Exploring The Colourful Painted Hills In Oregon
by Tamara Elliott· May 10, 2021
A kaleidoscope of colours brightens up the otherwise arid landscape at Oregons Painted Hills, where stratifications in the soil dating back millions of years created an incredible natural phenomenon.
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From the best hikes to photo tips to must-do spots, heres everything you need to know about visiting the Painted Hills in Oregon.
Painted Cove Trail
What To Expect When Visiting The Painted Hills In Oregon
Youll likely be headed to the Painted Hills from Bend, Oregon, the closest nearby large city, which is approximately two hours southwest of the park. Even if Bend wasnt on your initial itinerary, Id highly recommend planning a stop here- its one of our favorite cities in the Pacific Northwest, packed with amazing hikes and so many excellent craft breweries. No matter which direction you come from, youll enter the park from Burnt Ranch Road and first pass the parking lots for the Carroll Rim Trail on your right and the Painted Hills Overlook on your left. Id suggest first continuing on to the furthest trail back, the Red Hill Trail, and, from there, working your way forwards . Not only will you be closer to the exit when you finish the last of the five trails, but youll be saving the most dramatic views of the Painted Ridge for last.
If five hiking trails sounds daunting to you, fear not- these are more walking pathways than hiking trails, with minimal elevation gain and a combined length of less than three miles total . Assuming you start from the back of the park and stop at each trail, youll do the following :
1. The Red Hill Trail is a flat 0.25-mile trail along a dirt path that leads around a large hill, composed of red, orange, and gold clay.
All in all, you can plan to spend about two to three hours exploring the five trails of the park, depending on how quickly you walk and how many times you stop to take photos along the way!
A Stunning Guide To Oregons Painted Hills
Oregons Painted Hills had been on my bucket list for the longest time. The otherworldly landscape in this region makes me question if the photos Ive seen of the Painted Hills are real or if someone has a doctorate in Photoshop.
As someone that happily grew up in Oregon, I have heard the endless hype about the famous Painted Hills for years! But I must confess to you I stalled hard. It took me entirely too long to visit the Painted Hills . Can you blame me? Oregon is chock-full of natural wonder and I only have 24-horus in a day!
However, I am here to tell you to learn from my mistake. After seeing Oregons Painted Hills firsthand, I now understand why this unique place has such an appeal on folks, myself included.
If youre planning a trip to the Painted Hills, I hope you find the guide below helpful . The guide outlines all the things we learned during our visit. Hope you enjoy!
Quick Tip: Dont forget to pack sunscreen for your visit! Heres the sunscreenIve used for the past 6+ years, I discovered it in France and now buy it in bulk. Youll never catch me without it!
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Leaf Hill Trail: 025 Mile
While Leaf Hill looks like your average tree-covered hill, its actually rich with the fossilized remains of plants dating back an astounding 30 million years. You can see them up close, but as the signs say dont even think about touching them or taking one home as a souvenir.
Leaf Hill Trail
Leaf Hill Trail
Camping In Painted Hills Oregon
Open: All year around Comments. Being relatively new to the Portland area, I had never explored much outside of the city. I had gone to .Highly recommended adventurous campsites along the John Day River that are accessible by both boat and vehicle can be found at the BLM â.Priest Hole Campground is one of the few places to camp near the Painted Hills in Oregon. The campground is located about 8 miles or 30 minutes northeast of .RV Dry Camp $25.00 per night. RV Space $30.00. âWelcome to the Oregon Paleo Lands Center & Gallery. Explore. Map of the Painted Hills Scenic Bikeway.We invite you to stay in one of our 3 unique European Cottages while you explore the special places of our region such as the famous Painted Hills â one of the .Has anyone camped on BLM land or dispersed camping areas in the john day/painted hills region? Any suggestions for areas to look for?Dayville, Oregon. The Clarno Unit, which is located near the town of Fossil, the Painted Hills Unit, located near the town of Mitchell, and the Sheep Rock Unit .Just to get from our campsite to the Painted Hills unit we had to drive about 50. have time to enjoy Central Oregon as this was my first time heading that way.
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Red Hill Dispersed Camping
Its Bureau of Land Management land, which implies all setting up camp is free. We set up camp right on the banks of the John Day River and it was incredibly lovely. The water was the ideal temperature for swimming and perfectly clear. There were two or three hundred yards from us on one or the other side, so not very swarmed. The Dyrt camper Sarah W.
How Were The Painted Hills Created
For Geology nerds like me who are curious, you can dig deeper into how the Painted Hills were formed here.
