and they’re kind of a bitch to get to, not going to lie, and we don’t even have service out here. So I see why this place is still under the radar. It’s because it’s a little hard to get to.
… go show you around, come on.
So this is Burnt Ranch Road, which is off of highway 26. This is what you’re going to take into the Painted Hills. You’ll see the Painted Hills off to your left. By this fence is the bathrooms, but keep driving in on this road to get to all of the good stuff.
All right. This is the overlook. There’s a large parking lot here, and there’s about a quarter of a mile hiking trail that you can walk to overlook all of these beautiful hills. This is a really good place to start your exploration. If you come in the springtime, you may luck out and catch a super bloom. Look at all the beautiful flowers. We came in June and caught the very tail end of it.
A bit windy out. Okay. We are at the Painted Hills. It is hot out today. We are visiting in June, and I’m glad that we have a lot of water in our car. Let’s just say that. There are multiple different trail heads here. None of them look to be terribly hard. We are going to start off with the half-mile overlook trail that overlooks this main area. And then after that, we’ll go to some other trails. I guess this is the hardest incline right here. Not very hard at all, but look at that. It’s gorgeous.
Just a reminder to not walk on the hills, it’s bad for them, or the flowers. Don’t walk on the hills. Don’t be a dick. Lots of signs about not doing that. Do you actually see the dune coming in? There’s a bunch of footprints on it.
And literally, like all these signs say don’t walk on them. And I was like, “Good job.” So don’t be like that. So the overlook trail kind of goes up over here, and then ends. So we’re going to keep walking, right, Robin? Want to go to a different trail head.
Can you hear our van rattling? It’s not bumpy, it’s just gravel.
There’s ridges, like ruffles. Yeah, you’re right, there are ridges. What was that?
No speeding, yeah. So no dust. Ooh, ooh, whoo, yes, I think we found them.
Yes. [crosstalk 00:03:18].
This is what we’ve been on the hunt for.
Oh, this is gorgeous. We are at the Painted Cove, which is the most famous spot on Instagram that you probably see of the Painted Hills. It is just a quarter-mile loop around this little hill right there. So going to be a long hike, you guys. Come on.
Quick reminder to stay on this boardwalk. Do not leave it. Don’t walk on the hills. Don’t be a dick. This is that Instagram famous spot that you see all over, including my own Instagram. I suggest that you wear a yellow or a white dress to really pop against the red Painted Hills here. It’s going to be beautiful.
About 33 million years. Robin here is going to give you the more technical science. Believe it or not, I did get a five on my AP environmental science course, but that was in high school, a very long time ago.
It’s just the iron oxidizing in the clay turning it red. It’s rust.
Rust. See? There’s this little sign that I was trying to memorize and tell you guys, and I’m doing a really bad job at it. That’s why I moved to San Francisco and not Hollywood, you guys. But anyways, this is 33 million years old. It is gorgeous. Definitely worth a stop.
I had to put my hair up. It is getting a wee bit windy. So now we are at the Leaf Fossil Trail Head. It’s another one that’s just a fourth-mile long. So we’re just going to pop in real quick and see what this is about. [inaudible 00:04:53] so pretty. So Leaf Fossil Hill has its name because there is a shit ton of fossils here. At one point, some guy, Ralph W. Cheney, just surveyed a small cubic area and he found over 20,000 different fossils. Isn’t that crazy? So lots of old dead stuff is in here. No dinosaurs, it’s mostly just plants and bugs. But it’s still pretty awesome.
Okay, so that is it. That is the Painted Hill Oregon. It’s a short visit. If you’re trying to nail through sites, you can definitely do it easily within a half hour I think. It’s not a big events. But you should definitely spend more time there. It is gorgeous. There’s some hiking trails. I think the longest hiking trail is about 2.8 miles. So you can go do that if you’re really itching to get your body moving. But yeah, this is the Painted Hills. They’re so pretty, super underrated. I think we saw like seven other cars when we were in there. So it’s easy to take photos of, they’re stunning. You’re gonna feel like you have the whole park to yourself. Definitely worth a visit.