John Day Fossil Loop - Oregon Scenic Drives

An eight-hour drive that takes you back 30 million years.This full-day circuit begins and ends in the neighboring towns of John Day and Canyon City. From wheat fields to white water, rockhound finds to remnants of Oregon's pioneer history, it passes remarkable variety and beauty. Along the way, the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument preserves a unique record of the region's ancient life. Please remember that fossils on Monument lands may only be collected by scientists with special authorization.

Canyon City, John Day and Prairie City
Start on Hwy. 26 in Oregon's gold and cattle country, where gold dust and nuggets worth more than $26 mlllion were mined before the big rush ended. Visit the Kam Wah Chung & Co. Museum in John Day. Two miles south, Canyon City is home to the region's Historical Museum and many remnants of the gold rush. A side loop east from here goes to Prairie City with its Dewitt Depot Park and Sumpter Valley Railroad museum. The loop continues south past picture-perfect ranchiands, circling the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness and Recreation Area before retling to Canyon City via Hwy. 395.

John Day Fossil Beds
Follow the John Day River west on Hwy. 26 through Mount Vernon and Clyde Holiday State Park to Dayville. At Hwy. 19/26, pass dramatic Picture Gorge, named for the Native American pictographs found on its ancient walls. From here, the multicolored ash beds of the John Day Fossil Beds rise nearly 2,000 feet. For a close-up look, turn into the Visitors Center at the Sheep Rock Unit, five miles from Dayville.

The Blue Basin and Foree Areas
From the Visitors Center, Hwy. 19 follows the John Day River all the way to Service Creek. Pass Goose Rock Conglomerate, a 110 million-year-old formation. Nearby, Blue Basin has a self-guided half-hour "Island in Time" walk. Further north, Cathedral Rock presents a brillianfly colored display and the Foree Area is an important scientilic collection area. Continuing toward the town of Kimberly, past Kimberly Dike, take time to observe the remains of a lava surge that occurred about 15 million years ago. North of the highway, camel and pronghorn fossils have been found in the Haystack formations. From here, travel along the river through Spray to Service Creek, two popular gathering spots for whitewater rafters.

North to Fossil and the Clarno Unit
At Service Creek you can take a side trip on Hwy. 19 to Fossil, with its historic museums and sites, including an open fossil bed where you can dig for plant and insect fossils over 30 million years old. Twenty miles west on Hwy. 218, the Clamo Unit of the National Monument features dramatic palisades, with many preserved fossil plants in the ancient cathedral-shaped mudstone spires. See ongoing geological research at the Hancock Field Station.

Hwy.2O7 to Mitchell
South from Service Creek, drive Hwy. 207 through the Twickenham Basalt Formation to the old townsite of Richmond and on to Mitchell.

The Painted Hills
Northwest of Mitchell, the Monument's Painted Hills Unit offers a close-up look at the eroded hills of multi-million year old colorful volcanic ash. The best views are at dawn and dusk after a rain, when the moisture brings out the spectacular hues in the mineral-rich clays. A 3/4-mile hike leads to an outstanding rim view and a short self-guided walk to Painted Cove offers a close view of the colorful claystones.

Back to John Day
From the Painted Hills Unit, return to Mitchell via Hwy. 26, and continue east back to John Day to complete this loop tour through some of the nation's most outstanding geologic history.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 11 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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