For most people though, this explanation with suffice:
The Painted Hills are made up of banded clays from a series of volcanic ash eruptions that formed the Cascades during the Oligocene epoch approximately 32 to 35 million years ago.
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Burnt Ranch Beach And Lower Burnt Ranch Recreation Sites
Location: About 11 miles northwest of the Painted Hills Unit on Burnt Ranch Road.
Open: All year around but because of rough road not always easy to access during winter months.
Rate: Free of charge for camping on public lands.
Spaces: Natural openings for walk-in camping on sandy shoreline, no developed sites, BLM maintained, Only walk in camping! No vehicles allowed on the beach!
Amenities: No Restroom at the beach but at boat launch 1/4 mile down the road at the Lower Burnt Ranch Recreation Site, No Garbage Collection! Haul all trash out! Campfires must be contained in a metal firepan and ashes hauled out with trash an annual Fire Closure is in effect from June 1 to September 30 .
Description: The Burnt Ranch Beach Recreation Site is one of the most romantic camping settings with its soft sandy river beach, a small grove of gnarled trees and impressive rock formations looming above the John Day River. Cars can be parked in a parking area provided on top or below but arent allowed on the beach. Campers should leave no trace, and fire pans are required. There is great fishing and swimming and a great hike along the shore. More camping possibilities are found ¼ mile down the Burnt Ranch Road at the Lower Burnt Ranch Recreation Site. There, a road leads down to the river , into a lovely canyon with Juniper trees and sagebrush and a more rocky shore with great fishing spots. There is a basic restroom at Lower Burnt Ranch Recreation Site.
Sheep Rock Unit In The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
The Sheep Rock part of the monument is located to the east and is made up of a rocky terrain of complex geology. Although you may not see many today, the unit was named after the hundreds of wild bighorn sheep that used to live on the rocks.
The geological features in this part of the park are a spectacle to behold, with the blue and green hues coming from the layers of volcanic ash and chemical weathering.
This unit could be described as being the hub of monument operations, as it is here the monuments headquarters and the main visitors center is located.
What Are Painted Hills Oregon
The Painted Hills, a geologic site in Wheeler County, Oregon, is one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon and this was one of the stops we were most excited for. From the photographs we had seen, we were sure it would be impressive, and it sure was.
Painted Hills is one of the most unique places to visit in Oregon. Standing there and looking out over the bizarre landscape, it really felt like Mother Nature had outdone itself with what looked like an airbrushed painting. However, it is completely natural from years of various minerals weathering over the hills. Also, entombed in the natural hills are well-preserved plant and animal fossil records which span more than 40 of the 65 million years of the Cenozoic Era. The area was once an ancient floodplain. The martian looking landscape gives an incredible geology lesson through the multilayers of color created 35 million years ago. Through multiple volcanic eruptions and climate changes, nature formed what you see today.
Helpful Tip: Dont forget to pack your sunscreen. When we visited during the summer it was HOT.
Things To Do At Sheep Rock Unit
Thomas Condon Paleontology Center This fascinating center is well worth a visit when in Sheep Rock, as it will help give you a little more info about your surroundings in an exciting way.
Expect to see some amazing fossils, interpretive programs, fossil presentations, and even a viewing window into the fossil laboratory, where you will see the areas paleontologists doing what they do best. It is here you will be able to find out about some of the best hiking trails and things to do.
Picture Gorge This is an excellent drive-through attraction, located on either side of the entrance to the Sheep Rock Unit. The cliffs on either side of the road rise in stunning shades of purple, red and brown, with plenty of pull-outs for those that want to stop and take it all in.
James Cant Ranch House In 1984, the house and outbuildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1975, when the monument opened, it served as the headquarters for all three of the units. Today, the lower floor is open to the public as a small museum, home to a range of exhibits about the history and culture of the region.
Mascall Overlook Dont miss the sweeping views of the John Day Valley from the Mascall Overlook, at a height of 150 feet, Picture Gorge can also be spotted.
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Tips For Visiting The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
- There is no charge for visiting the fossil beds, making it a very cheap trip to see some incredible features.
- Bear in mind that everything within the site is protected, meaning that all archeological features, fossils, rocks, and plants cant be disturbed.
- Most of the tiny towns within the fossil beds dont have much in the way of amenities, so it may be best to stock up on things like food and gas before you head in, as well as lots of drinking water.
- If you are thinking of bringing your furry friend, they must be kept on a leash at all times.
- As the colors of the hills look better in the late afternoon, it is best to plan your trip to which area you want to be in at which part of the day.
- The units are open throughout the whole year, but potable water is only available at the picnic areas between spring to fall. The summers here can get very hot, so sunscreen is essential.
