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Trip Guide: John Day Fossil Beds

by Lauren Braden on November 14, 2014

in Trip Ideas

QUICK ESCAPE: John Day Fossil Beds

Got cabin fever? This sunny Central Oregon treasure is the perfect off-season escape for hikers and rockhounds.

At first glance, you see a stunning landscape with multicolored badlands and eroded pinnacles. And you think, this looks like Utah, or maybe even another planet. But it’s right here in the Pacific Northwest. The John Day River cuts trenches through prehistoric rock in this part of Central Oregon, and the result is one of the state’s most incredible places to visit.

Get a little closer and you’ll discover there’s an amazing assortment of fossils in them there hills. Composed of sedimentary rocks, the fossils of the John Day National Monument preserve a record of 50 million years of plant and animal life.  More than 100 species of mammals have been identified in the monument’s fossil beds, from rhinos and saber-toothed tigers to bats and salamanders. These archives of stone were first discovered by amatuer paleontologist Thomas Condon in the 1860’s. They’ve been protected, studied and enjoyed by millions as a national monument since 1975.

Visiting the John Day Fossil Beds

TRIP GUIDE: John Day Fossil Beds

The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument consists of three distinct areas, with a sizable distance through semi-desert ranchlands between them. The three areas are unique units of geologic strata: the Clarno Unit, the Painted Hills Unit, and the Sheep Rock Unit.

You can visit the fossil beds as a day trip from Bend, or spend a few days in the area by staying overnight at one of the small town inns around the monument. Visiting all three units is difficult to do in a single day, yet all are worth your visit, so I suggest carving out time for a two or three-day trip.

When to go: We like the fossil beds as an off-season escape because there’s plenty of solitude and much-needed sunshine for rain-soaked west siders like us. Summers are hot here, with temperatures sometimes reaching beyond 100 degrees, and shade trees are few and far between. Winters can be cold, but are usually dry. Just bundle up in layers before you hit the trails. Spring and fall have mild temps and are perfect seasons to visit.

Good to know:

  • Admission is free to all units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
  • Be a responsible visitor. Remember that all fossils, historic structures, archeological features, rocks, plants and animals are protected, and they can not be collected or disturbed.
  • It’s a good idea to gas up your tank before heading into the fossil beds region, as most of the towns you’ll pass through are tiny and don’t have service stations. You’ll also find few options for eating out, so bring snacks, drinking water and consider packing a lunch.
  • Dogs are permitted on all of the monument’s trails but they must be leashed.


Where to Go

The fossil beds units can be visited in whatever order you like. Our typical weekend itinerary for visiting the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument starts at the Sheep Rock Unit, where we stop by the Paleontology Center and spend a few hours hiking and exploring. After an overnight stay in Mitchell or Fossil (see “where to stay” below), we spend the second day first at the Clarno Unit, followed by the Painted Hills Unit. All three units of the monument have interpretive trails, scenic overlooks for awesome photo ops, and picnic areas with restrooms.

Sheep Rock Unit

TRIP GUIDE: John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

The Sheep Rock Unit is the easternmost part of the John Day Fossil Beds, a stark, rocky landscape of colorful strata and complex geology named for the wild bighorn sheep that once peppered the cliffsides. The most characteristic feature of this unit is the blue-green hued rock that is layered in a beautiful ombre pattern, the result of weathered volcanic ash. That brilliant color comes from a mineral called celadonite.

Start your trip at the awesome Thomas Condon Paleontology Center  that features cool fossil exhibits, interpretive programs, and audiovisual presentations on fossils, geology, and the processes of paleontology. There’s even a viewing window into the fossil laboratory, where the monument’s paleontologists are hard at work. This paleontology center also serves as the monument’s visitor’s center, so come here to chat with a knowledgeable ranger about your visit and get info on the region’s  hiking trails and campgrounds.

Just across the road from Thomas Condon Paleontology Center is the James Cant Ranch House, which is the former monument visitor’s center prior to construction of the shiny new one. The 1917 ranch house is now a museum with two surrounding interpretive trails through an historic ranch and orchard landscape. It’s worth the stop for a relaxing stroll. The River Trail (.5 mile round-trip) is fully accessible to wheelchairs and leads down to the John Day River. The Sheep Rock Overlook Trail (also .5 mile) takes hikers to an overlook with a great view of the valley and the river. Both are great trails for spotting migratory birds in springtime.

Take a Hike: The Blue Basin Overlook Trail in the Sheep Rock Unit is one of the must-do hikes of Central Oregon and certainly of the John Day Fossil Beds. This loop trail (3 miles RT, 600 feet gain) starts from a parking lot about two miles north of the paleontology center on Route 19. Most folks hike the loop clockwise, climbing the dusty path through layered fossil beds to the rim of blue basin and a spectacular vista overlooking the John Day River Valley. Keep an eye out on the ground for scurrying rattlesnakes, and look up to the sky to spot circling hawks.

A shorter hike that departs from the same parking lot is the Island in Time Trail (1 mile RT),  a gravel path that ascends to an amphitheater carved out of the blue-green claystone. Interpretive signs point out displayed fossils along the trail.


Painted Hills Unit

John Day Fossil Beds, Painted Hills Unit

Welcome to the most photogenic piles of rock in the Pacific Northwest.  The Painted Hills Unit is west of Sheep Rock about nine miles northwest of Mitchell off State Route 26. The hills are more famous for its mounds of folded rock striped with vivid hues like sherbet–scarlet, orange, pink, ochre and bronze–than for the fossils embedded in them. Aim to make this your last stop of the day, as the layer cake of stunning color deepens in beauty as the hills become bathed in the golden low light of early sunset. 

