Pets allowed
Allowed
Guided tours
No
Backcountry camping
No
Lodging
No
Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.

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 Carroll Rim Trail is 1.6 miles / 2.6 kilometers round trip. The trail climbs over 400 feet (120 m) of elevation to a panorama view of the Painted Hills. Overflow parking is available at the Painted Hills Overlook.
  • The Painted Hills Overlook Trail is 0.5 mile / 0.8 kilometer roundtrip. This fairly level trail follows an old road and offers further distinctive views of the Painted Hills.
  • The Painted Cove Trail is 0.25 mile / 0.4 kilometer round trip. The Painted Cove is an amazing color palette of vibrant rocks. A portion of this trail features a level boardwalk to cross over sensitive soils.
  • The Leaf Hill Trail is 0.25 mile / 0.4 kilometer round trip. Leaf Hill has been extensively excavated and studied by paleontologists. Interpretive signs along the trail explain more of its history.
  • The Red Scar Knoll Trail is 0.25 mile / 0.4 kilometer roundtrip. This mostly level trail leads to a hill of bright yellow and red clays. This trailhead is called Red Hill on the road signs.

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.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Winter
Spring
Summer
Fall

Congestion

Low

Parking Pass

Not Required

Pros

Curious and beautiful geological formations.

Cons

Limited trail system for hiking. Mostly viewpoints.

Features

Geologically significant

Location

Field Guide + Map

Nearby Lodging + Camping

Comments

02/18/2018
Beautiful & impressive hills, but probably only need a couple hours to explore due to limited trail system. We came here on a detour, and ended up taking the Oregon scenic byway (Hwy 19) back Northwest and along the Gorge back to Portland. What a drive! Saw beautiful landscapes along the way, and even more awesome covered in fresh snow from the day before. If you're in the area I would highly recommend it.
Valerie Egan referred to a couple images that are not readily accessible. Occasionally, ranger led walks are available to some of the rarer locations in the park. These images were taken on one of those ranger guided walks.
04/15/2017
A quick detour (this seems to be how most people visit) to the Painted Hills. This spot on my map has always seemed to be a little too far from my destination... but was certainly worth a stop along the Journey Thru Time Scenic Highway.
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