IMG_4586One of my favorite places to visit in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is the area called the Painted Hills Unit. Painted Hills is one of the three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, located in Wheeler County, Oregon. It consists of 3,132 acres and is located 9 miles (14 km) northwest of Mitchell, Oregon and 75 miles (121 km) east of Bend. Painted Hills is named after the colorful layers of its hills corresponding to various geological eras, were formed over 35 million years ago by different volcanic eruptions, and when the area was an ancient river floodplain. The black soil is lignite that was vegetative matter that grew along the floodplain. The grey coloring is mudstone, siltstone, and shale. The red coloring is laterite soil that formed by floodplain deposits when the area was warm and humid.

If this sounds like someplace you would like to explore, grab your CamelBak, other Hydration Pack or Hydro Flask, check out these hiking tips, and get ready for a nice hike, and beautiful scenery!

Painted Hills Photo Gallery

View photo gallery of the Painted Hills.

There are several short hiking trails in the area that give you a far-reaching panoramic view of the unique colors that streak the clay rich hills and mounds. Each visit to the painted hills can give you a different view, as rain, wind and the current weather can make the colors of the area change over time.

phills2A short drive beyond the first overlook takes you to the stunning Red Hill and the Painted Cove Trail, which is a short educational hike around a small multi colored clay mound which gives you a close up view from a wooden boardwalk that winds around the area.

You can also hike up the Carroll Rim Trail, which is a 3/4 mile uphill trail that gives you a stunning view of the Painted Hill area.

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument located in east-central Oregon, is located within the John Day River basin and is managed by the National Park Service.

The area is known for its well-preserved layers of fossil plants and mammals that lived in the region millions of years ago during the late Eocene, and the late Miocene periods.

Tour the Painted Hills

View Painted Hills Oregon in a larger map

The three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, the Clarno Unit, the Painted Hills Unit, and the Sheep Rock Unit are difficult to do in a single day, but is possible with an very early start. However you may not be able to fully explore every area if you try to visit them all in one day.

Fees & Reservations

There are no visitor entrance fees for regular recreation visits at all three units of John Day Fossil Beds.

Operating Hours & Seasons

All three units of the John Day Fossil Bed National Monument are open year-round during daylight hours. However, during rainy or snowy weather traveling in the area may be treacherous; it is up to you to make intelligent decisions on when to visit the area.

There are two museums in the monument and both are located in the Sheep Rock unit. There are no visitor centers in the Painted Hills or Clarno units.

Thomas Condon Paleontology Center (Sheep Rock unit) Hours

Daily hours are 10am – 5pm

There are no anticipated closure dates for the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center through the winter season other than Federal holidays from Veteran’s Day in November through Presidents Day in February, and December 24th and 31st.

Cant Ranch House (Sheep Rock unit)

Hours are 9am – 4pm, Monday – Thursday. It is open some Fridays when staff is available. It is closed on weekends. The Cant House may have to close without notice if there are not enough staff available. It will be closed on Federal Holidays from Veteran’s Day in November through Presidents Day in February, as well as December 24th and 31st.

Things You Should Know Before You visit

Food and Drink

Bring plenty of food and drink with you! There are no food vendors located in the monument. And you should always bring plenty of water and other beverages with you!

Telephone Service

There is no cell phone service within the monument. Most of the local communities will have cell coverage, depending on your carrier, however Mitchell has no cellular service, but there is still a functioning pay phone across the road from the general store.


You should definitely fill up your vehicle before you venture out to the area. Oregon is a full-service only state, meaning that you are not permitted to pump your own gasoline. Due to this requirement, it can sometimes be difficult to buy gasoline after 6:00 p.m. or before 8:00 a.m. in many of the communities surrounding the monument. Always fill up with gasoline before leaving major roads or communities!

The only fuel available during the day on Highway 26 near the monument is at Prineville, Dayville, Mt. Vernon, and John Day, so plan your gas stops carefully!

Travel Time

The roads in the monument are windy, actual travel times are longer than those estimated by most GPS mapping units. Visitors should not expect to average more than 45 miles per hour anywhere in the region. The road to the Clarno Unit (Highway 218) is particularly curvy, and visitors should not expect to cover more than 35 miles per hour on it.