Head to the hills on five different hiking trails for these alien like landscapes in eastern Oregon where mounds of dirt are layered with rainbow colored sediment.
About The Hills
Painted Hills formed 35 million years ago from changes in the climate affecting the types of plants and soil. The red soils come from a time when this area had a more tropical climate while the yellow colors are from a cooler, more temperate climate.
The area had been a floodplain and the layers are from different deposits that flowed in over time. There are an abundance of fossils in the park, most notably leaf fossils that can be observed on the Leaf Hill Trail.
Painted Hills is one of three units in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, the other two being Sheep Rock and Clarno.
About The Hikes
There are five separate trails in the Painted Hills unit which a car will be necessary to get you from one trailhead to the other. The trails range between a quarter of a mile and a mile and a half at most.
Painted Hills Overlook
This is a .5 mile trail on an old road that shoots out into the hills with 360-degree views. You get great views of the different mounds and colors from the vantage points along this path.
Carrol Rim Trail
This is the longest trail at 1.6 miles out & back with moderate elevation gain and the only one that I ended up skipping. You could say the difficulty level scared me away but it's actually that you can pretty much see the same hills as the Painted Hills Overlook Trail.
If I were to go back I definitely would do this trail for something fresh.
Painted Cove Trail
This is a unique trail with wooden walkways through the saturated red mounds. It's only a .25 mile loop but was a nice interactive walk with a twist that the other's didn't have.
Leaf Hill Trail
This is another quick .25 mile loop and circles around an extensively excavated area studied by paleontologists. The fossil area is fenced off for looking purposes only but I couldn't spot any leaf fossils from my quick takes as I walked around.
Spend some time with it and I'm sure you'll have better luck!
Red Hill Trail
This final trail is located furthest back in the park and is another quick quarter mile trail. The trail takes you back behind a giant dirt mound. It's cool to get up close and personal to a mound this big, an opportunity you don't get on any of the other trails.
Any additional information needed can be found at the John Day NPS Website here.
Camping at Painted Hills
There is no overnight parking nor camping at any of the trailheads at Painted Hills. However, there are free dispersed car camping sites at Red Hill if you drive just past the trailhead on the main dirt road.
I stayed here when I drove in late and it made for a perfect spot to crash after exploring at night. (There are some amazing stars out here and almost no atmospheric light!)
Getting There and Important Information
Painted Hills is far out in east Oregon and for most, the drive is the deterrent, but don't let this stop you from coming! The drive is on main roads leading right up to the park so it's actually quicker than if you were to be driving through miles of backcountry forest service roads.
Driving Time From Portland: Approx. 4 Hours
Driving Time From Bend: Approx. 2 Hours
The park is free to use and open to drive through at all hours.
There is no park entrance or visitors center.
The park is carry in carry out, practice good Leave No Trace (LNT) policies.
The only bathroom facilities are port-a-pottys at the Painted Hills Overlook trailhead.
No water in the park, make sure to bring more than what you need because access to the nearest store is a hike.
Best Season to Visit: Late summer early fall is said to be best with cooler temperatures. You're basically in a desert and temperatures in the summer can get over 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cool Tip: The colors of Painted Hills vary based on weather conditions. The rain brings out more vibrant colors and the snow also covers parts of the hills while leaving others exposed making any season a great season to visit!
Going on a day hike? See my list of 9 day hiking essentials that other sites don't list!
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