John Day Fossil Beds National Monument: Painted Hills, Oregon

The Painted Hills are 2 hours East of Bend, Oregon

My two passions in life (other than my family) are travel and photography.

We have lived in Central Oregon since 2006, and I have always wanted to visit the Painted Hills, about 2 hours east of Bend. When my son and I visited in early Spring 2014, I wondered what took us so long to get here! If you live in the Pacific Northwest, the Painted Hills are a relatively easy drive and much easier to access (let alone easier to park and less expensive) than other geological marvels in the region like the Grand Canyon, or Bryce Canyon in Utah.

I admit that its amazing to visit Hawaii or Texas, but the best jewels are often those in your own geographical backyard! We are so glad that we finally took the trip to see the Painted Hills in Oregon.

Our family lives in the heart of Central Oregon, in Bend. The region is known for its beautiful Cascade Lakes, skiing at Mt. Bachelor, fishing, hiking, Smith Rock and amazing cuisine. A drive east from Bend takes you to areas including Prineville, Mitchell, the Painted Hills, and Fort Rock, among other places.

You can visit any of these locations as a day trip from and back to Bend.

The Painted Hills in Oregon from the Overlook
The Painted Hills in Oregon from the Overlook | Source
Painted Hills Oregon in March 2014
Painted Hills Oregon in March 2014 | Source

Traveling to the Painted Hills, Oregon

Our trip to the Painted Hills took us through the heart of Central Oregon, traveling east from Bend, Redmond and Prineville. Highway 26 runs east from Portland, over Mt. Hood. It is approximately 4.5 hours to the Painted Hills from the Rose City.

For us, traveling from Bend takes a little less than 2 hours. Prineville, Oregon is the last metropolis though which you will pass on your journey. I recommend you should fill up your gas tank and purchase snacks and water before continuing on. Mitchell, Oregon is 47 miles east of Prineville, and the cut-off to the Painted Hills is about 40 miles from Prineville.

Leaving Prineville, continue following Highway 26 east of town over the Ochoco Mountains (4,700 feet above sea level) toward Mitchell, Oregon. Keep your eyes out for deer and other wildlife driving over the pass. We spotted a gang of wild turkeys right outside our car window!

Watch for the sign that welcomes you to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and indicates a turn-off to your left (when traveling east) to the Painted Hills. The park is approximately 6 miles from the highway along a rutted paved road, which turns to a dusty gravel road before you drive up the hills into the park.

You don't need a Forest Service Pass or any cash to visit or park at the Painted Hills! At the entrance to the park is a Ranger Station at which you can get directions, information and use the restrooms.

Spending a Saturday with my Son at the Painted Hills, Oregon

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Visitor Center at the Painted Hills National Monument near Mitchell, OregonOne of many beautiful "Painted Hills" in the National Monument near Mitchell, OregonJuniper trees are abundant in this area of OregonBenches along the Painted Hills Overlook trail allow for extended contemplation of nature's beautyUnusual painted hills of various shapes and colors in Oregon
Visitor Center at the Painted Hills National Monument near Mitchell, Oregon
Visitor Center at the Painted Hills National Monument near Mitchell, Oregon | Source
One of many beautiful "Painted Hills" in the National Monument near Mitchell, Oregon
One of many beautiful "Painted Hills" in the National Monument near Mitchell, Oregon | Source
Juniper trees are abundant in this area of Oregon
Juniper trees are abundant in this area of Oregon | Source
Benches along the Painted Hills Overlook trail allow for extended contemplation of nature's beauty
Benches along the Painted Hills Overlook trail allow for extended contemplation of nature's beauty | Source
Unusual painted hills of various shapes and colors in Oregon
Unusual painted hills of various shapes and colors in Oregon | Source

Tips for an Enjoyable Visit to the Painted Hills

Our visit to the Painted HIlls in March was during what I would consider to be "perfect" weather. Most times, visitors will need to plan for weather.

