John day Painted Hills

Central Oregon


The Painted Hills at the John Day Fossil Beds are one of the more unique places I have ever visited (listed as one of the 7 wonders of Oregon). The painted hills are only about a square mile, but offer tons of interesting photographic opportunities.

The location is a long drive from any large town and is not easy to get to. However, I would highly recommend making the time and effort, as you will be rewarded with some great photographs. 

Trail Difficulty - EASY

I would rate the difficulty of this trail as a 1 on a scale of 1-5 (with 5 being most difficult). The public access area around the Painted Hills is about 1 mile from start to finish. However, the area that is most photographed is an easy ¼ mile walk from the parking lot. 

Download KMZ Trail File

Click Here to download the KMZ file for this location.

GPS Coordinates & Elevation

Google Maps Birds-Eye-View

Click link above to view location in Google Earth


CLICK HERE to get driving directions to John Day Painted Hills.

The Painted Hills at the John Day Fossil Beds is located in a very rural part of central Oregon. The closest towns are Mitchell (11 miles) and Prineville (51 miles).

The directions are from Prineville, OR, drive east on US-26 for 43 miles until you see a sign for the John Day Fossil Beds – Painted Hills. The turn off is at Bridge Creek Rd./Burnt Ranch Rd. Take a left (north) for 5.6 miles and you will see another sign for John Day Fossil Beds – Painted Hills pointing you left (west) on Bear Creek Rd. Stay on this road for 2 miles until you get to the visitors center.

From the visitors center, take a right on a dirt road and you will drive past the unbelievable red/yellow/black rolling formations known as the painted hills. The dirt road drives up a hill and splits (left or straight). The main photographic area is to the left, where you will find a small parking area. 

Best Time of Day to Shoot

The yellows, golds, blacks, and reds of the Painted Hills are beautiful at all times of the day (both overcast and sunny), but are best lit for photography in the late afternoon/evening (about 45 min before sunset). Changing light and moisture levels can drastically affect the tones and hues of the hills.

Best Time of Year to Shoot

This location is good to shoot anytime of year. 

What Lens(es) Do You Need

The above shot was taken with a 50mm lens, but I have seen many images from this location taken with both super wide angle and short telephoto lenses (depending on the composition you are looking for.)


There are no permits required.

Direction of the Shot

The direction is totally dependent on where you stand along the public access area. Most images are shot eastward around 90°.

Special Nuances of Shot

This is mainly a straightforward shot, but there are different views based on where you stand along the road/walkway. I would suggest scouting the location several hours before the golden hour to find your composition(s). What makes this shot special are the unique shapes and colors. 

Special Equipment Needed

It is not a requirement, but you would benefit from a tripod and a polarizer filter. The image above was made by stitching together 3 shots vertically with panoramic tools. If you plan on using this technique, you would need the appropriate equipment.

You also might want to bring a hat with a wide brim, as you are totally exposed to the sun at this location. 

Number of Other Photographers to Expect

Even though this location is in the middle of nowhere, and not that easy to get to, there are still plenty of tourists and photographers during the day. However, the area can accommodate many photographers without any problems. 


Current Weather

The John Day Fossil Beds – Painted Hills is in an arid part of Oregon and doesn’t get as much rain as other parts of the state. It can get cool in spring and fall, and winters are usually pretty cold. Make sure you travel with the appropriate cold weather equipment in spring, fall, and winter

Cell Service

I have Verizon and there is NO cell service anywhere around this location. As you get back to the main road (US HW 26) the cell service gets better, but is still spotty until you get back to Prineville, OR. 

Overnight Lodging/Camping

The John Day Fossil Beds – Painted Hills are in the middle of nowhere. The closest towns are Mitchell, OR (11 miles east) and Prineville, OR (51 miles west). Mitchell is a very small town with limited lodging. Prineville is a larger town with an abundance of lodging.

The closest campground/RV spot is the Ochoco Divide Campground (20 miles east in Ochoco Forest right off of the US HW 26). This is a nice little campground with around 20 campsites with hookups. 

Nearby camping and lodging

Camping - click on the campground below for directions

Ochoco Divide Campground - 20 miles east on US HW 26


Lodging - click on the lodging below for a TripAdvisor review

Sky Hook Motel
(541) 462-3569
101 US-26, Mitchell, OR

The Oregon Hotel
(541) 462-3027
104 E Main St, Mitchell, OR

Nearby Restaurants

Mitchell is a very small town with limited restaurants. Prineville is a larger town with a large variety of restaurants, but it is 50 miles west. 

Nearby Restaurants - click on the restaurant below for yelp review

Sidewalk Cafe & More
(541) 462-3800
204 W Main St, Mitchell, OR

Little Pine Café
(541) 462-3532
100 E Main St, Mitchell, OR

Laundry Mat

The closest laundry mat is in Prineville, OR

Ochoco Plaza Coin Landry at 1595 NE 3rd St., Prineville, OR 

Other Photography Opportunities Around

Click on an image below to move to that location

Airport Options

The closest airports are:

Redmond, OR, (RDM) - (95 miles) is a regional airport servicing: Alaska Airlines, Delta, American Airlines, and United.

Portland International airport (PDX) – (225 miles) is a full international airport with services to most of the major airlines. 

Area Guides and Workshops

If you were looking for a GREAT photography guide for Pacific Northwest (Oregon and Washington areas) - I can highly recommend Mark Metternich. I have taken workshops with Mark in the past and he has been hosting workshops in the Pacific Northwest for many years.

Mark knows all the VERY best places to take you and just the right time to be there - to help you get the shot. He is a great photographer, an expert at photoshop, an excellent guide/instructor and a super nice guy.

Mark Metternich

Other Resources

The Photographer's Ephemeris is a very valuable tool for landscape photographers to determine the direction of the sunrise/sunset & moonrise/moonset from any place on earth on any day (past and future). Click here to take you to The Photographer's Ephemeris for this location. 

National Parks Service - John Day Painted Hills