Friday, August 12, 2022


John Day Fossil Beds in eastern Oregon

The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in eastern Oregon features stunning, multi-colored landscapes that have captured 50 million years of our planet’s animal and plant life.

Sorry, however, there are no dinosaur tracks in these 14,000 acres of ancient lands. This part of the world was underwater when T-Rex roamed. What visitors will see are fossil beds that preserve remains from the “Age of Mammals and Flowering Plants.” This national monument provides “unparalleled insight into how the world as we know it came to be.”

Three separate units make up this unique national monument in remote eastern Oregon: Painted Hills, Clarno and Sheep Rock. All outdoor recreational opportunities are open daily from sunrise to sunset for free.

Painted Hills Unit

These highly photographed wind-swept hills (see above) consist of fossil soils from deciduous forests, from 27 to 39 million years ago. This iconic terrain is distinguished by varied stripes of red, tan, orange, and black. The Painted Hills preserve a sequence of past climate change.

These distinctive hills are about nine miles northwest of Mitchell, Ore., off State Route 26. We definitely suggest you get a bite to eat, fuel up, and grab bottled water if you need it. Cell service is often nonexistent, so let someone know where you are exploring.

Clarno Unit

Clarno Palisades in John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon. (nps)

Home to the monument’s oldest fossils, the Clarno Unit is the only location where visitors can see fossils up close in the huge boulders that flank three short interpretive hiking trails.

“The Palisades are the most prominent landforms, and are volcanic lahars, or mudflows, that formed 54-40 million years ago in a lush semi-tropical rainforest environment,” according to National Park personnel. The distinctive rocky outcroppings feature chalk white cliffs topped with dramatic stone spires. The Clarno Unit is the least visited section of the park. It sits at about 18 miles west of the town of Fossil, Ore.

Sheep Rock Unit

Sheep Rock Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. (nps)

One of the distinctive centerpieces of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is Sheep Rock.

It rises more than 1,000 feet above the valley floor, reaching 3,360 feet in elevation. The colorful, fossil-rich volcanic ash layers are visible on its slopes, according to the National Park Service. Sheep Rock is named after the bighorn sheep that once populated its slopes.

Sheep Rock is the hub of monument operations, with both the headquarters of the monument (the Cant Ranch home) and the state-of-the-art Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center. The only visitor center at the monument, this is the best place to experience fossils.

Camping nearby

While “camping is not allowed” within the monument, there are a number of campgrounds in nearby communities. “Some have full service amenities, some are quiet and remote, some are in the forest, and some are right on the John Day River,” say park officials. For details, including a map of known public and private camping and RV parks, click here.

If you go

Stay on Trails; Don’t Hurt the Dirt! (nps)

While the John Day Fossil Beds are beautiful year-round, keep in mind that summers can be very hot. All three units have interpretive trails, scenic overlooks and picnic areas with vaulted toilets.

In this part of eastern Oregon never pass up an opportunity to stock up on drinking water, eat an ice cream cone, or take advantage of a restroom.

For other important things to know before you visit these remote locations in the high semi-desert country of eastern Oregon, click here. Or, call the Visitor Center at 541-987-2333 or e-mail:

Reminder that there is no cell phone service or Internet access within the monument, with the exception of public WiFi at the Painted Hills picnic area.

Consistent with CDC recommendations, the National Parks Service requires people who are not fully vaccinated to continue to wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces. Additional details are available at Before visiting, please check the park website to determine its operating status. Please recreate responsibly.

Julianne G. Crane
Read more of Julianne’s RV Short Stops posts here.
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