The Painted Hills in Oregon was our final stop on our road trip with Caravan Outfitter. Because of our easy mobility, we experienced so many new places on this trip – from natural coastal bridges to epic sunsets in Yosemite to here…magnificent red rock! If you’d like to see our full itinerary and even plan your own Pacific Coast trip, check out this post for resources, maps, and tons of photos.
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Our plan that day was to drive from Bend to Portland, with a detour to the Painted Hills. Driving there added about 4 more hours to our day, but at this point we were used to it. As we were doing our research on places we could see along the route, this one immediately caught our attention. We love finding unique and weird places (like visiting the moon in Idaho) so wanted to see this red rock with our own eyes.
The Painted Hills
We’ll start off by saying we definitely took a detour to get here. This area is located in north central Oregon, south of the Columbia River Gorge and north of the Ocho National Forest. Not much else is nearby, so expect to drive a lot if you are heading this way. If you want to spend more time out here, keep reading because we’re sharing places fairly nearby that you can visit as well!
Quick Facts about The Painted Hills:
- 4 hour drive from Portland, Oregon
- 2 hour drive from Bend, Oregon
- This area used to be a floodplain, and the river deposited laterite (rich in iron and aluminum) to create that rusty colored landscape
- The Painted Hills are a part of the greater John Day Fossil Bed National Monument
Our original plan was to come here and catch the sunrise in all its splendor over the colorful hills. We woke up at 3am in Bend, and began our ~2 hour drive to the park. Unfortunately, as you can see from the photos, it was an exceptionally cloudy day. We didn’t get an epic sunrise, but we did get to see the valley slowly wake up and come into full color – you win some you lose some!
There are a handful of short trails in the area, but the star of the show is the Painted Cove Trail. This is the one with fiery red soil, which makes you feel like you are walking on another planet! The Painted Cove Trail is located about 20 minutes into the park, with clear signs and a convenient parking lot to guide you to the boardwalk.
Before arriving, we were under the impression that this boardwalk was a winding pathway that would go far through the hills. In reality, it’s only about 200 yards from end to end, curving in between the red hills just enough for you to pretend you are on mars for a few moments. That doesn’t take away from its beauty though – the color is as magnificent in real life as they are in pictures!
The Painted Hills are pretty far from any large city, so it’s a nature lover’s paradise. We saw tons of wildlife here (birds and rabbits especially!) and it has a certain peaceful presence that was much needed after our whirlwind of a trip. With the Ocho, Umatilla, and Malheur National Forests nearby, get creative and make a camping tour of Oregon’s central wonders!
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Other activities to do near the Painted Hills
- Go hiking in the Ocho National Forest (about an hour’s drive away)
- Camp in the Umatilla National Forest or Malheur National Forest (both are to the East of Painted Hills)
- Explore the entrepreneurial city of Bend Oregon (you must stop at this coffee shop!)
- Go climbing and watch the sunrise/sunset at Smith Rock State Park (1.5 hour drive)
As we mentioned earlier, this was our last planned stop on our Pacific Coast Road Trip. Living in a van was an incredible experience. Berty and I learned a lot about how we travel together, all the essentials to bring, and the opportunities that van life provides. If you want to read more about what living in a van was like, we wrote a big post about it here! You can also email us with questions any time – we love talking with fellow travelers!
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We are excited to return to Oregon in the near future. Still on our list is to visit Crater Lake (it was blizzarding last time we went!), explore Mt. Hood National Forest, and camp in the Willamette National Forest. In June, we purchased an America The Beautiful Pass, which lets us access * for free!* all the national parks, as well as national forests. Who knew this would come in handy and save us a ton on money in the long run!?
Have you explored the Painted Hills? Let us know in the comments below!
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