The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a treasure of Earth’s history that covers the past 55 million years of time since the Dinosaurs died out and mammals took over the world. The Monument is comprised of three units; Clarno, Painted Hills and Sheep Rock and covers 19,000-acres. No place on earth has such a continuous and easily visited record of the geology, paleontology, and climate as does this park. While you’re at the Sheep Rock Unit, visit the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center which showcases the fossil record found here with colorful dioramas, replicas of animals and plants, and a soundtrack to match. There are exhibits designed for children too, as well as a chance to handle replica skulls and other bone fragments through daily ranger-led talks.
There are no entrance or use fees at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
Visitor Information Line (Sheep Rock Unit)
The rocks of the Clarno Unit capture a period in time where tiny four-toed horses and massive rhino-like brontotheres roamed hills covered in lush, dense vegetation. As you drive through today’s desert-like scene — palm trees replaced with juniper and sagebrush — it’s hard to imagine this region as the semitropical forest it once was.
Roughly 44 million years ago, a series of volcanic mudflows swept up plants and vegetation from this period and preserved them in the Palisades. Scientists have identified petrified wood from 173 unique species of trees, as well as leaves, fruits, nuts, seeds and shrubs, vines and other plants preserved within the Clarno Unit’s rock layers.
The Clarno Unit offers a picnic area and restroom facilities, as well as three short hiking trails. Visitors interested in spotting fossils should choose the appropriately named Trail of Fossils, which is a 1/4 mile loop that snakes its way past boulders containing dozens of visible plant fossils.
The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, located in the Sheep Rock Unit of the National Monument, is the best place to see a collection of fossils from the Clarno Unit.
Painted Hills Unit
There’s a reason the Painted Hills were nominated as one of the 8th Wonders of the World: They are spectacular. The unit is named for the vibrant mounds of gold, red, black and orange soils that punctuate these hills.
The Painted Hills Unit welcomes guests with a lush, shaded picnic area, restrooms, and interpretive signs. Short hiking loops throughout the park allow visitors to get a close-up view of the unique, multicolored bentonite soil.
The Painted Cove Trail contains a portion of boardwalk that winds its way through rust-red mounds and is wheelchair accessible. For a longer hike, try the Carroll Rim Trail (1.5 miles), which climbs 300 feet in elevation to give hikers a birds-eye view over the Painted Hills.
Photographers should plan their visits for late afternoon when the changing light transforms the Painted Hills into an otherworldly place.
Sheep Rock Unit
The Sheep Rock Unit is the best choice to see fossils from all three units of the National Monument. The area is distinguished by its Turtle Cove strata, a striking blue-green rock layer produced by millions of years of volcanic ash accumulation.
The Sheep Rock Unit is equipped with picnic areas and plentiful hiking opportunities to take in the area’s awe-inspiring natural beauty and learn about the flora and fauna that inhabited these lands over the past 25-30 million years.
Stretch your legs and take in the view with one of several great hikes:
The 1-mile long Island in Time is a gravel trail leading to a natural amphitheater carved out blue-green clay. Interpretive signs and replicas of fossils line the trail and tell the story of the rich variety of vertebrate that once lived in these hills.
If you’re looking for a world-class view, give the Blue Basin Overlook trail a try. It is a 3-mile tour through some of the prettiest country in the area and ends with a spectacular view overlooking the John Day River Valley below.