During our trip planning, I happened to spot John Day Fossil Beds National Monument on the map, and after just a minute or two of poking around the Internet to see pictures of the place, we both knew that it was a ‘must-visit’ destination.
The Monument consists of three separate chunks of land including the Sheep Rock, Painted Hills, and Clarno Units. Coming from the north and east, our first stop was the Sheep Rock unit where the visitor center is located. The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center features exhibits, interpretive programs, and audiovisual presentations on fossils, geology, and the processes of paleontology.
Also at the Sheep Rock Unit are several hiking trails, wayside exhibits, and two picnic areas; so after spending about an hour in the visitor center, Ed and I hit a few of the trails, including the Island in Time in the Blue Basin area, Story in Stone and Flood of Fire in the Foree Area, and the Painted Hills, Painted Cove and Carroll Rim trails in the Mascall Formation Overlook.
Here’s a pic from the Painted Hills.
Here are descriptions of all the trails in the area.
Flood of Fire (0.25 mile) Gently ascending. This trail crosses a ridge to a viewpoint overlooking the John Day River Valley and the surrounding basalt cliffs.
Story in Stone (0.25 mile) Easy. This trail, featuring touchable exhibits, skirts a basin of blue-green claystone of the John Day Formation. The formation contains fossils of mammals which lived here 25 to 30 million years ago. This trail is traversable by wheelchair with moderate difficulty.
Blue Basin Area
Island in Time (1 mile) Self-guided nature trail. This gently ascending trail leads to an amphitheater carved out of the blue-green John Day Formation. The volcanic ash, now turned to claystone, yields a rich variety of vertebrate fossils. Interpretive signs and fossil replicas are included along the trail.
Blue Basin Overlook (3 mile) Strenuous, 600 ft. elevation gain. A strenuous, but rewarding, loop trail brings you to a spectacular vista overlooking the John Day River Valley. It is dusty in places and may be impassable in wet weather.
James Cant Ranch Area
River Trail (begins at the James Cant Ranch parking lot, ½ mile hike) Accessible to those in wheelchairs, this trail leads one down to the John Day River. Trail exhibits feature the current natural and cultural surroundings.
Sheep Rock Overlook Trail (begins at the James Cant Ranch house, ½ mile hike)Starting at the front gate,this trail ends at an overlook with a great view of the valley.
Thomas Condon Overlook Trail (begins at the Thomas Condon Visitor Center, ½ mile hike) This trail ends at an overlook with a great view of the valley. It begins at the south end of the parking lot.
Mascall Formation Overlook
one mile south of Picture Gorge off of Route 26, 300′ hike Grand views of the John Day Valley and Picture Gorge await one here. Exhibits along a short trail feature both prehistory and human history.
Carroll Rim Trail [begins from the Painted Hills Overlook, 1 ½ mile hike] â€“ The trail ascends a few hundred feet in elevation to rimrock that overlooks the entire area, offering a bird’s-eye view of the Painted Hills. A bench to relax and enjoy the view is at the end of the trail.
Painted Hills Overlook Trail [begins at the Painted Hills Overlook, 1/2 mile hike] â€“ This trail provides glimpses of the colorful Painted Hills from several angles. Benches are along the trail.
Painted Cove Trail [1/4 mile hike] â€“ A third of trail is a boardwalk, accessible to those in wheelchairs. Here, one can actually walk among the red and gold claystone hills. Bring your camera! Interpretive signs illuminate the geologic story.
Leaf Hill Trail [1/4 mile hike] â€“ One half of the trail is accessible to those in wheelchairs. This drab looking hill was the scene of important scientific studies in the 1920’s and 1990’s. Thousands of leaf fossils found here helped give us our first glimpse of an ancient ecosystem 33 million years in age. A few fossils are on exhibit.
See all of our pictures from the day we spent at the John Day Fossil Beds:
- John Day Fossil Beds (All Pics)
- Thomas Condon Paleontology Center
- Blue Basin Hike
- Painted Hills & Painted Cove
See the full list of places that we visited during our Washington / Oregon / California road trip