  • Be sure to carry plenty of water and other fluids (64 oz. per visitor); there are no drinking fountains on-site
  • Wear sunscreen, even during winter months
  • Dogs are welcome but must be on a leash - do not leave dogs unattended in cars as temperatures can quickly climb inside vehicles
  • Make sure your camera battery is fully charged
  • There is no cell phone service (actually very little service from the Ochoco Mountains and even into Mitchell, Oregon)
  • Bring along snacks - there is no restaurant or snack bar on-site
  • Use the bathrooms at the park entrance, about 1 mile away from the Painted Hills Overlook, right when you enter the park! There are no facilities on-site.

What Geological Forces Created the Painted Hills?

As with many State and National parks in this area of the United States (the Lava Cast Forest, Fort Rock, Crater Lake, Smith Rock, etc.), you can thank volcanic forces for the Painted Hills.

The beautiful colored layers in the hills here are the result of volcanic ash that began being deposited in the region about 35 million years ago, during the formation of the Cascade Mountains. Numerous volcanic eruptions and a changing climate created layer upon layer of ash. The ancient tropical river valley has transformed to the barren high desert of today.

Over time, the layers became compressed and mixed with various soils and minerals as the tropical leafy forest and river plain transformed into a barren high desert. Erosion and consolidation eventually changed the ash/mineral layers into bentonite clay.

Black swaths in the Painted Hills consists of lignite from decayed vegetation. Mudstone, siltstone and shale layers show up as various shades of gray. The red in the Painted Hills resulted from floodplain laterite soil deposits.

The beautiful colors of the various clay surfaces of the hills are permanently on view for the public because nothing grows there. During periods of rainfall, the clay becomes saturated and effectively seals water within so that any seedlings cannot penetrate the surface. In addition, the loose surface particles easily wash away, again preventing a foothold for plants.

The benefit of rainfall in the Painted Hills is that the absorption of water causes the surface to expand, which changes the surface tension, transforming reds and yellows to pinks and golds. During dry periods, the hills appear with deeper colors.

The best time to view the colors is at sunset. Each visit to the Painted Hills will be different - depending on the time of day, time of year, amount of sunlight and shadows from clouds above.

Painted Hills, Oregon

A markerPainted Hills Oregon -
Painted Hills, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon 97750, USA
[get directions]

Hard to believe this is my own photograph, rather than a painting, of the Painted Hills
Hard to believe this is my own photograph, rather than a painting, of the Painted Hills | Source

Overview of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon

There are three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument : the Clarno Unit, the Painted Hills Unit, and the Sheep Rock Unit. Each are relatively close (40 miles apart), but it is difficult to see all in a single day.

Be sure to check the National Monument website to ensure that the units you wish to visit are open or if there are any travel advisories before making the journey.

After you learn about the numerous fossils located within the Painted Hills Unit, you will want to visit the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center in the Sheep Rock Unit of the Monument. A fossil museum, bookstore, theater - as well as restrooms and drinking fountains - provide a welcome respite for visitors who have spent a large portion of the day outside. Less than 1/4 mile away is the James Can't Ranch Historic District, which is open most weekdays. It includes a fully-accessible cultural museum.

The Clarno Unit of the National Monument is 18 miles west of the town of Fossil, Oregon. Here, you will witness the majestic Palisades landform. Its creation predates by about 10 million years that of the Painted Hills. Once again, volcanic activity and mudflows, coupled with other geological and climate-based changes, transformed the area from a tropical rainforest into a fossil-rich region exposed to the winds and baking sun of the high desert.

Painted Hills Unit: John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Why Take a Geology Course When you can Visit the Painted Hills?

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Red Hill - approximately 2.5 miles from the Overlook Trail at the Painted HillsThese painted hills may be enjoyed along the drive from Highway 26 before you even get to the ParkBeautiful reds, oranges and greens are painted on these hills in OregonAbundant plant fossils may be viewed at the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon
The Red Hill - approximately 2.5 miles from the Overlook Trail at the Painted Hills
The Red Hill - approximately 2.5 miles from the Overlook Trail at the Painted Hills | Source
These painted hills may be enjoyed along the drive from Highway 26 before you even get to the Park
These painted hills may be enjoyed along the drive from Highway 26 before you even get to the Park | Source
Beautiful reds, oranges and greens are painted on these hills in Oregon
Beautiful reds, oranges and greens are painted on these hills in Oregon | Source
Abundant plant fossils may be viewed at the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon
Abundant plant fossils may be viewed at the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon | Source
Runoff channels at the Painted Hills National Monument in Oregon
Runoff channels at the Painted Hills National Monument in Oregon | Source

What is Your Favorite Geological Site in the Western United States?

