In a large desert area of eastern Oregon, county of Wheeler, exists the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. It is during the springtime of the year that the area is the most beautiful with the desert flowers in bloom and the surrounding hills enveloped in pretty shades of green. The topography in this huge area is variable and most striking. The rock layers in the Clarno Unit consist of alternating shades of red, brown, and orange, and the blue (yes, blue) rocks in the Sheep Rock Unit are something to behold. The Painted Hills Unit is something out of this world! You have to see this stuff in person to believe it. I believe this area is one of Oregon’s best kept secrets. Sometimes it’s best to keep it that way too. This is a fragile geological area. The fossil beds are out of the way from mainstream life and that’s probably a good thing.
Be fully stocked with survival gear when venturing into the John Day Fossil Beds area. There are no modern accommodations to stay in except for a few very small and far between rural community motels or bed and breakfast type places. I did come across a camping site or two. This is a desert area. The best times to travel during the year would be the spring and fall seasons. Be aware that summer temperatures soar above 100 degrees F. Take plenty of water or fluids to drink and non perishable food when spending time in this area. And please keep your fuel tank filled as much as possible when traveling through these large desert areas.
How does one get to this fascinating place? First of all, with any backroads traveling, get yourself a good, detailed road map. Depending which part of the fossil beds you want to visit, you do have options. There is the main central Oregon Highway 97 that runs north-south from Washington to California. From Portland and places north, the scenic Columbia River Gorge Interstate 84 would be the quickest route to Oregon Highway 97. Head south then until you reach the ghost-town of Shaniko. From there, turn onto Route 218 and head east. This is where the drive gets really interesting and challenging and is on the way to the Clarno Unit section of the fossil beds. You will find yourself going downhill for quite some time around and around many curves that eventually wind up in the small, valley community of Antelope. Back in the 1980’s, this was the site of the reknowned Rajneesh Commune that made news headlines. Continue on this rural road for miles and take in the beautiful hilly landscape. The shades of green make this an exceptionally beautiful drive in the springtime. Suddenly, the Clarno Unit pops into view around a corner with its striking red and orange pillars. There are a few small parking areas along with trails to hike on with interpretive signs. There are also signs warning hikers to be aware of rattlesnakes and not to step on them. Remember, this is desert!
John Day Fossil Beds Clarno Unit
Continuing on your journey, you will stop in the small town of Fossil to refuel and possibly to find a place to hunker down for the evening and get a good meal at the local restaurant. Also located in Fossil is the Oregon Paleo Lands Institute, which offers information, classes, and field trips. To continue on to the next unit in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, the Sheep Rock Unit, turn south onto Rt 19 and stay on this road until it hooks up with Highway 26. Watch for signs along Rt 19 for the Flood of Fire Trail and also for the Blue Basin. These require a bit of walking, but not difficult. You will be immensely rewarded with blue rock formations that are out of this world, especially at the end of the trail in the Blue Basin. I can’t even begin to describe the magnificence and uniqueness of this place. There are even fossil exhibits placed along the trail. The monument’s headquarters, the Cant Ranch Museum, is located along Route 19 as well and contains both indoor and outdoor exhibits of the area’s settlement. And, be sure to stop at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center located just down the road from the museum. This modern designed building has a working fossil lab inside and excellent exhibits of fossils found in the area.
Blue and Rose Colored Rock Layers of the Blue Basin
Thomas Condon Paleontology Center
By now you get an idea of how vast an area the John Day Fossil Beds comprises. There is still one more unit left to visit, the Painted Hills Unit. Route 19 terminates at Highway 26. Turn right to travel west towards the town of Mitchell. Just past the town, watch for a sign on the right for the John Day Fossil Beds Painted Hills Unit. This is a narrow, rural road that you travel on for a few miles until you start seeing some of the most intriguing land formations you will ever see. Not only the formations, but the colors as well. You will think you are on a different planet. I love visiting this area in the springtime. The colorful desert blooms add to the magnificence of the colorful geological formations. When you view the mound formations in this unit area, they seem to have a velvety texture from a distance, but if you get up close to them, you will notice a popcorn-like texture to them. This is due to the unique soil composition and erosion conditions over time. This is a pretty big area with gravel roads to drive on and hiking trails to explore.
The Painted Hills
Painted Hills Boardwalk Trail with Interpretive Signs
And thus ends this travel blog about the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. To get back to civilization, continue traveling west on Highway 26 to the city of Prineville. The highway eventually hooks up with Highway 97, the major north-south arterial of central Oregon. You will climb uphill through the Ochoco Mountains and National Forest towards Prineville. If you want some fantastic views of the mountains and valleys, travel from the west to the east through this scenic area. In fact, if you are visiting the area from points south, such as California, Prineville would be an excellent starting point to visit some of the fossil bed units. Whatever direction you come from to visit eastern Oregon and the John Day Fossil Beds, you’ll have an experience not to be forgotten!
All images property of Peggy A Thompson