OR – John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

After seeing photos of the Painted Hills in Oregon, I added it to my bucket list. The opportunity conveniently presented as I continued my travels west on Highway 26 after visiting the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness, and the Blue Hole and Hurricane Creek areas of Eagle Cap Wilderness.

I was surprised to find the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument divided into three geographically separate areas – Sheep Rock, Clarno and Painted Hills. Sheep Rock and Clarno focus on paleontology, while Sheep Rock and Painted Hills provide more geologic eye candy. According to the NM literature, “the John Day Fossil Beds are the only place in the western hemisphere where tens of millions of years of evolutionary and ecosystem changes are preserved in just one area.” Can you say 45 million years old?

Although I toured the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, I was far more interested in seeing the colorful landscapes. (Note: photos are from phone so not quite up to par with my camera quality.)

Sheep Rock

The capstone is estimated at 16 millions years old. 

Cathedral Rock

This is 29 million year old strata.

Painted Hills

I wasn’t there at the best time of day for photography, but you get the idea. 

Date(s) Visited:

  • October 10-11, 2016


  • Hiking opportunities are very limited, so I’d consider this more of a series of meandering walking tours. Most trails are quite short but provide a great way to break up a drive and get in a bit of exercise. Each of the 3 areas offers trails. Blue Basin hosts the longest trail at 3.25 miles. Total miles for the Sheep Rock area is a little over 6 miles, Painted Hills less than 3 miles, and Clarno Palisades less than 1 mile. Add those together and you can have a 10 mile day. Off-trail exploration is not permitted.
  • Camping is not available within the NM, however, there are plentiful nearby campgrounds and other lodging opportunities. Pick up the John Day Regional Map for Camping & Services at nearby visitor centers.
  • Sadly the signs for respecting the terrain have been ignored and their are many footprints embedded in the geologic formations. It’s tough getting clean photos and appreciating the mounts when they’ve been vandalized. If you’d like a much improved experience, consider the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.
  • If you are traveling near Baker City, consider stopping at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center . You can stretch your legs on a 3+ mile trail.


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