In a region whose national park lands typically conjure images of glacier-capped volcanoes and mossy temperate rainforests, the Painted Hills are a most unique landscape. It’s easy to be effusive about the beauty of this stark, wind-swept topography where millions of years of erosion have sculpted smooth curves into these multi-colored, low-slung hills. Several short, easy trails take you into the hills, where you can get close to the bands of color that represent distinct geologic eras. Stick to designated trails here–don’t climb or walk on the rocky hills themselves. Do take a camera, though–you’ll want to take the memories of this stunning place home with you. 

The Painted Hills are beautiful throughout the year, though like the rest of the John Day Fossil Beds summers can be very hot and shade trees are few and far between. Come in spring for the amazing display of yellow and purple wildflowers backdropped by the songs of migrating songbirds. Even in winter when snow periodically swaddles the hills in a white coat, outcrops of color jut out in a dramatic fashion, a sight to behold.

Take a Hike: Four short trails lead you into different areas of the colorful hummocks that comprise Painted Hills, each departing at different points along the main road that winds through the hills unit from east to west. Trailheads are well-marked.

First is the Overlook Trail (.5-mile RT), a flat path with sweeping vistas of the hills and the perfect choice for photographing the whole landscape.

On the other side of the road begins the Carroll Rim Trail (1.5-miles RT, 300 feet gain), a climb through a volcanic duff deposit to a birds-eye view of the Painted Hills. A bench awaits at the end for your rest to soak up the scenery.

The Leaf Hill Trail (.5-mile RT) passes through the remains of what was once a deciduous hardwood forest, 30 million years ago. Fossilized leaf exhibits explain the geologic history on this ancient forest.

The short and sweet Painted Cove Trail (.25-mile RT) is a must-do for the close-up examination of the rough pebbles of crimson-tinted claystone.

The newest trail at Painted Hills is Red Hill Trail (.25-mile RT), so new in fact that it’s not even marked on any maps! It’s the westernmost trail in the unit and leads you to a hill with a dramatic color shift.


Clarno Unit

Trip Guide: John Day Fossil Beds

Set in a remote corner of the juniper and sage-dotted desert, the Clarno Unit is home to the region’s oldest fossils.

It’s a bit difficult to fathom as you stand here on a relentlessly sunny day (wear a wide-brimmed hat) but this land was once covered by an ancient subtropical rain forest that was buried by massive volcanic mud flows around 44 million years ago. Amazing relics of that forest remain in a petrified mudslide, and this unit is unique in that its the only place in the national monument where you can see fossils up close in the huge boulders that flank the short interpretive trails. The rocks also house fossils of extinct animals that once roamed the jungle here, including rhino-like brontotheres and four-toed horses.

Take a Hike: Three short trails at the Clarno Unit, each .5 miles round-trip, can be hiked alone or combined together for a longer hike. 

The Geologic Time Trail has interpretive signage that takes you through the area’s geologic history.

The Trail of Fossils gets you an up-close view of dozens of fossils–things like magnolia leaves, palms, logs, ginkgo stems, and even small seeds and nuts–embedded in rock faces and boulders.  Both of these trails are backdropped by the distinctive palisades of the Clarno Unit – chalk white cliffs topped with dramatic stone spires.

The Clarno Arch Trail climbs steeply to the base of these Palisades, and the bottom of a fossilized log and an unusual stone arch are found at the trail’s end.


Where to Stay

The three units of the monument are spread out over a large area, and only a few of the area’s tiny towns have motels or inns. I recommend a few of these below, plus detail some camping options. Some travelers prefer to make a home base west of the monument at one of the larger hotels in Prineville, Redmond or Bend.

For a cheap roof over your head, The Oregon Hotel in Mitchell is a homey bed and breakfast at a great price with all units well under $100 a night for family-sized rooms–one of the Northwest’s best values.

Another option is the Lodge at Service Creek, part of a small outpost that also includes a roadside restaurant with awesome homemade pies and a basic general store. Rooms run about $85-$125.


Up for camping? The national monument doesn’t allow camping anywhere on its lands, but there are several camping opportunities on national forest, BLM lands and county parks nearby. See the lay of the land for pitching your tent on this handy map.



Where to Eat

This is cattle country, and they let you know it–many of the area’s eateries are sit-down family restaurants that serve burgers and steaks.

A great choice is RJ’s in Fossil, where the steaks are cooked to your specifications, the prices are good and the service is great.

The Sidewalk Cafe and More in Mitchell is a cozy mom n’ pop place that serves standard American fare like homemade pie, burgers and milkshakes–a great stop for lunch.


Getting There

From Portland, take I-84 east to Biggs Junction, then go south on US-97 to Wasco, then OR-206 E to Condon. From Condon, take Hwy 19 south to the town of Fossil. The fossil beds are about 4.5 hours drive time from Portland (see directions).

photos: John Day Fossil Beds photos by J. Stephen Conn, by Rupert Ganzer, by Alex Durr, by Amy Selleck, by Ben Amstutz, by Scott Butner, by Frank Kovelchek.
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Jennifer November 14, 2014 at 6:07 pm

This is an excellent guide! Thank you so much! We were talking about going there next spring and we will definitely refer to thi when we go.

Living Outside of the Box July 14, 2016 at 3:39 pm

This is definitely a helpful breakdown! Thank you so much for sharing all of this info and suggestions!

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