Where to Stop on a Central Oregon Road Trip

When most people think of Oregon, they think of lush greenery, big mountains and moody PNW shots. While all of that is true of Oregon, there's another side to this state which fewer people see.

Start driving east from Interstate 5 or south of the Columbia River and you'll run into an entirely different kind of scenery. Central Oregon is rocky and dry. Here, twisting roads turn into straight stretches which can last for hours, and large cities are replaced by farms and ranch houses. 

Sunset at The Cove Palisades State Park in Central Oregon

While this may sound like the middle of nowhere to some people, there's a lot to be seen and done in Central Oregon - especially if you're planning a road trip!

Last month, I joined my family on a 5-day road trip throughout Central Oregon. We started in Washington and made our way to Burns, Oregon before heading back. On our trip, we saw incredible rock formations, a hidden waterfall, 'painted hills,' and wild mustangs! If any of that sounds interesting to you, keep reading to learn about all the stops you should make on a Central Oregon road trip.

1. Richardson's Rock Ranch

Richardson's Rock Ranch is a quirky little place NE of Madras, Oregon. Unlike a typical ranch, Richardson's is in the rock market. Rocks from all over the world are neatly organized in little piles outside - featuring everything from Australian Mookaite to African Malachite.

Checking out rocks at Richardson's Rock Ranch
Richardson's Rock Ranch in Central Oregon

What I found really interesting about this place, was seeing how unique each of the different varieties of rock was. Some have vibrant streaks of color running through them, others have distinct textures, and some are shiny like diamonds. 

Peeking inside rocks at Richardson's Rock Ranch

The rocks are actually for sale too. My mom bought a large geode at Richardson's for less than $5. We took it back to our camp that night and split it wide open with a hammer. Inside were a bunch of sparkly crystals!

Besides looking at a bunch of rocks or shopping for souvenirs, you'll also find a handful of emus and peacocks at the ranch.

Location: NE of Madras, OR

How much time to spend here: 30 min. - 1 hr

2. Cove Palisades State Park

We ended up camping at The Cove Palisades State Park and were really impressed. Driving up to the park, you can't see much of anything from the road. All of sudden though, the road slopes sharply downward into a deep canyon - opening your view to rocky cliff sides and a gorgeous lake.

Gorgeous views inside The Cove Palisades State Park

While we were there, the lake was pretty quiet with few people using it. However, I don't see why not. Had we been at camp during the afternoon hours I would've gone for a swim immediately.

A waterfall inside The Cove Palisades State Park in Central Oregon

Another sweet surprise at the Cove Palisades was this hidden waterfall we found on the left side of the canyon. We weren't able to get very close to it, but it sure made me anticipate our drive in and out of the park each day.

Finally, make sure and check out the park's hieroglyph site. It's located a short walk away from the group camp ground inside the park, and is well-preserved!

Location: Culver, OR

How much time to spend here: 1/2 day - 1 day

3. The Painted Hills

The Painted Hills is an area of Oregon made famous for it's colorful streaks of sediment in the hillsides. The 'painted' streaks point to different geological periods in Earth's history, and have been known to hold fossils from the species living during those times.

View from the Painted Hills Overlook Trail

If you're short on time, but still want to see the Painted Hills - you're in luck! Most of the trails are 0.5 mile long or shorter.

Quick Trails you can do at the painted hills:

  • Painted Hills Overlook

  • Painted Cove Trail

  • Leaf Fossil Trail

The beginning of the Leaf Fossil Trail at the Painted Hills in Oregon

If you have a little more time than we did, check out the Carol Rim Trail too. It's only 1.6 miles long and offers views at a higher elevation than the Painted Hills Overlook.

For those who've seen pictures of the Painted Hills on Instagram, you're likely looking at photos taken on the Painted Cove Trail. The boardwalk there has become 'Instafamous,' due to the way it crosses right through part of the hills.

Visiting the Painted Hills on a Central Oregon road trip
The boardwalk on the famous Painted Cove Trail in Central Oregon

** When you visit the Painted Hills, you'll see signs asking you not to walk on them. Please respect those signs and stay off the hills. The exposed sediment is millions of years old and very fragile. 

Location: Mitchell, OR

How much time to spend there: 1 - 2 hrs

4. Burns, Oregon (Wild Mustangs)

Heads up - the drive to Burns is a long one. However, if you're even the slightest bit horse crazy, it's worth the drive for the chance to see wild mustangs.

That's right!

I honestly had no idea there were wild mustangs in the U.S. still, but apparently there's a lot... In Central Oregon there are so many the population is regulated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM does this by periodically rounding up a herd of wild mustangs and keeping them at their facility until they are adopted out

* The images below are of the tame horses we saw while looking for mustangs.

Looking for mustangs in Burns, Oregon

While you can for sure see mustangs by visiting the BLM holding facility, I recommend also getting out on the open roads to look for mustangs who are still free to roam. We drove to an area called the Palomino Hills and saw a herd of mustangs within the first 15 minutes.

Don't set your hopes on getting a close-up picture of the mustangs though unless you have a decent camera lens. They were extremely alert when we stopped our truck to look at them, and instantly galloped away the moment we tried to get closer.

Head out to Burns, Oregon to look for wild mustangs
Looking for mustangs in Central Oregon

The good news though, is you'll likely pass by tons of friendly, tame horses who are more than happy to pose and say, 'hi.'

Location: Burns, OR

How much time to spend here: 2 - 3 hours

5. Smith Rock State Park

Of all the stops on our Central Oregon road trip, Smith Rock State Park was definitely my favorite. Sadly though, it was the place we spent the least amount of time at. None of us had heard much about Smith Rock before visiting Central Oregon, and didn't realize we'd be passing by it on the way to the Painted Hills.

But boy, will I be back some day!

Smith Rock State Park in Central Oregon

We walked only the short distance from the car to the base of the rock, and I was hooked. After driving through farm country for so long, it was shocking to see a place which contrasted its surroundings so much. Smith Rock is tall and proud, and attracts all sorts of outdoors lovers.

During our quick stop, we saw picnickers, hikers, trail bikers and a handful of rock climbers. It was a happening place for the 'middle of nowhere,' and rightfully named one of Oregon's 7 wonders.

** For ideas on which hikes to do at Smith Rock, check out the official Smith Rock trails overview page.

Location: Terrebonne, OR

How much time to spend here: 1/2 day - 1 day

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Where to Stop on a Central Oregon Road Trip - Yes, the Painted Hills are a must!
Where to Stop on a Central Oregon Road Trip

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