9 Tips for Visiting the Painted Hills With Your Dog

Painted Hills is part of the the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and dogs are allowed.

There are 3 land units that make up the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and the Painted Hills Unit is one of them (Clarno and Sheep Rock are the others).

It’s the most notable of the 3 and probably the most visited… for good reason! Landscape is very unique and beautiful.

Before you hop in the car and head to these colorful hills though, there are a few things you should know.

About Painted Hills Oregon

Where is Painted Hills Located?

Painted Hills, part of the John Day National Monument, is located in North Central Oregon, USA, in the high desert.

It’s approximately 4 hours east-southest of Portland Oregon.

The closest towns to Painted Hills are:

  • Mitchel – 11 miles east; very few services
  • Fossil – 52 miles north; small town
  • Prineville – 51 miles south west (over a mountain pass); larger town
  • John Day – 80 miles east; largest town

How Are Dogs Allowed At Painted Hills Oregon?

Many people are confused about dogs being welcome because Painted Hills is within a National monument.

While dogs are allowed to enter National Parks, they are not allowed on trails as a general rule. So how can they be allowed on trails at Painted Hills?

Note: just because they are restricted to roadways and developed areas like parking lots doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a National Park with your dog though.

The John Day Fossil Beds are designated as a National MONUMENT, not a National PARK, so the rules are different.

The rules vary among National Monuments – with some allowing dogs and some not – but they ARE allowed at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (which the Painted Hills is a part of).

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 (mountain range) during the Oligocene epoch approximately 32 to 35 million years ago.

9 Tips to Make Visiting Painted Hills With Your Dog More Enjoyable

When you know what to expect and can plan ahead, your visit to anywhere will be more enjoyable.

Here are my best tips for visiting the Painted Hills.

1) The Famous Instagram Photo Location

If you’re like a lot of people these days, you find your travel inspiration on Instagram.

If it’s the photos of cute dogs on a boardwalk with rolling red hills in the back that first grabbed your attention, and you want to head out to Painted Hills to duplicate this, you will need to know something important.

Almost all of the Instagram photos of dogs I see are taken at the seame place (the one described above) and are tagged as the “Painted Hills Overlook”.

BUT you won’t find that scenery at the overlook.

While the overlook is photo-worthy in it’s own right, you want to head down the road a but further to see the famed boardwalk.

The boardwalk with the red mounds in the background is along the Painted Cove trail.

2) When is the Best Time to Visit the Painted Hills?

In my opinion, the best time to visit the Painted Hills is in the spring or fall. Specifically, early spring and late fall.

I hear that the wildflowers come out in April and May so that may persuade me to go back later in the spring though.

If you visit in the summer, the temperatures may to be too hot for your dog (it can reach 100F/43C) to get out of the car.

Summer is also the most crowded time at the Monument so finding a parking spot could be hard and all of your photos will likely have other people in them.

If you visit in the winter, you could find the colorful hills buried under feet of snow.

The shoulder seasons will be sufficiently cool and you will encounter less people and dogs.

3) When Is the Best Lighting for Photos?

Most photographers agree that sunrise – and the hour after – and sunset – starting an hour prior when the light turns golden – are the best time to take photos.

When I visited Painted Hills, I personally thought that sunrise was the better time, based on the angle I wanted to take pictures and the direction the hills were facing.

Other times that are great for photos are:

  • On cloudy days when the light is softer (I like to call clouds nature’s soft box)
  • Just after rain when the saturated soil of the hills produce more vivid colors

4) Preserve the Monument for Others

You can reach out and touch these soft clay mounds from some trails but please don’t.

Also be sure your dog stays on the trail (especially the boardwalk section of the Painted Cove Trail).

These mounds took thousands of years to form and are very fragile.

While we were there, we saw dog footprints in the mud and someone had carved a stick figure into a mound right off the trail.

It’s a good idea to follow Leave No Trace Principles for Dogs any time you are visiting natural places.

5) The Painted Hills Unit is Not That Big

The Painted Hills Unit is small and can easily be seen in a day. There are MANY photo opportunities packed into a small place though.

