Painted Hills is one of three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The other two, Sheep Rock and Clarno. Each unit offering something unique, Painted Hills is our favorite. It is also the most popular among tourists as well, but for good reason. There are not many other places, if any, in the United States, that you can stand next to 40 million year old hills.
Painted Hills covers 3,132 acres and it is the middle unit of the national monument. Hiking is the main activity to do in this unit and they will not disappoint.
Hiking in Painted Hills
There are 5 trails that are located within the 3,132 acres. They range from .25 miles to 1.6 miles, which makes it a very family friendly and any ability friendly area to get outdoors.
Please remember to not drive, walk or touch the hills. There are signs posted everywhere and for good reason. Also, do not pick flowers or take any fossils.
You can get to all 5 trailheads in an afternoon. I would suggest going in the order below.
Red Scar Knoll Trail
Starting with Red Scar Knoll Trail or Red Hill Trail it is the farther trail into the unit. There are two hills to see here, White and Red Hill and it is only a .25 mile hike. Stay on the trail and respect the boundaries created by the park service. Even though it may look like there is more of a trail, there are signs or blockades showing otherwise.
Enjoy the yellow and red clay that was formed millions of years ago.
Leaf Hill Trail
Leaf Hill Trail is also only .25 miles. It loops around a mound where fossils of plants are found. This area is studied and excavated by paleontologists and is not for public searching.
Painted Cove Trail
One of the two most popular trailheads in the unit is Painted Cove Trail. This trail is part boardwalk to salvage the tender ground and part single track. At only .25 miles you wander through the painted hills and then up above for a beautiful view.
Painted Hills Overlook Trail
The other most popular trail is Painted Hills Overlook. It is .5 miles round trip from the large parking lot. This is what tourists come to see. The painted hills that no other place in the United States has.
Carroll Rim Trail
From the same parking lot, you can walk back to the road and cross to the Carroll Rim Trail. This is the longest of the trails at 1.6 miles round trip and it us straight up and then straight back down. There are a couple areas to sit and take a break and on a hot day please remember water and booties for the fur babies. At the very top of this trail you will get a 360 degree view of the entire area.
Even though Painted Hills is our favorite, the Clarno district is simply incredible. This area holds The Palisades which are volcanic lahars that were created almost 50 million years ago. According to the national park service, tiny four-toed horses, huge rhino-like brontotheres, crocodilians, and meat-eating creodonts once roamed this area that was an ancient jungle.
In the Sheep Rock Unit there are a few trails, the main paleontology center and the main visitor center for the entire national monument. The rocks in this area date back 95 million years with fossils dating to around 37 million years ago. It gives great insight to the history of Oregon.
Enjoy this unique place Oregon has to offer.