Explore Central Oregon’s Painted Hills
The Painted Hills are located in central Oregon’s John Day National Fossil Beds Monument, home to over 40 million years’ worth of fossils, providing vast insight into the Age of Mammals.
The National Monument covers over 14,000 acres, divided into three separate areas: the Painted Hills Unit, the Sheep Rock Unit, and the Clarno Unit. This post covers the first two.
The Painted Hills Unit is mostly known for its colorful landscape, with rounded hills of claystone in hues of yellows and reds. The Sheep Rock Unit is also known for its geological formations, but here they are blue-green and seemingly carved out of the surrounding hillsides. In all areas of the National Monument, digging or collecting of fossils is strictly prohibited.
The region’s climate is semi-arid desert, with only 9-16 inches of annual rainfall – mostly falling in the winter. Spring is a good time to visit, before the extreme heat of the desert summer kicks in. Wildflowers bloom in May, including yellow pincushion (Chaenactis) and bee plant, covering portions of the Painted Hills. Cacti, sagebrush, and juniper trees are scattered across the landscape’s hillsides, grassy areas and rocky terrain. Elevation in the region ranges from 2,000 to 4,500 feet. Learn more about this area’s rich history at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, located in the Sheep Rock Unit.
Featured hikes at the Painted Hills Unit
- Painted Hills Overlook: 0.5 miles (roundtrip), 100 ft. gain
- Carroll Rim Trail: 1.6 miles (roundtrip), 400 ft. gain
- Painted Cove Trail: 0.25 miles (roundtrip)
- Red Scar Knoll Trail: 0.25 miles (roundtrip)
- Leaf Hill Trail: 0.25 miles (roundtrip)
- Difficulty: easy
- Trails: rock, dirt, boardwalks
- Best time of year: spring, early summer (due to higher temps in the summer)
- Features: geological formations
- Fees/permits: none
- Agency: National Park Service – Painted Hills Unit
The Painted Hills, with their rounded shapes and bands of color, are truly a natural wonder. Made of layers of heavily eroded volcanic ash, the colors in the exposed tuffs and claystones vary in differing light and moisture conditions. The Painted Hills were formed over 35 million years ago as a result of many volcanic eruptions and changes in the climate. This area was once a tropical forest and ancient river floodplain, with prehistoric mammals that are distant relatives to rhinos, tigers, horses and bears. Over time, the landscape changed to the semi-arid desert that it is now, and the ash and soils mixed with minerals and plant material eroded, creating the Painted Hills.
Walking off trail in the Painted Hills is prohibited, so please stay on the trails to help protect this fragile environment.
Most of the hills are a tannish to mustard yellow color, with bands of red and streaks of black running through them. Late afternoon provides the best light for photos of the hills. In the spring, yellow cleomes cover parts of the hills and and yellow and purple wildflowers grow in the drainage areas.
While none of the trails in the Painted Hills Unit are long enough to feel like a true hike, each highlights different scenery to be found in this unique area. There is no visitor’s center here, but there are restrooms and picnic tables. Driving up from 26 highway, you start to see glimpses of the unusual color patterns exposed in the surrounding hillsides, which hint at what is to come – a startling revelation of shape and color. This open, expansive area contains the largest concentration of these uniquely painted ridges and mounds.
For the best views, park at the large gravel lot at the top of a hill and go on the Overlook Trail, an easy half-mile walk up a ridge, with benches at several points for taking in the surrounding scenery. Interpretive displays provide information on how the hills were formed. Additional trails in the park include the Painted Cove, with a boardwalk that takes you between several smaller yet brightly colored mounds, offering close-up views of the claystone in shades from darker red to light purple and yellow. The Carroll Rim Trail climbs 400 feet to panoramic views, and the Red Scar Knoll Trail is the newest – a mostly level trail that ends at a bright yellow and red knoll. The Leaf Hill Trail has interpretive displays highlighting some of the extensive paleontological research that shows some of the leaves found there.
Featured hikes at the Sheep Rock Unit
- Blue Basin Trail: 3.25 miles (roundtrip), 600 ft. gain
- Islands in Time Trail: 1.3 miles (roundtrip) note: this trail includes 13 bridges with grated surfaces and is not recommended for dogs
- Difficulty: easy to moderate
- Hike type: loop
- Best time of year: spring and fall (due to higher temps in the summer)
- Features: geological features, panoramic views
- Fees/permits: none
- Agency: National Park Service – Sheep Rock Unit
While the Sheep Rock unit has several trails for hiking, the Blue Basin Trail is the longest option, with up-close views of unusual blue-green formations exposed in the hillsides.
The Blue Basin hike is best done in a clockwise direction, beginning next to the trailhead sign. The first section of the trail is flat, looping around the hills and providing the first glimpses of minty blue-green formations exposed in the hillsides, sharply contrasting with the surrounding landscape. The greenish chalky color even penetrates the water in a small outlet stream. Juniper trees and sage shrubs dot the hills as you begin the hike up a narrow canyon.
A boardwalk section near the top leads to a bench and panoramic views of the John Day Basin, with the John Day river winding its way through green fields. At the top of the basin, the trail rounds the sloping hills, with a side trail to an overlook with more views. Continuing on the main trail, a short section goes through private land divided with fencing and gates to walk through. Back on national monument land, switchbacks eventually lead back to the trailhead.
Just before the loop ends, the Island in Time trail crosses the trail to the right. This trail takes you into the heart of the other-worldly blue-green formations. Although only 1.3 miles roundtrip, there are 13 grated-surface bridges along this trail, making it difficult on a dog’s paws, so it’s recommended to not take dogs unless you can carry them across the bridges. Winding through the heaviest concentration of these blue-green formations, with interpretive panels and replicas of fossils spaced throughout, you are completely surrounded by this surreal landscape at the end of the trail.
While in the Sheep Rock Unit, a stop at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center is highly recommended. The center houses interpretive displays about the history of the area, a small gift shop, and a ranger station. Sheep Rock dominates the views around the center, towering over the surrounding hills. This area is home to a vast number of unique fossils that span 40 million years and provide unparalleled records of the Age of Mammals not found elsewhere in the world. A noted paleontologist, Dr. Ralph W. Chaney stated “No region in the world shows a more complete sequence of Tertiary land populations, both plant and animal, than the John Day Basin.”
The Ochoco Divide campground, located in the Central Oregon’s Ochoco Mountains, makes a good basecamp for exploring the Painted Hills.