John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a journey through time. Forty million years backwards in time, to be exact.

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

The National Monument features three separate but related units: Painted Hills, Sheep Rock and Clarno. The three units are all located in Eastern Oregon, yet they are hours apart by car. Starting in Madras, the 200-plus mile loop out to Dayville and then north to Fossil and back is best spread out over two or three days. We did the loop in two consecutive days and managed to hike around all three units taking in the otherworldly scenery.

At the Sheep Rock unit near Dayville, one of the world’s best collections of fossils is on display at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. A 19-century minister in The Dalles, Condon found fossil seashells on the Crooked River and fossil camels and other animals along the John Day River. He was appointed the first State Geologist for Oregon in 1872. The center named for him is a gem for those with a keen interest in the natural world. The story of misty jungles, active volcanoes, and strange beasts is preserved in rock. The high desert was once something entirely different. The fossils and exposed sedimentary layers evoke a strange present day, while igniting the imagination and expanding our understanding of Earth’s processes.

For a video preview, Grant McOmie of “Grant’s Getaways” does a nice job:

One of the additional attractions in this region is the John Day River. Undammed along its entire length, the river is the third longest free-flowing river in the contiguous United States. In addition to wild spring chinook salmon and bass, the river furnishes habitat for Columbia River redband trout, bull trout, and westslope cutthroat trout. There are no hatchery salmon or steelhead released in the John Day River.

Also, the open vistas, blue skies, Western Juniper trees and Ponderosa Pines all call out to me. The area is outstanding, and largely uninhabited by people. There are far more grouse, quail, deer and antelope than people. It takes a bit of driving from Portland, but the change is dramatic and the quiet at night complete. I can imagine how hot it could be in summer, but it is a delighful temperature for exploring at this time of year.

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About David Burn

Writer, strategist and brand builder.

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Oregon, Place, Travel