Fossils and surreal geological formations are the focus of the three units collectively known as the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Located in north central Oregon, above the Ochoco National Forest, southeast of the Mount Hood Region and northeast of Bend, the sites form a rough triangle in a relatively remote part of the state.
Nine miles west of Dayville, Oregon, find the Sheep Rock Unit, the monument’s most established visitor location. The associated Thomas Condon Paleontology Center is both visitor center and museum, with an extensive selection of locally extracted fossils on exhibit in addition to some hands-on educational activities. Nearby find the James Cant Ranch Historic District, which houses a culturally oriented museum facility and park headquarters. There are three wheelchair accessible trails in the area, as well as assorted picnic areas and a further number of hiking trails and overlooks. Worth a detour is the Kam Wah Chung and Company Museum in John Day, 40 miles east. Operated by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, this National Historic Landmark provides visitors with a rare look at life for the state’s early Chinese immigrants.
West of Sheep Rock Unit by about 30 miles is the town of Mitchell, which services visitors bound for the Painted Hills Unit nine miles northwest off Route 26. Though wildflowers brighten the scene in spring, the site really is intriguing year-round, known for the vivid hues of its hills – come later in the day to enjoy the best lighting. There are several short hiking trails on hand, stretches of which are wheelchair accessible; there are also longer routes suitable for walkers.
To the northwest by a somewhat circuitous route is the Clarno Unit, set alongside the John Day River and framed by mighty rock palisades, the best spot to see some fossils in situ. Here ancient mudslides froze forest in its tracks and visitors can ramble monument trails for close-up views of petrified plant life. For amenities, Fossil (population less than 500), 18 miles west, is the closest stop; Fossil might be small but Wheeler High School Fossil Beds are the only place in the country where amateurs can legally do some fossil-hunting (for a small fee).
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument now comprises 14,000 acres in three units, the Clarno, the Painted Hills and the Sheep Rock.
The Clarno Unit is northernmost, about 18 miles west of the town of Fossil. Although the most visually subdued of the three units, the petrified mudslides of the Clarno Formations, the oldest of the three sections, are one of the few places in the world that preserve every stage of ancient plant life, from stem to seed.
Sheep Rock Unit
The Sheep Rock Unit features the Cant Ranch Visitor Center. Fragments of saber-toothed tigers, giant pigs and three-toed horses from the fossil beds are now on display here and at the monument headquarters office in the town of John Day. Several miles north of the visitor center is the stunning Blue Basin Trail, where in places the ground is cobalt blue alongside a green creek.
Painted Hills Unit
As its name suggests, the Painted Hills Unit is overall the most visually striking of the three units. Mineral-laden clays throughout the hills result in striations of pink, gold, black, browns and deep red. The 1.5-mile Carroll Rim Trial leads to a broad survey of the startlingly colored hills, but the Painted Cove Trail may provide viewing of the most vividly colored mounds.