John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument: A hidden gem in Oregon!

Have you ever heard of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument? This gorgeous park is located in Oregon and is mostly known because of the Painted Hills Unit.

What is John Day Fossil Beds National Monument?

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a nature reserve and one of the most beautiful places in Oregon, United States. The park is divided into three units: Sheep Rock, Painted Hills, and Clarno. The park is a must-visit for people who love geology and paleontology. In this area, they found many fossils of animals you’d never heard of. In the park, you can also see how the landscape has changed over the years. The mountains have several shapes, layers, and colors.

In the park, there are a couple of great short hiking trails, from which you have a great overview of the landscape. The location of the park is quite remote, and it never gets crowded. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a true hidden gem in Oregon!

Planning your trip to Oregon last minute? Here are some really useful tips!

🏨Where to stay in Oregon: Best Western John Day Inn (⭐3; John Day); Pine Ridge Inn (⭐3; Bend); Hotel Lucia, a Provenance Hotel (⭐4; Portland).

🛩️How to get to Oregon: fly to Portland (PDX) and make your way from there. You can find the cheapest flights with WayAway. This is a flight aggregator that provides travelers with the best rates on airline tickets.

🎡What to do in Oregon: Portland Sightseeing Tour Including Columbia Gorge Waterfalls (from $150 per group, high traveler rating); Full-Day Mt Hood Waterfall Tour with Lunch and Wine Tasting (from $170, high traveler rating); Portland, Oregon City Tour (from $69, high traveler rating).

💊Travel insurance: As for me, travel insurance is a necessary component of any trip, if you want to stay calm in every unexpected event during your journey. So, I suggest you choose Insubuy. It is currently the largest provider of visitor insurance. You will definitely find the most appropriate insurance plan for you!

Visitor information

The park is open daily, from sunrise to sunset. Visting is free. When it’s your first visit, it’s smart to visit the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center in the Sheep District first. This is a visitor center and a museum, where you’ll learn a lot about the park and the history of the area. There are also some rangers, so you can ask questions about the units and you can get some information about the hiking trails.

There are hardly any facilities in the park (the only place that has running water is the visitor center), so bring your own food and drinks. In some parking areas, you might find a pit toilet.

The most up-to-date information can be found on the official website.

The three units of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

John Day Fossil Beds is divided into three separate units, which are miles apart from each other.

Sheep Rock Unit

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument - Sheep Rock
The Sheep Rock Unit is named after this rock formation.

The Sheep Rock Unit is named after a big rock formation (Sheep Rock), which you can see on the opposite side of the road from the visitor center. When you enter the unit, you’ll follow the John Day River through a canyon. On both sides, you’ll see impressive rock formations and colorful mountains.

In the Sheep Rock Unit, you can visit the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. Nearby, you can visit the Cant Ranch. This is a historic estate, which is also an open-air museum. It’s a great place for a picnic underneath the fruit trees and you can imagine what life was like in this area a hundred years ago.

The landscape in the Sheep Rock Unit is beautiful and it looks even better if you explore this area by foot. There are many great short hikes, for example at the Foree Picnic Area. For me, the most beautiful hike in the park is the Blue Basin Overlook Trail, from where you can see how diverse the landscape really is.

Painted Hills Unit

Painted Hills in Oregon
In the Painted Hills Unit, you’ll find these colorful hills.

The Painted Hills Unit is the most well-known part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. To get to the Painted Hills Unit, you have to drive on a dirt road and you’ll see the landscape change from green meadows to weird red-painted hills.

In this unit, you can find some nice overlooks and a couple of short trails. My favorites are the Carroll Rim Trail (the view from the top is absolutely gorgeous) and the Painted Cove Trail (with a wooden boardwalk).

Clarno Unit

The last and the smallest unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is the Clarno Unit. This unit is the least visited because of its remote location. It’s mostly known because of the steep rock formations (it looks a bit like the landscape in Utah’s National Parks).

In the Clarno Unit, there is one small parking lot, which is also the trailhead for a couple of short trails, like the Trail of Fossils, which is the only place in the park where you can see fossils in the landscape.

More beautiful sights in this area

Would you like to visit some more beautiful sights in central Oregon? Here are some recommendations:

Cottonwood Canyon State Park

Cottonwood Canyon State Park
Hiking trail along the John Day River in Cottonwood Canyon State Park.

This is a new state park in a canyon with the John Day River. A great place for a picnic and it has a great small campground. It has a couple of hiking trails, most of which follow the John Day River.


Bend is one of the most fun cities in Oregon. It has a great historic city center filled with breweries and a beautiful park. It’s also a great place for some fun outdoor adventures like kayaking, visiting volcanoes and lava caves.

Mount Hood

When you go on a road trip in Washington, Oregon, and California, you’ll probably see multiple volcanos, these are the Cascade Volcanoes. One of the most beautiful volcanoes is Mount Hood (close to Portland). On the foot of the volcano, you can visit the Timberline Lodge, which is the place where they filmed Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Where to stay?

Where to stay if you want to visit John Day Fossil Beds National Monument? Here are some recommendations:

  • Spok’n Hostel in Mitchell. This is a white church converted as a hostel. There’s a dorm with multiple beds, but they also have some private rooms with shared bathrooms. The owners are really friendly and have a lot of tips for great sights in the area.
  • Best Western John Day Inn – Nice 3* hotel with a pool in John Day.
  • Pine Ridge Inn (Bend) – Cozy 3* hotel in a green area.

These are my tips for visiting John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon! Do you have any questions? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

Would you like to read more about traveling in Northwest USA?

Make sure to check out one of these amazing travel guides for more tips and information for a trip to Oregon.

A Closer Look at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Fodor’s Oregon

You can also read more about a Northwest USA vacation on this website. Check out one of these articles:

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As a girl from a small town in the Netherlands, I always dreamed of traveling. I thought it would always be a dream, but nowadays, I travel 6 to 8 months a year and I hike thousands of miles on the most beautiful hiking trails. On this website you can read all about my favorite destinations.

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