The Painted Hills is a small, remote unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. It is known for its colorful hills and fossil remains, and is a popular place for those who want to break up the long drive along highway 26. The Painted Hills are a little under 2 hours from Bend, OR and about 5 hours from Boise, ID.
The park’s size is perfectly matched to its remoteness. You can see the entire Painted Hills unit of John Day, including hiking all of the trails, in about 3 hours. This means it makes a perfect day trip from Central Oregon, or a great leg stretch if you are doing the long drive along highway 26 between Oregon and Idaho. If you do find yourself in this remote country, don’t skip a visit to the Painted Hills!
There are five established trails in the Painted Hills. Although I frequently post about off-trail hikes, that’s a no-no here. Please stick to established trails to prevent erosion and damage to the fantastic colorful hillsides. Each trail is short and has unique characteristics. I recommend doing them all! But if you are truly limited on time, don’t miss Painted Cove and the Painted Hills Overlook trail.
One other thing to mention about the Painted Hills is that it is dog friendly (leashes required)! It’s rare to find that in National Monuments, so hook up that leash and bring Doggo along!
Red Scar Knoll Trail
The Red Scar Knoll Trail is the newest trail in the park, a short walk to a solitary red and yellow hill. About a third of a mile round trip and level, this is the easiest trail in the park. We started here at the beginning of the day and then worked our way back towards the entrance, so we had it all to ourselves.
Leaf Hill Trail
The Leaf Hill Trail is about a third of a mile round trip and circles a pile of shattered rock that once held a treasure of fossils. Although well excavated and rather bland in person, hike this loop to see an interpretive sign with some fossils that were found at the location.
Painted Cove Trail
Another third of a mile loop, The Painted Cove Trail will take you to one of the most photographed locations in the park. The boardwalk through the rusty red hills is fantastic, and if you are lucky enough to be alone you can take your time studying and photographing the patterns in the clay.
Carroll Rim Trail
This is the most strenuous hike in the park – 1.7 miles round trip with about 400 feet of gain – but it also offers the best view. The high point looks down on the Painted Hills and gives you a view of the entire park and beyond. If you want the biggest color pop, hike this one in the afternoon when the sun is at your back. We hiked it in the morning and the sun was in our faces as we looked towards the Painted Hills, washing out the color.
Painted Hills Overlook Trail
This is the opposite hike as Carroll Rim. Although not as long, it will give you a vantage point that pops the color of the Painted Hills better in the morning than in the afternoon.
We’ve just hiked every trail of the park and we’ve only hiked about 3.6 miles! Including drive time from 26, snacks, photography, and chatting with other people, we were in and out in three hours. So if you find yourself in remote Central Oregon, don’t miss this incredible side trip!