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 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’ve 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!

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 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 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.

Mount Hood

When you go on a road trip in Washington, Oregon an 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?

A couple of tips:

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.

McMenamins Old St. Francis School in Bend. A very special hotel in an old catholic school with a brewery.

Wilson Ranches Retreat just outside of Fossil. Have you always wanted to stay on a ranch? This is the place to go!

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?

There are many beautiful sights in Northwest USA. Would you like to discover more? Check out these articles:

Or check out one of these amazing travel guides:

A Closer Look at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Fodor’s Oregon


Hi! I'm Co and a travel addict. On this website, I'll share stories of my travel adventures and share some travel tips. I'll make sure to keep you inspired for your next trip!

View stories

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.