OR – John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (Oct 2021)

This is a continuation of my great smoke escape jaunt. In early September I spent a few days at Newberry National Volcanic Monument (blog link) before being chased north by the smoke. I stopped at John Day Fossil National Monument in hopes I’d find a pocket of good air, but alas it too was brown.

This National Monument is divided into three geographically separated units, Clarno, Painted Hills and Sheep Rock. The Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center is at the Sheep Rock Unit and provided a perfect distraction on this smoky day when I couldn’t be outside. I was impressed with the displays and learning opportunities. Tip: it’s not open 7 days a week.

Clarno Unit

On my return trip south after spending a month in Washington, I found myself at the Clarno Unit. When I first visited the National Monument in 2016 (blog link) I didn’t make it to this area, which is the only place in the park to see fossils in their natural state. There are three interpretative trails which can be combined as one.

I loved searching for the unmarked fossils.

The arch marks the end of the trail.

Along the way is a petrified log high on the wall.

There was also an active nest swarming with bees high on that same wall. If you look back at the first photo you’ll see the nest to the right of the log.

Although blurry you can see the honeycomb cells when I zoom in close.

Painted Hills Units

I was impressed with the amount of work to protect the sandstone features since my visit in 2016. More signage and boardwalks, barriers and groomed trails.

The Painted Hills Unit is divided into five areas, which require driving on a paved road. The Painted Cove Trail offers this colorful scene. The lake area (Painted Hills Reservoir) is private and not accessible.

The Leaf Hill Trail has a few fossil examples which matched some of my findings in the Clarno Unit.

Just like during my previous visit, lighting wasn’t in my favor on the namesake painted hills.

The view along the Painted Hills Overlook trail.

The view from Carroll Rim Trail.

And then the light finally changed and the colors popped. It only lasted a few minutes but I was happy to finally capture the magic. For photographers, late afternoon light is best. This was at 5pm.

Sheep Rock Unit

On my third day I returned to the Sheep Rock Unit.

This unit is divided into four areas. This is the Blue Basin Area which includes the Island in Time Trail. The blue was hard to capture in the bright light.

The Foree Area includes two short interpretative trails and green claystone (a new word to me).

Sorry my friend you’d already been extinct for almost 20 million years. The oldest fossils in the monument are about 48 million years old.

I found a few other beauties along the way.

Adventure Date(s):

  • September 5 and October 4-6, 2021


  • Services are sparse near the Monument. Plan accordingly.
  • Dispersed camping is sparse but available on BLM land near each of the units.
  • Trails and all outdoor areas are open from sunrise to sunset but closed otherwise.
  • Check the website or call for open hours at Cant Ranch and the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center.
  • I enjoyed visiting this area in October when the temperatures were cooler and the skies clearer.
  • Many people try to see everything in a day. Spreading it out over 3 days was much more enjoyable.


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