When it comes to singular scenery, jaw-dropping canyons and an almost incomprehensible glimpse into ancient Northwest geology, not many places rival the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
Stretching out across 14,000 acres of eastern Oregon land about 200 miles from Portland, the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a one-of-a-kind locale that makes for the perfect outdoor adventure. The three units of the monument — Sheep Rock, Painted Hills and Clarno — each offer unique natural features, from plummeting cliffs and plunging streams to wildly colorful ridge lines and hillsides.
The place is nothing short of a paradise for anyone looking for an active, educational escape unlike any other. Here are some of the best ways to take it all in.
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument runs wild with some of the most unique and colorful terrain in all the Northwest. The best way to see much of it is by foot. The 3.5-mile Blue Basin Overlook loop hike will transport you to an other-worldly lunar landscape, or try the half-mile jaunt along the Flood of Fire trail for a peek into the area’s deep geologic past. Another small network of trails gives up stunning glimpses of the towering Clarno Palisades.
Ride the Waves
For experienced paddlers or those interested in a guided trip, rafting the John Day River can be a leisurely, thrilling and head-turning experience. The third-longest free-flowing river in the United States, the John Day courses through the monument, offering up glimpses of geological wonder all around.
The powerful volcanic and environmental forces at play for eons in this little corner of the world have left a colorful trail across the land. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Painted Hills unit of the monument. Here, deep reds, yellows and blacks really do paint the surrounding hills in layered hues that inspire nothing but awe. While you can take in the views from a distance, hop out of the car and hit the easy trails for the most impressive vistas.
Find Fossils —For Real!
You might have visions of visiting the John Day Fossil Beds and coming home with a nice dinosaur bone fossil souvenir. Fat chance. For starters, this part of the country was under the Pacific Ocean at the time of the dinosaurs. Second, digging for fossils is not allowed in the monument. But not all is lost. You can actually — and legally — collect fossils of plants and trees that grew along streams millions of years ago behind what is now Wheeler High School in the nearby town of Fossil.
The best living and learning is done outside at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, but that doesn’t mean there’s not more to be done inside. The monument is home to two first-class educational centers, the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center and the Cant Ranch Museum. Both are essential stops to help round out just what this one-of-a-kind monument is all about.