Oregon’s Painted Hills are a beautiful display of earth’s artwork and history. Layers of black, gray, yellow, gold and red soil tell a story of the area’s geological transitions and provide visitors with stunning vistas. Part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, the Painted Hills Unit is a visual reminder that what we now know as desert was once a very different place – an ancient flood plane home to early horses, camels and rhinoceroses!
The black soil is lignite consisting of vegetable matter from the flood plain. The grey soil is composed of mudstone, siltstone and shale, and the red is laterite, a soil formed in warm, tropical climates.
There are many trails to choose from as you explore Painted Hills. Most are short and relatively level, and each offers a slightly different perspective and focus.
The Painted Hills Unit has a total of five trails, each with their own parking area. Directional signs along Bear Creek Road point the way to each trailhead. (Note: The Red Scar Knoll Trail is called Red Hill on the road signs.) RVs and other large vehicles are not recommended past the Painted Hills Overlook.
The Painted Hills Overlook Trail is popular for its views of the most well-known hills. The Leaf Hill Trail, on the other hand, is named for the thousands of leaf fossils found along the path that represent an ecosystem that is nearly 40 million years old. Some trails are wheelchair accessible and others are not. However you choose to tour, be sure to stay on the trail to protect the beauty of this fascinating place. If your itinerary allows it, consider visiting the Painted Hills in late afternoon or early evening to see the changing light illuminate the area with varying and dramatic colors.