For anyone who enjoys glances back to the past and breathtaking natural scenery, the John Day Fossil Beds make for a must visit in Oregon. The distinctively colorful rock formations that comprise the fossil beds help to preserve an amazing record of animal and plant evolution, changing climate, and ecosystems from the past 40 million years. Exhibits and a interactive lab at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center combined with hikes at all three units and several scenic drives allows visitors to the area to explore Oregon’s prehistoric past and see history come alive.
Planning Your Visit
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is comprised of three units: the Sheep Rock Unit, the Painted Hills Unit, and the Clarno Unit. The spread out locations of these three units makes visiting all of them in one day a challenge, but it’s possible for those willing to make an early start of their day. Here’s a little about what each unit has to offer.
Several exposures of the Turtle Cove strata are visible at the Sheep Rock Unit. Named for its bluish-green color, this rock layer represents millions of years of volcanic ash accumulation. Surprisingly, the greenish tint this strata displays is not due to the presence of copper, but from a complex blend of a variety of elements that include barium, strontium, iron, calcium, potassium, aluminum, magnesium, sodium, oxygen, and hydrogen.
In addition to the unique strata, Sheep Rock features plenty of hiking trails, picnic areas, and the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center and historic Cant Ranch, a full afternoon’s worth of sights alone.
Located just 18 miles west of the scenic town of Fossil, the Clarno Unit features the prominent landform of the Palisades. Over 44 million years ago, a series of powerful volcanic mudflows swept down and preserved a diverse assortment of animals and plants that inhabited what was then a near-tropical forest. Gigantic rhino-like brontotheres mingled with tiny four-toed horses and meat-eating creodonts alike are now found in the rock formations of the Claro Unit. The leaves, nuts, seeds, fruits and petrified wood from over 173 species of shrubs, vines, trees, and other plants are also visible from the many trails and picnic areas found in the area.
A truly unforgettable sight, traveling to the Painted Hills is like looking back at millions of years of history revealed in the layers of mountains of multicolored earth. The name is derived from the brightly colored stratifications in the soil and the yellows, blacks, reds, and golds of the Painted Hills are best viewed in the late afternoon. The hue and tones of the hills may even appear to change with each visit, as the claystones differ with the changing moisture and light levels. Once you see the Painted Hills yourself, you’ll know why they’re considered one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon.