John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
A trip to east-central Oregon offers a visual feast of colorful and stunning landscapes designed from the state’s geological past. If you have a few days to spend, take the opportunity to visit the three different units of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, where “a world-class record of the evolution of plants and animals, climate change and the ecosystems of the past that spanned more than 40 million years is preserved.” This Traveler’s Checklist can help you make the most of your time exploring these units.
- Each of the units in the park is approximately an hour’s drive apart. While you can ostensibly see all three in a single day, adding an extra day or two to your explorations allows you to get a feel for the differences in each unit. The roads are narrow and twisty, with cattle roaming free, so stick to the posted speed limit and slow down on those blind bends.
- Services are limited and your best bet for consistent accommodation choices, as well as gas, will be either in Prineville or John Day. Camping is not permitted in any of the three units in this park, but there are a variety of campgrounds nearby.
- Pack a picnic, take plenty of water, bring sunscreen and start your day with a visit to the Clarno unit, where the palisades – volcanic lahars (mudslides) that formed 54 million ago years – may remind you of the towers and bastions of the castle. . Spend the morning hiking the three very short trails ranging from ¼ to ½ mile round trip. There are picnic tables and toilets but no water available.
- After your morning visit to the Clarno unit, make your way to this park’s most popular unit: the Painted Hills unit. The roads in this unit are gravel and RVs are not recommended after the Painted Hills Overlook. There is no visitor center at the Painted Hills unit, but there is a small kiosk with maps and other information near the unit entrance, as well as the only restrooms and tables picnic area. There is no water available.
- Make sure you have a camera handy, as the afternoon light is the best for photographing the yellow, gold, dark red / brown and black colorations of those painted hills. The aptly named Painted Hills Overlook is one of the best places to capture these images.
- There are five short trails in the Painted Hills unit ranging in length from 0.25 to 1.6 miles round trip. If you don’t feel like tackling every trail, at least hike the Carroll Rim Trail for an almost 360-degree panoramic view from this unit.
- Stand after dark to watch and maybe photograph the stars and the Milky Way above these painted hills.
- Pack another picnic lunch and bring plenty of water with you for your ride to the Sheep Rock unit, stopping to admire the columnar basalt layers including the Picture Gorge basalts before spending time touring the center of paleontology and reception Thomas Condon. There you can see over 500 fossil specimens unearthed in this national monument, watch an 18-minute orientation film about the park, browse the bookstore and look through a large picture window into the lab to watch scientists clean and study the fossils.
- Hike some or most of the trails in this unit to take in the scenery and get an up-close look at blue-green clay formations containing fossils that are 25 to 30 million years old.
- Learn a bit of history about Scottish immigrants James and Elizabeth Cant and their families as you explore the historic district and the James Cant Ranch Museum. Hike the trails that start from the ranch.
- End your exploration of this national monument by walking just under 8 miles between Sheep Rock Unit and Mascall Overlook, off US Route 26, for “breathtaking views of John Day Valley and Picture Gorge” as well as a look at the massive and fossil formation of Mascall.
- Be sure to check the park’s website for if and where pets are allowed, as well as for any alerts and closures due to construction, weather damage, or Covid-19 precautions.
- When planning your trip, remember that the coronavirus pandemic is not over yet. According to the National Park Service, whose parent organization is the Home Office: “To protect the health of those who live, work and visit US national parks, face masks are required in all NPS buildings and facilities. . Masks are also needed on lands managed by the NPS when physical distance cannot be maintained, including narrow or busy trails, viewpoints, and historic homes. So travel safely, take face masks, practice social distancing, and wash your hands often.