Visiting Oregon’s Unique Painted Hills

couple with dog at painted cove

On a recent road trip to Central Oregon, we took a small detour to see Oregon’s Painted Hills.  I’d read about them, and they reminded me a little of the South Dakota Badlands.  I didn’t realize I had anything like that so close to home, so I wanted to check them out. After taking this short road trip to Oregon, I will say that I have a newfound appreciation for Washington’s neighbor state. It has more natural variety than I previously realized, and it left me wanting to explore more of it in the future.

Prineville, Oregon: Our gateway to Oregon's Painted Hills

We left the Alvord Desert and drove about 4.5 hours to the town of Prineville, Oregon.  Our first glimpse of the town of Prineville was from up above the town. It appeared like an oasis in the desert, green and lush.  I wondered what the first settlers along the Oregon Trail must have felt when they first saw this area. 

Only an hour away, Prineville is a great choice for travelers needing to spend the night before heading on to the Painted Hills.

After checking into our hotel, we decided to grab some dinner as we had skipped lunch, and were on the verge of getting hangry, so food was a priority!  We read reviews about an authentic Mexican restaurant with great food, so we headed to Tacos Toledo Mi Tiendita. It is a tiny little restaurant mainly used for takeout, but there are two tables for indoor seating.  

I was ready to order everything on the menu!  Instead, I ordered a tamale (I love tamales!), 5 authentic tacos (no Tex-Mex stuff), a Chile Relleno, and hubby ordered a pambazo with chips and salsa.  I loved everything I ordered!  The pambazo is like a breakfast sandwich. It has potatoes, cheese, and chorizo inside.  

After dinner, we drove around Prineville and liked what we saw.  They have beautiful historic buildings and the Bowman Museum, which tells the history of the area from the time of the first settlers. The town felt like a nice blend of history and progress.

old tree at Painted Hills

Driving From Prineville to Oregon's Painted Hills

The next morning we got up early, ate breakfast at the hotel before checking out, and then headed for the Painted Hills.  It is about a 1-hour drive from Prineville to reach the Painted Hills in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

I enjoyed the drive as it was a mixture of farmland, lakes, and trees.  The drive passed quickly, and soon we were turning off on a small narrow road that passed by more farms while also catching our first glimpses of the Painted Hills. 

 After about a 10-minute drive on this road, we came to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument entrance.  This is where the road turns to gravel.  It’s nothing too bumpy, though, not at all like our drive to Alvord Desert, where the road was much rougher.  Any car should handle the gravel roads at the Painted Hills. Just take it slow.

painted overlook closer bench view
Enjoying the view at the Painted Overlook trail.

The Painted Hills at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Shortly after entering the National Monument boundary via the gravel road, you’ll come to a fork in the road where you can go left to the Visitor Center or right to continue to the trails and to see the Painted Hills.  If you need to use the restroom, then head to the Visitor Center as that is the only restroom facility at the Painted Hills.

Trails at the Painted Hills

Continuing up the dirt road past the turnoff for the Visitor Center, you’ll come to the Painted Overlook. This is the first trail in a series of trails within the Painted Hills park area. You’ll also pass the Carroll Rim Trail parking area on your way to the Painted Overlook parking lot.

  • The Painted Overlook (0.5-mile roundtrip) 
  • Carroll Rim Trail (1.6 miles roundtrip)
  • The Painted Cove Trail (0.25-mile boardwalk trail + overlook)
  • The Red Scar Knoll Trail (0.25-mile trail)
  • The Leaf Hill Trail (0.25-miles roundtrip)
The Painted Overlook is a 0.5-mile roundtrip gravel path to an viewpoint.  There is a bench on one section of the trail with sweeping views of the painted hills below.  At the beginning of the trail, there are some signs with information regarding the area’s volcanic formation.
painted hills overlook trail

The wide gravel path at the Painted Overlook trail.

The 0.25-mile roundtrip Painted Cove Trail follows a wooden boardwalk before connecting to a dirt path.  Make sure to read the signs along the trail that explain how these unique painted hills came to be. 

person walking on boardwalk at painted cove in the painted hills

The wooden boardwalk at the Painted Cove trail.

At the end of the boardwalk (when starting counterclockwise) leads to a fork in the trail.  You can go left to walk up to an overlook or right to continue the loop.  I recommend walking up to the overlook as it provides great views of the painted hills below and a really neat icy blue lake.

the painted cove trail overlook

The view from the Painted Cove trail overlook.

The Red Scar Knoll Trail (also known as Red Hill trail) is another short trail (.25 mile roundtrip) that leads to a dark red hill on one side and yellow on the other. The trail takes you over a small bridge where it forks straight and to the left where you can view the red side first. 

Then, retrace your steps back to the main trail and continue as it goes around the hill and brings you to a viewing area of the yellow side of the hill. The red and yellow colors found in the painted hills is due to the blend of iron and magnesium.  The hills are rusting!

red scar knoll trail viewpoint

The yellow side of the red scar knoll.

The Leaf Hill Trail (Leaf Fossil Trail) leads you to a hill where fossilized leaves of genus Metasequoia, the Dawn Redwood, were found. Although it is fascinating that these great trees once lived here, the actual hill and trail were a bit underwhelming.

Leaf Fossil Hill

Scattered fossils at the Leaf Fossil Hill trail.

Time Spent Visiting the Painted Hills

We spent approximately 2 hours exploring the Painted Hills.  Visiting all of the trails, except the Carroll Rim Trail. We planned to do it last, but the parking lot was full upon our return. Deciding we’d probably seen what there was to see anyway; we left without hiking that trail.

My recommended trails:

  • The Painted Overlook: This had nice views of the hills we passed while driving up to the Overlook.
  • The Painted Cove Trail: I liked being so close to the Painted Hills as well as the small overlook that let me see the pretty lake and painted hills below.
Just Okay: The Red Scar Knoll trail was just okay, in my opinion. I did think it was interesting that it is red on one side and yellow on the other, and it is short enough that it won’t take you very long to complete.
Could have skipped: The Leaf Hills trail was the most boring one of them all.  You could see a bunch of scattered pieces of rock, which may have been fossils, but really, if you are looking for a trail to skip, this is one I felt sort of like “meh” afterward.
tree and bridge at red scar knoll trail
One of the beautiful trees dotting the landscape. It made me think of how the redwoods once grew here.

Getting to Oregon's Painted Hills

From Prineville, Oregon
Take US-26 E for about 43 miles before turning left onto Bridge Creek Rd/Burnt Ranch Rd. Follow Bridge Creek Rd for another 5.5 miles before turning left onto Bear Creek Rd. Bear Creek Rd is a gravel road. Follow signs in the park to either the trails or the Visitor Center.

From Mitchell, Oregon

Take US-26 W for 3.6 miles, then turn right onto Bridge Creek Rd/Burnt Ranch Rd. Follow Bridge Creek Rd for another 5.5 miles before turning left onto Bear Creek Rd. Bear Creek Rd is a gravel road. Follow signs in the park to either the trails or the Visitor Center.

Tips for Your Trip

Fuel up in Prineville or Mitchell, depending on which direction you’re coming from. The only restroom is at the Visitor Center and picnic area near the Painted Hills entrance. Go left at the fork in the gravel road and follow the signs to the Visitor Center. I did not see any other restrooms in the park.

Bring a jacket, depending on what time of year you visit (we came in the fall), it can get windy and cold.  We were happy we had our rain jackets with us as well as sweatshirts. I also recommend bringing snacks and drinks as there is nothing inside the National Monument area.

Happy Trails!

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