  • Grand Canyon, Arizona
  • Bryce Canyon, Utah
  • Painted Hills, Oregon
  • Crater Lake, Oregon
  • Yosemite Park, California
  • Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
  • Other (specify in comments below)
See results without voting

Basic Information About the Painted Hills in Oregon

Hours: Open Year Round, weather permitting

Parking: Space for 5-8 vehicles at each of the trailheads. Plan ahead if visiting during summer or other busy times

Park Ranger: Yes, including information booth at the entrance to the park

Restrooms/Facilities: At the entrance of the park - be sure to stop before heading up toward the various hiking trails. There are no facilities within the park itself.

Accessibility: Trails are covered in loose gravel and are steep in spots, near drop-offs. The government is considering creation of ADA compliant trails in the future.

Fees: Free to visit and free parking

Picnic areas: Yes

Size of the Park: 3,132 acres

Climate and Weather: The climate is generally mild, ranging from 40-80 degrees F. However, check the weather ahead of time. Winters in this part of Oregon can be very cold and icy (10-40 degrees F. On the other hand, summers may be brutally hot (80-100 degrees F), with little shade and no on-site water resources. Rain and snow may occur on occasion, but generally the region is arid.

Special Park Uses: Check with the park superintendent if you wish to engage in any commercial activity or hold special events in the park (weddings, scattering of ashes).

Fossil Research: You may not dig for or collect fossils, without a research permit issued by the monument's paleontologist.

Deep, rich colors at the Painted Hills in Oregon
Deep, rich colors at the Painted Hills in Oregon | Source

What to Bring to the Painted Hills, Oregon

Everyday
Visiting in Spring/Summer
Visiting in Autumn/Winter
Sturdy shoes and socks
Same
Same
Lightweight jacket
May not be necessary, but leave in the car
May wish to bring heavier coat, gloves and a hat
Camera/Video camera
Same
Same
Water bottle/Snacks
Same
Same
Leash for dogs
Same
Same
Sunscreen
Same
Same
"Nothing Grows Here" - Painted Hills, Oregon
"Nothing Grows Here" - Painted Hills, Oregon | Source
So many gorgeous views at the Painted Hills in Oregon
So many gorgeous views at the Painted Hills in Oregon | Source

Painted Cove Photos: John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Trailhead for Painted Cove, OregonDogs are permitted on-leash at the Painted Hills section of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in OregonBeautiful red hills at the Painted Hills in OregonEasy 1/4 mile round trip trail at the Painted Cove Trailhead in Central Oregon
Trailhead for Painted Cove, Oregon
Trailhead for Painted Cove, Oregon | Source
Dogs are permitted on-leash at the Painted Hills section of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon
Dogs are permitted on-leash at the Painted Hills section of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon | Source
Beautiful red hills at the Painted Hills in Oregon
Beautiful red hills at the Painted Hills in Oregon | Source
Easy 1/4 mile round trip trail at the Painted Cove Trailhead in Central Oregon
Easy 1/4 mile round trip trail at the Painted Cove Trailhead in Central Oregon | Source

Various Trails You Can Hike at the Painted Hills, Oregon

When we visited in March 2014, we walked 4 of the 5 public trails at this unit of the National Monument. Each of these trails are approximately 6-8 miles north of Highway 26 in Oregon.

  • Painted Cove Trail (1/4 mile round trip)
  • Painted Hills Overlook Trail (1/2 mile each way)
  • Fossil (1/2 mile round trip)
  • Red Hill Trail (1/2 mile round trip)

The one trail we did not hike, which I would definitely do next time, is the Mitchell Trail, which is 3/4 mile each way.