- All three units have a picnic area, so bring a packed lunch.
- To visit all three units at the John Day Fossil Beds youd really need three days. Sheep Rock has the most hikes to conquer, Clarno would be the quickest to see, and the Painted Hills are going to be the most crowded if youre here at peak season. Dont forget the amount of time it takes to drive between the three as well. Plan accordingly.
- Dont forget our guide on The Painted Hills for more info on that area.
Oregon lover, adventure seeker, travel blogger, beer and wine drinker, dog person, master of the messy bun, and geography nerd.
Hike The Painted Cove Trail
- Difficulty Level: Easy
- Distance: 1/4 mile loop
This is the most popular hike in the area and chances are good youve seen photos of it, not hard to see why!
A level boardwalk takes you through a striking color palette of vibrate yellow, lavender and crimson hills. Make sure to stay on the trail to avoid damaging sensitive habitat. This was by far the most crowded trail during our visit, the boardwalk is a great experience.
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You Must See The Stunning Painted Hills In Oregon
Oregons Painted Hills are one of those awe-inspiring things you have to see in person. Photos simply arent enough to convey how impressive this prehistoric landscape is. Many Oregonians have never been to the Painted Hills or dont realize something this amazing lies in the Eastern part of our state. A drive out to see the Painted Hills is well worth it, and something that families will enjoy.
Hiking In The Painted Hills Oregon
Hiking the five trails in the Painted Hills is the best way to take in the excellent views of this truly unusual landscape. However, if hiking isnt on your agenda, you can still get awesome views of the painted hills just from your car when driving through the park.
The trails are well marked and easy to find as they all start from the parking areas located along the parks main road. Although all of the hikes within the park are short, they offer incredible views of the painted hills and are highly recommended.
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The Painted Hills Unit In The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
With gorgeous bands of reds and gold rippling across rolling hills, it is not really surprising that the Painted Hills is the favorite unit in the John Day Fossil Beds. They look as though they have been stained by the sunset, with colors changing with the time of day. These banded striations correspond to various geological eras that were formed when the area was an ancient river floodplain.
The colors were formed over 35 million years ago by different layers of volcanic ash. Each layer contained different minerals that compacted and solidified into the various bands.
Millions of years of history are revealed in the layers of earth, one color at a time. On your visit, youll see vibrant hues of orange, black, tans, and red that paint the hills in a series of stripes. The rock also contains many fossils of leaves from 30 to 39 million years ago.
The best time to visit is after rain, as this is when the colors are the most intense. No matter when you visit, however, you will be impressed with the sight. It is open year-round, with small yellow flowers appearing in the spring and a sprinkling of snow in the winter.
For photography, the lighting is best in the afternoon, drawing in visitors from miles around to get a shot of the golden hills. The windswept typography has sculpted smooth curves into the multicolored rock, which helps to add to the areas beauty.
We actually have an entire guide on The Painted Hills, so lets talk about the other two units!
Where To Camp Near The Painted Hills
Regardless of whether youre depleted from investigating every last trace of these old relics, or you simply need to see the absolute best dim sky stargazing in Oregon, setting up camp around the Painted Hills is one of the most incredible approaches to encounter them. Here are a couple of our campers #1 spots close to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
Hike The Leaf Hill Trail
- Difficulty Level: Easy
- Distance: 1/4 mile loop
This trail has been extensively studied and excavated by paleontologists over the years. The trail takes you past informative signs that explain more history. Stop and enjoy the grandeur of the land youre walking on!
Thousands of fossils have been excavated from this area, making for some interesting discoveries. If you see fossils during your visit, its imperative that you leave them be. As mentioned, collecting fossils is strictly prohibited.
What Are The Painted Hills In Oregon
The Painted Hills, outside of the quirky town of Mitchell, is the most famous of the three sections of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, spread across central Oregon . This area offers one of the worlds best and most continuous collections of geological features, including fossils, from the Tertiary Period, which spanned from about 50 million years to 5 million years ago. In fact, the fossils found here helped biologists piece together the evolution of dogs, cats, camels, and some of our other favorite furry friends today.
Each of the three units in this National Monument offer their own unique geological features, with the Painted Hills colorful soil and mesmerizing patterns demonstrating the changing climate from millions of years ago. The red and orange bands found in the hills represent the once tropical climate of the region, which turned more golden-hued approximately 34 to 32 millions years ago, as the area became cooler and drier. Today, youll find five short and easy trails that range from 0.25 to 1.6 miles in length, weaving between these vibrant hills and offering interpretive signs explaining the science and history behind this areas geology for your nerdy viewing pleasure.
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