John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

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HCR 82, Box 126
Kimberly, Oregon 97848
(541) 987-2333 V/TDD
(541) 987-2336 FAX

Eastern Oregon holds many unexpected elements: pine-forested mountains, glades preserving tall native grasses and wildflowers, deep canyons, trout streams, and small coves of pinnacled badlands. Intriguing, too, are its hidden landscapes—the fossil remains of the jungles, savannas, and woodlands that once flourished here. The badlands of the John Day Valley are fossil beds. These sedimentary rocks preserve a 40-million-year record of plant and animal life. Congress established John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in 1975. It encompasses 14,000 acres in three separate units. Visitors can follow trails into the badlands and examine fossils displayed at the visitor center while scientists continue field investigations and the painstaking analysis of the monument's vast fossil record.

The visitor center, located in the Sheep Rock Unit, is open daily from March through October. During the winter it is closed on weekends and holidays. The trails and picnic facilities are open all year. There are no campgrounds within the monument, but nearby national forests, state parks, and private facilities off or a variety of campsites. Lodging, food, and gasoline are available in nearby communities. Water is available at the visitor center all year and at all picnic areas during the summer season.

Clarno Unit
The cliffs of the Clarno Palisades were formed when a succession of ash-laden mudflows (lahars) inundated a forested landscape. Two trails begin at the base of the Palisades. Winding up through the lahars, they allow observation of embedded plant remains. Picnic facilities and water are available.

Within the boundaries are significant fossil sites not yet open to the public. In the Clarno Unit Beds, more than 300 plant species have been found. The Hancock Mammal Quarry has revealed an unusual ancient fauna still under investigation.

The Hancock Field Station, operated by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, offers several programs for those interested in the geology, paleontology, and ecology of central Oregon. For additional information, write: Hancock Field Station, Fossil, OR 97830.

Scenic Drives - The routes between Clarno and Painted Hills and between Clarno and Sheep Rock pass through colorful scenery and interesting geological features. Travelers may obtain road logs, which interpret the geology of these routes, at the visitor center. See the John Day Fossil Loop for more information.

Painted Hills Unit
PicnicAreas - This landscaped area provides restrooms, water, shaded picnic tables, and exhibits.

Painted Hills Overlook - The color-splashed hummocks and hills are the eroded remnants of the lower John Day Formation. The weathering of volcanic ash under varying climatic regimes resulted in vividly-hued rock layers of red, pink, bronze, tan, and black.

Carroll Rim Trail A - moderately strenuous 0.75-mile trail rewards the hiker with an outstanding view of the Painted Hills and Sutton Mountain.

Painted Cove Trail - A short trail winds around a crimson hill, permitting a close view of the popcorn-textured claystones that distinguish the Painted Hills. A printed trail guide is available at the trailhead.

Leaf Hill Trail - An exhibit describes the hill where large quantities of plant fossils have been removed for scientific study and where research continues. Much of what is now known about the ancient forests once growing in eastern Oregon was learned at this site. Walking on the hill is strictly prohibited.

Sheep Rock Unit
VisitorCenter - This facility is the principal information center for the monument and includes museum exhibits of fossils recovered from the John Day Basin. The shaded lawn of the visitor center is a favored picnicking site.

The monument is an area of active research. Fossils are continually being collected from all units. Visitors may view a laboratory in which specimens are prepared for scientific study and for use in future exhibits.

Sheep Rock Overlook - A short distance south of the visitor center is the viewpoint of Sheep Rock, a colorful exposure of the John Day Formation.

Blue Basin - One way to experience the fossil beds is to walk along the Island in Time interpretive trail, extending 0.50-mile into blue-green canyons. The more strenuous 3-mile Overlook Trail climbs to the rim of Blue Basin and provides spectacular views of the valley's badlands. Off-trail hiking in Blue Basin is strictly prohibited.

Cathedral Rock - This large block of the John Day Formation slid down from the high bluff to the west. A geologically"recent" event, the slump caused a re-routing of the John Day River, which now forms a horseshoe bend around the base of Cathedral Rock.

ForeeArea - A picnic site and two short trails offer views of sculpted John Day Formation sediments capped by enormous flows of Picture Gorge Basalt.

River Access - Pedestrian access to the John Day River is provided at several points along Oregon 19. Be careful when pulling off or on the road.

Hiking Trails
Flood of Fire Trail - 1/4 mile - This gently ascending trail crosses a ridge to a viewpoint overlooking the John Day River Valley and the surrounding basalt cliffs.
Story In Stone Trail - 1/4 mile - This easy 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.
Island in Time Trail - 1 mile - 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 Trail - 3 miles - 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. Elevation gain is 600 feet.
Carroll Rim Trail - 1 1/2 miles - The Carroll Rim trailhead is near the road junction to the Painted Hills Overlook. This moderately strenuous trail leads to the top of Carroll Rim and offers a spectacular view of the Painted Hills and nearby Sutton Mountain. The weather-resistant rock forming the cliffs along the trail is ignimbrite, a layer of welded volcanic ash.
Painted Hills Overlook Trail - 1/2 mile - Park your car at the overlook and walk along this easy path for a colorful view of the Painted Hills. The layers of claystone have been exposed and sculpted by water erosion.
Painted Cove Trail - 1/4 mile - This loop trail offers a close-up view of the colorful Painted Hills soil. A trail guide is available at the trailhead.
Leaf Hill Trail - 1/4 mile - This easy trail circles a hill in which remains from a 30 million year-old hardwood forest are preserved. Fossil leaf exhibits are along the trail.
Trail of the Fossils - 1/4 mile - Watch your footing on this trail of loose rocks. Here over 45 million years ago mud flows, now turned to rock, inundated a subtropical forest. Subsequent erosion has exposed evidence of this past environment which is clearly visible along the trail.
Clarno Arch Trail - 1/4 mile - This steep, slippery and rocky trail takes you near petrified logs and limbcasts. At the end of the trail is the Clarno Arch, an unusual, but small, erosional feature.
Towns and Attractions Nearby


Grant County Chamber of Commerce (541) 575-0547 (eastern and southern gateway) Wheeler County Chamber of Commerce (541) 763-2698 (northern gateway) Crook County Chamber of Commerce (541) 447-6304 (western gateway)


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 19 Dec 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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