Each of these trails are rated "easy," and require little effort, particularly because they are so short in distance. Strollers and/or wheelchairs can be used on these trails, except for the Painted Cove Trail which includes steps. Be prepared, however, that the trails are not paved, but covered with gravel. Grades are slight to low-medium in height.

Gold and Brown at the Painted Hills in Oregon
Gold and Brown at the Painted Hills in Oregon | Source

© 2014 Stephanie Hicks

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21 comments

Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 2 years ago from California Gold Country

What a fascinating and beautiful area-- and though I have visited a lot of areas in Oregon, I had never heard of it. You did a good job of "selling". I want to see it myself.


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 2 years ago from Bend, Oregon Author

Thank you Rochelle! I had a lot of positive comments on FB yesterday after our visit to the Painted Hills


Patsybell profile image

Patsybell 2 years ago from zone 6a, SEMO

Love your photos. This is new to me. I hope to see this someday. Thanks to you.

Voted up, beautiful, Pin.


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 2 years ago from Bend, Oregon Author

Thank you so much Patsybell! It is an amazing place to visit. Hope you get there someday. Best, Steph


billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

I've actually been there and it is pretty spectacular. It reminds me of Roosevelt Ntl Park in North Dakota. Cool pics, Steph. I'm glad you had a chance to go there.


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 2 years ago from Bend, Oregon Author

Thanks, Bill! Like I said in the Hub, I cannot believe it has taken me so long to get to the Painted Hills since we have been living in Bend since 2006. It totally lives up to its hype. I'd love to see Roosevelt National Park someday, too. Cheers, Steph


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 2 years ago from Wales

So very interesting, well informed and presented .

Voting up and sharing for sure.

Eddy,.


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 2 years ago from Bend, Oregon Author

Thank you so much Eddy!


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

This is beautiful -- although much different than what's around my neck of the woods -- and I'd love to visit. Thanks for the description, helpful information, and those images.


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 2 years ago from Bend, Oregon Author

I am so glad you enjoyed it! So many beautiful places in the world. It's great to have this gem in our Oregon backyard. Cheers, Steph


quildon profile image

quildon 2 years ago from Florida

Travel is one of my passions too, and the Painted Hills is something I definitely want to visit. Those photos brought tears to my eyes. I can't imagine what I would do if I actually saw them. Do you know if there are guided tours to that area? Voted up, useful and awesome!


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 2 years ago from Bend, Oregon Author

Oh, thank you so much!! I have seen photos many times, but being there in person is without comparison! I sure hope you can visit the Painted Hills one day.

I will check for you about guided tours. I know that they have school field trips and people can arrange to have weddings there too.


quildon profile image

quildon 2 years ago from Florida

Thanks, stepchicks! The reason I asked is because I live far away in the south, so I won't be driving.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

The photographs are beautiful, Steph! I'd love to visit this area, and I live near enough that I might be able to. The colors are gorgeous! Thanks for sharing all the useful information.


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 2 years ago from Bend, Oregon Author

Thanks Alicia! Yes, drive down from B.C. and visit the Painted Hills! It is such a cool place to see. Best to you, Steph


randomcreative profile image

randomcreative 2 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

What a stunning area! I would love to get out there sometime.


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 2 years ago from Bend, Oregon Author

Hi RC, it would be so great if you could come to Oregon from Wisconsin! Let me know!! Best, Steph


briscover profile image

briscover 2 years ago from Changsha,China

very beautiful scenery. I'd like to go,but it's really far from China.


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 2 years ago

I would love to see this in person. Thank you for sharing from your wonderful experience.


annart profile image

annart 23 months ago from SW England

Great photos of this fascinating place. You've whetted my appetite for a visit but I don't know if I'll ever get to the US!

This hub gives essential and interesting advice; something to print off and take with me should I venture there. I too love travel and photography.

For the moment I'll have to travel there by hub! Superb read, thanks.


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 23 months ago from Bend, Oregon Author

Thank you! It's a wonderful place to visit. So many gems in this part of the world. I'd love to get back to the UK myself one day. Cheers, Steph

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