Trails you can explore with your dog are:

  • Painted Hills Overlook Trail (0.5 miles)
  • Caroll Rim Trail (1.6 miles miles)
  • Painted Cove Trail (0.25 miles)
  • Leaf Hill Trail (0.25 miles)

You can also stop along the road, where there is room to pull over without impeding traffic, and enjoy the scenery from there.

6) You Can’t Post to IG O Call Your Mom From There

I have Verizon, which has pretty good coverage on remote places. There was no cell reception at Painted Hills.

I couldn’t even get any in the nearby “town” of Mitchell.

I drove an hour to Prineville so I could text a friend who was trying to meet up with me.

If you have a satellite messenger for hiking, I would bring that in case you need to get ahold of someone in an emergency.

7) Where to Eat, Sleep and Refuel

If you are making Painted Hills an overnight stop, there are places to camp nearby.

Painted Hills Oregon Camping:

Most of the places to camp near Painted Hills are located on BLM land, are accessible only by dirt road, have to amenities (except the occasional vault toilet), are free, allow dogs, and are first-come-first-served.

These campgrounds include:

  • Priest Hole Recreation Site
  • Burnt Ranch and Lower Burnt Ranch Campgrounds
  • Hidden Springs Campground
  • Service Creek Campground (sites are walk-in only)
  • Barnhouse Campground (USFS)
  • Ochoco Divide Campground (USFS – there is a fee for this one)

While these sites are technically open all-year, please check road conditions before you go. Some are inaccessible in winter due to snow.

There is one nearby campground with RV hookups – the Mitchell City Park Campground – but, from the looks of it, there is no privacy and parts of it are basically a parking lot.

This campground does charge a fee. Check ahead to make sure it’s open if you’re traveling in winter.

Hotels Near Painted Hills Oregon

If camping isn’t your thing, there are hotels is in Prineville, 50 miles to the south, and John Day 80 miles east.

There also appear to be a couple AirBnB rentals available in Mitchell.

Where to Eat near Painted Hills Oregon

There are, of course, restaurants and grocery stores in John Day and Prineville.

Mitchell is the closest town, if you can call it that. Tiger Town Brewing Co and Bridge Creek Cafe there serve food.

The brewing company looked very popular. I’ll definitely be eating there if I go back.

8) Fuel Up Well Before Painted Hills

Mitchell looks to have one gas pump at the feed store. It looks like the kind that may or may not have gas, depending on the season.

You 100% should fill your gas tank as you pass through Prineville, Fossil, or John Day on the way there.

And go back for gas when you only have a 100 mile range left in your tank… because you may need most of that to get back to a gas station.

9) Decide Ahead of Time If Painted Hills Will Be Destination vs. Pit Stop

Being in the North Central Oregon desert, there isn’t anything else of note close to Painted Hills. Not that I’m aware of anyway (I may look harder next time).

The other units of the Monument are 1‑3 hours away.

I suggest either making Painted Hills a pit stop on the way to somewhere else, although you will likely have to extend your route to pass by this out‑of‑the‑way place, or stay nearby and take several days to explore all 3 units.

The other two units in the Monument – The Clarno Unit and Sheep Rock Unit – are worth exploring but do be aware they are a significant distance away from each other.


The Painted Hills is worth seeing at least once in your lifetime. The views rival those of National Parks BUT dogs are allowed on trails here.

You can see the best parts of the Painted Hills Unit in a few hours or you can spend several days exploring and taking photos in different lighting conditions.

You can also make a multi‑day vacation out of visiting the other two units and exploring nearby areas (the John Day river, at 284 miles long, is the 4th longest free‑flowing river in the contiguous United States).

Tips for Visiting the Pained Hills National Monument with Your Dog

About the Author

Hi, I’m Jessica. I’ve been studying the Dachshund breed since 2007, owned 3 of my own, and shared in the lives of thousands of others through their owner’s stories. When I’m not sharing what I know on this blog, you can find me hiking, camping, and traveling with my adventurous wiener dogs.

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