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Tuesday, November 28, 2023
Nov. 28, 2023

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Enjoy wonderfully weird John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Trio of hidden gems, sites offer hiking amid astonishing alien scenes

By , Columbian staff writer
11 Photos
Over 30 million years ago, iron-rich volcanic ash fell on what's now the Painted Hills landscape of the John Day Fossil Beds. You can take a short, accessible walkway tour of these rust-red hills.
Over 30 million years ago, iron-rich volcanic ash fell on what's now the Painted Hills landscape of the John Day Fossil Beds. You can take a short, accessible walkway tour of these rust-red hills. (Scott Hewitt/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

JOHN DAY FOSSIL BEDS, Ore. — All the megaforces of the planet come together right here: climate change, cataclysmic volcanism, the birth and death of species across eons.

And yet it’s all so gloriously quiet.

Tucked away on meandering highways in Central Oregon, the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a trio of hidden gems. Three remote sites offer easy hiking amid astonishingly alien scenes and plenty of natural silence — perfect for pondering the wonder of it all.

Today’s diverse, dramatic John Day landscapes were shaped and reshaped by gradual climate change punctuated by devastating volcanic eruptions. Across 40 million years, new animal and plant species evolved, thrived for millennia, and then fossilized suddenly, as towering walls of lava and mud swept across the landscape.

Wave after wave of destruction and transformation flooded Central Oregon with lava and lahars (mud and debris flows) that sometimes grew 3 miles deep. Those relentless cycles of volcanism also did a remarkable job of preserving vast amounts of fossil evidence in distinct, vividly colorful layers.

The churning cycle of evolution, volcanic destruction and regeneration lasted until approximately 7 million years ago, seeding what are now some of the richest and most revealing scientific research sites on Earth.

Blue cathedral

Sheep Rock, a tilting blue-and-brown pyramidal mountain, is your stunning welcome to a long valley defined by sublime beauty and utter weirdness.

Before plunging into all that, visit the Sheep Rock Unit’s Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center. There, you can watch scientists working in a lab and chat with park rangers about trail conditions and weather.

Be prepared for extremes, I was told, as it gets surprisingly hot in the sun and cold in the shade. Heed trailhead warnings about mountain lions, but don’t fret. The big cats are generally more afraid of hikers than we are of them.

You can also spin through an impressive fossil exhibit detailing the long, complicated story of the local landscape and its exotic inhabitants.

Dramatic wall murals imagine immense rhino-like Brontotheres, killer-cat predators called Patriofelis and even “tiny four-toed horses” called Haplohippus all going about their business below palm and avocado trees in the steamy, tropical Central Oregon of 44 million years ago.

The most dramatic mural shows creatures fleeing the Rattlesnake Ash Flow Tuff, a speeding wall of lava and mud as tall as a skyscraper that was unleashed 7 million years ago by the largest single volcanic explosion of all.

Keep all that violence in mind as you hit the peaceful trail. Up the road from the visitor center are two trailheads at Blue Basin, an eerie inlet surrounded by volcanic ash walls that have hardened into aqua-green claystone.

Walking up the gently rising Island in Time Trail (1.3 miles round-trip) feels like venturing into an undersea cathedral. A packed-down path with foot bridges brings you deep into the mysterious heart of Blue Basin — a haunting spot, especially as daylight fades and those glowing walls turn deeply moody.

For a stunning overview of this canyon, climb the Blue Basin Overlook Trail, a 3.25-mile loop. A moderately tough rise with a 760-foot elevation gain leads to the scenic rim. A bench at the halfway point invites you to meditate on jaw-dropping views of distant mountains, nearby ridges, the John Day riverbed and the otherworldly canyon below.

A few miles north of Blue Basin is the Foree Trailhead, offering two scenic yet tame pathways. The Story in Stone Trail eases along outcroppings and gulleys (and a couple of benches) for one-third of a mile. The half-mile Flood of Fire Trail visits a towering cliff face and reveals more awesome views of this bizarre valley.

Ribbons and rust

About 45 minutes west of Sheep Rock is the Painted Hills Unit, where a nest of striped, strangely shapely hills steals the show from jagged mountains.

There are two overlooks near the main parking area. One is an easy half-mile walk up a slope. The other is a steeper, tougher climb up the Carroll Rim Trail (1.6 miles round-trip, 400-foot elevation gain), which rewards you with a soaring view of the region and those odd, beribboned mounds below.

The distinct layers tell the story of climate change. Red and orange soils are evidence of tropical heat and humidity. Yellows and tans show cooler and drier times. The blackest lines are manganese, fixed by ancient plant life.

Don’t neglect to visit the smaller trails at Painted Hills. The amazing Painted Cove Trail (a quarter-mile round-trip) offers a wheel-accessible boardwalk (part of the way) that brings you face to face with 30-million-year-old mounds of rusty, popcorn-textured volcanic ash. (Unfortunately, you’ll also see evidence of people jumping off the trail and defacing this fragile landscape with their footsteps.)

The interpretive Leaf Hill Trail (a quarter-mile loop) traces a hotbed of animal fossil discovery.

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

All free, no permits or fees.

Most trails are easy, but none are completely wheelchair accessible.

Sheep Rock Unit: Highway 19 (off Route 26), Kimberly, Ore. Visitor center, museum, gift shop, historic ranch.

Painted Hills Unit: Bear Creek Road (off Route 26), Mitchell, Ore. Picnic area, pit toilets.

Clarno Unit: State Route 218, Fossil, Ore. Picnic area, pit toilets.

To learn more: nps.gov/joda/index.htm


Immense roadside palisades are the main feature of the Clarno Unit, the third John Day Fossil Beds site. According to the National Park Service, a lot of science goes on at this site, but it offers the least visitor exploring.

Park at the main lot and walk along the half-mile Geologic Time Trail, which details the changing climate, landscape and inhabitants across millions of years. You can hunt for evidence of ancient life in the rubble, then hike along the palisades and up to a curious natural arch in the rock roof overhead. Interpretive signs point out petrified logs and leaves that are hidden in the rock for you to find.

Travel time

If you fantasize about exploring Mars or Neptune, try the otherworldly John Day beds instead. They’re so much easier to reach.

From Vancouver, it takes 3½ hours to reach the roadside Clarno Unit on Oregon Highway 218 (between the scenically named towns of Antelope and Fossil). It takes at least four hours to reach Painted Hills and 4½ to reach Sheep Rock, both on Highway 26 in Central Oregon. Cell service is limited and gas stations few and far between.

It’s tempting to try making a loop out of all three scattered sites, and visiting them in a single day. That’s possible, but it won’t leave you much time to enjoy each spot. Better to take two days and base yourself in Bend, Prineville or even father east along the route, where there’s a scattering of chain and mom-and-pop motels.

If you must make one day of it, considering skipping the Clarno Unit and lavishing time on Sheep Rock and Painted Hills. Or you could greet the sun at Clarno, explore Sheep Rock during midday and end at Painted Hills, where the long, golden rays of sunset make the most of this wonderfully weird landscape.

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