Rich with millions of biological and geological history, John Day Fossil Beds is a truly unique park that will whet your appetite for paleontology, interesting rock formations, and stunning landscape - all in one experience.
Located in central-east Oregon, the park will require quite a bit of driving, not only to arrive, but also to get to each of its three units - Clarno, Sheep Rock, and Painted Hills. However, its isolation is what makes this park so spectacular - much of it is untouched and unexplored, and while you're traveling through, you'll feel like you've stepped into another world, surrounded by deep ravines, thousands of embedded fossils, and hills of striking red, yellow and orange.
The park itself does not have any campgrounds, but there are plenty of options in the surrounding area, ranging from comfortable city parks to off-grid BLM campgrounds. Whatever your preference, you'll absolutely find what you're looking for and more here at John Day Fossil Beds.
Because John Day Fossil Beds is separated into three different units, expect to do a lot of driving when you come visit. Luckily, all the roads you'll need to drive on are well paved and maintained. The sections of the park range from a 1-2 hour drive from each other. Before you head out on the road, make sure you fill up your gas - especially if it's almost the end of the day. As Oregon is a full-service state, many gas stations won't have services available to fill up your gas after hours.
The Clarno Unit is the northern-most part of the park, and is located between Antelope and Fossil. Coming from either direction, it will be about a half hour drive along Highway 26.
The Sheep Rock unit is nestled between Dayville and Kimberly along Highway 19. If you're coming in from Dayville, you'll head west on Highway 26 for seven miles, and then go north in Highway 19. Drive for about 11.5 miles, and you'll get to Sheep Rock.
Finally, to get to the Painted Hills Unit, head 3 miles west from Mitchell along Highway 26. Turn right onto Burnt Ranch Road and head north for about six miles, and then take a left onto Bear Creek Road to get to the monument. The roads within this unit are unpaved, but they are very accessible - however, the park does recommend that larger vehicles or large RVs do not drive in past the Painted Hills Overlook. Additionally, make sure to check the weather before heading in - heavy rain can also make this road inaccessible.
John Day Fossil Beds does not have any campgrounds within the park - however, there are plenty of campgrounds in the surrounding areas to check out. Located in the city of Mitchell, OR, Mitchell City Park is one of your best options if you're looking for a more comfortable stay.
It's open year-round, and has restrooms, picnic tables, fire grates, and water, electric and sewer hookups available. Out of all the potential campsites to stay at, this one ranks at the top in terms of available amenities and proximity to the park. Their maximum RV length here is 32'.
From this campground, it'll take you about half an hour to get to Painted Hills or Sheep Rock, and 1.5 hours to get to Clarno.
If you're looking to stay smack dab in between the three parts of the park, head to some BLM land and find Donnelly-Service Creek Campground. It's located right on the John Day River, and you'll most likely be camping with boaters planning to take a multi-day trip down the river.
You'll have vault toilets and picnic tables, and the maximum length here is 60 feet. There is no potable water, so make sure you bring everything you need to go off grid.
From here, it will be about a 45 minute drive to both Clarno and Sheep Rock, and an hour to get to Painted Hills.
There are plenty of hikes throughout all three units of John Day Fossil Beds. The majority of the hikes range around one mile or less, so they are all very quick yet still allow you to get an excellent taste of all that the park has to offer. If you do head onto the trails, it is essential that you stay on the trail - not only for preservation of the soil, but also because there might be some fragile fossils beneath the ground that could be permanently damaged.
Within the Clarno Unit, you'll find three trails, ranging from 0.25 to 0.5 miles, that will take you through the history of the park. The Trail of Fossils Loop is a must do - it's the only place in the park where visitors can see fossils up close and in abundance.
In the Sheep Rock Unit, you'll find a few overlooks and two of the longer trails in the park. The Blue Basin Overlook, a 3.25 mile trail, will take you through unique, green and blue-hued rock formations, eventually leading you to an impressive view into the John Day River Valley.
At Painted Hills Unit, you'll find stunning, multi-colored hills that represent the various shifts in weather and chemical composition of the area over time. You'll be able to go to some quick overlook trails, but if you want a more panoramic view of the painted hills, take the 1.6 mile, 400 foot climb up the Carroll Rim Trail for one of the park's most spectacular sights.
John Day Fossil Beds is home to some of Oregon's Scenic Bikeways. If you're looking for a challenging, yet incredibly rewarding, multi-day bike trip, head onto Highways 26, 19, 207, or 402 to see the extraordinary geology and history of the area at a slower pace. The Painted Hills ride will take you through 130 miles of John Day Fossil Beds and lead you through some of the cities. You'll also be able to access many of the local campgrounds or BLM land through these routes.
Many sections of the John Day River are classified as National Wild or Oregon Scenic Waterways, meaning you have the opportunity to experience the park from the water as well. If you're experienced, you can do this on your own, but if not, there are local companies that can take you out on the river and provide you with guidance and safety.
Remember to get an advance BLM/Oregon State Park permit for any kind of travel on the John Day River, and check the river conditions before heading out. Generally, by July 4th, the river is no longer floatable.
If you're a fossil lover, you'll be in paradise here at John Day Fossil Beds. As in the name, the entire 14,000 acre fossil bed area is rife with plant and animal fossils dating from 45 million to 5 million years ago.
You can head to the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center to learn some information about the research taking place in the area, and then take the short Trail of Fossils Loop that will bring you up close to these incredible fossils. This is an excellent choice if you're not feeling like any longer hikes in the colder weather - the loop is 0.25 miles, but it will bring you directly to the park's most famous attractions. Remember though - digging up and removing fossils from the park is strictly prohibited.
With an Oregon Fishing License, you'll be able to throw a line into the John Day River and catch some smallmouth bass and rainbow trout. This license will also allow you to fish outside of the park, but after hearing about everything you'll find here, why would you want to leave?
Bring your poles, set up camp, and enjoy a peaceful day of fishing - all while enjoying the various colors and layers of the surrounding a landscape and, potentially, standing next to some 40 million year old fossils.
It's no secret that John Day Fossil Beds is known for its spectacular specimens, and there is a laboratory located at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center that's available for viewing!
If you're interested in learning more about the fossils and to see some paleontologists hard at work, head to the laboratory viewing area. Depending on the day and time, however, the paleontologists might be in their offices or out in the field hunting for more!