Travel Back in Time at Oregon’s Painted Hills

Adventure Hiking Travel By Kühl Editor

Located in the middle of nowhere, central Oregon, the Painted Hills are absolutely worth the trek off the beaten path. In fact, the Painted Hills are so special and unique, they make the list as one of the 7 Wonders of Oregon.

Thanks to the deep, rusty red hue and barren landscape, exploring the Painted Hills is like taking a trip to Mars. Scientists have traced the history of the Painted Hills back 35 million years, and the geological layers tell the story of hundreds of thousands of years of climate change. The area started as a floodplain, before morphing into a tropical setting and eventually becoming the iconic wonder it is now. A collection of more than 40,000 fossils have been discovered in the area and include the remains of early horses, camels, and rhinoceroses.

The Painted Hills are one of three areas (or units) that make up the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The other two, the Clarno Unit and the Sheep Rock Unit are about an hour drive from the Painted Hills.

Sitka Fossil Beds PaintedHills
Sitka takes a mid-hike snooze in the Painted Hills unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Sitka and I spent a few days in the region during a warm winter spell and enjoyed stepping back in time to get a glimpse of what Oregon looked like millions of years ago.

Hiking the Painted Hills

The Painted Hills are named due to the red, yellow, gold, and black stratification in the soil. These layers were formed by decomposed vegetation covered in volcanic ash. The colors look different depending on the time of day you visit, so it’s worth checking them out a few times if you can.

There are several different sites and numerous short trails within Painted Hills. They’re located a short drive from one another, so it’s worth visiting them all if you have the time.

Painted Hills Overlook Trail

The most popular site at Painted Hills, the Overlook Trail is a short 0.5-mile round trip walk to an expansive view of the iconic colorful hills. The trail is fairly flat and wide, making it accessible to most abilities.

Painted Cove Trail

If you really want to feel like you’re on Mars, this short and easy trail starts on a boardwalk that cuts through short mounds of rust-colored mounds. This trail lets you get right up close to the hills for a better look at the geological features.

Fossil Beds Boardwalk PaintedHills
Jen and Sitka explore fossil beds on Painted Cove Trail. Pictured in KÜHL’s The One Hoody

Carroll Rim Trail

At 1.6 miles, the Carroll Rim Trail is the longest trail within Painted Hills. It’s also the most challenging, with a 400-foot elevation gain. However, trekkers will be rewarded with a panoramic view of the Painted Hills basin.

Leaf Hill Trail

This short 0.3-mile loop is family-friendly and features a hill littered with plant fossils for the opportunity to spot some fossils up close.

Red Scar Knoll

Another short walk, this 0.4-mile round trip, out-and-back wanders around the rim of a conical hill, terminating at the backside where you can enjoy the view from the seat of the convenient bench.

Camping Near the Painted Hills

Due to the remote location of the Painted Hills, camping is pretty much the only option for overnight accommodation. The nearest hotels are located in Prineville, an hour away.

Priest Hole Recreation Site

When my friend and I stayed at Priest Hole Recreation Site, we were the only people there and nabbed a spot right on the river. These primitive, BLM sites are free; there are no campsite amenities aside from a single vault toilet.

There are no trails, but plenty of dirt roads to take in the scenery. I went for a 5-mile run one morning and really enjoyed the views! In summer, temperatures can soar, so floating the one-mile section of the John Day River around Priest Hole is a great way to cool off. Priest Hole is also a local favorite for fishing.

Sitka Running Priest Hole
Sitka follows Jen on a dirt road for a run through Priest Hole Recreation Area, Central Oregon

Burnt Ranch Campground

Also located on the John Day River and situated on BLM land, Burnt Ranch Campground offers dispersed camping. The road can be rugged, and high clearance vehicles are advised. As a result, this campground is quieter than Priest Hole.

Tips for Visiting the Painted Hills

Dogs are allowed at the Painted Hills, but must remain on a 6-ft or shorter leash.

The sun can be hot and intense, and there are few trees to provide shade. If visiting in summer, go in the morning or evening when the sun is lower in the sky. Wear a broad-brimmed hat and sunblock, and bring plenty of water.

During the winter, it can snow and be very cold, so plan accordingly. Wear insulating base layers and weather-resistant outerwear. You’ll see far fewer people visiting during the off season, so enjoy the scenery and solitude.

Jen Sotolongo is a writer, photographer, and blogger. She travels the world in search of the most dog-friendly cities and outdoor adventures. Her book, The Essential Guide to Hiking with Dogs is now available. Join her journey at Long Haul Trekkers.

Sitka Camping Priest Hole
Kühl Editor