John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Dayville, OR

Dayville is a tiny little town with less than 150 residents.  But they do have a sense of humor.

We came to Dayville because of its proximity to two of the three separate units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  Dayville and John Day National Monument are named for the John Day River, which flows through both.  The river was named for John Day, but you probably figured that out.  Day was a member of the Pacific Fur Company’s overland expedition to the mouth of the Columbia River in 1810.  While descending the Columbia River in April 1812, he and another trapper were robbed and stripped naked by Native Americans at the mouth of the river that now bears his name, forcing them to hike 80 miles back to friendly Indians under extreme conditions.  It is interesting that his name is used so often in this area despite the fact that he did nothing significant to deserve the recognition, nor did he ever visit the area.

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is known for its well-preserved layers of fossil plants and mammals that lived in the region millions years ago. The monument consists of three geographically separate units: Sheep Rock, Painted Hills, and Clarno.   We visited two of the units, Sheep Rock and Painted Hills, that are reasonably close to Dayville.  The Sheep Rock unit is only ten miles from town and is the location of the monument’s visitor center, the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center.

Thomas Condon Paleontology Center

After arriving in Dayville and setting up at Fish House Inn and RV Park, we drove over to the visitor center to view their video, check out the many displays, and talk to the ranger about hiking in the monument.

Sheep Rock across from the visitor center

The next day we returned to the Sheep Rock unit to hike in an area called the Blue Basin.

There are two trails in the Blue Basin.  We began by hiking the Overlook Trail, a 3.25 mile loop trail that goes steeply up 760 feet of elevation for a great view down in the Blue Basin.

Once up on the top of the mesa we could see some beautifully colored formations just to the north.

We crossed the mesa and came to an overlook with a great view down into the Blue Basin.

As the trail went down the other side of the formation we were able to view the basin from many different angles.

Colorful flowers along the trail

As we descended the Overlook Trail we could see the second trail, the Island in Time Trail, below us.

At the bottom of the loop trail we turned and headed into the basin on the Island in Time trail.  This trail is 1.3 miles round trip and has 13 open grate bridges that pass a shallow stream.

The next day we drove west on US-26 about 45 miles to visit the Painted Hills unit of the monument.  As we drove up the entrance road, but before we passed the park sign, we quickly saw why this area is called Painted Hills.

We parked across the road from the trailhead for the Carroll Rim Trail.  This 1.6 mile round trip trail climbs over 400 feet to a panoramic overlook of the Painted Hills.

The trail ends at the top of this hill

The views from the top of the hill were fantastic!


We also completed a quarter mile loop trail around a formation called the Painted Cove.

Looking down at the Painted Cove

While we don’t think there is enough to do or see in John Day Fossil Beds National Monuments for it to be a destination location, it’s a great place to visit if you are passing through the area.

We have one more blog post about our visit to the Dayville area before we move on.  More on that later . . .

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29 Responses to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

  1. Laurel says:

    We visited both Sheep Rock and Painted Hills in the first couple of days when we started our full-time journey four years ago…I remember hiking those same trails. 🙂 The colors are just spectacular, and you captured them beautifully in your photos.

  2. We have passed by John Day several times, but have never stopped. Guess we will now. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Our geologist friend tells us we must stop and see John Day. Thanks for the tour–are dogs allowed on the trails?

    • placestheygo says:

      Janna, dogs are allowed on the trails on a leash. The biggest problem with visiting this Monument is how far apart the sections are. The Clarno unit is two hours from the Sheep Rock Unit. Painted Hills is an hour from Sheep Rock. But worth a stop if in the area!

  4. Mary says:

    What a beautiful place. We have driven past there, but didn’t stop.

  5. Jeff says:

    It’s been too hot for us to hike the times we’ve passed thru, just enjoyed the colorful hills from the comfort of A/C … Thanks for sharing your experience on the trails.

  6. Gay says:

    Beautiful…nice post!

  7. We’ve yet to visit this area, only passed through John Day…looks fabulous and worth a stop next time we are in the area!

  8. Debbie L says:

    Looks almost surreal. I think we could enjoy a few days there….great exercise! We especially enjoy the rangers and movies that bring the area to life!

  9. Jim and Barb says:

    Interesting story about John getting robbed and how they used his name. Has to make you wonder……

  10. Sherry says:

    Beautiful shots from the top of the mesa on your first hike and of the Painted Hills later. What colors! The basin is gorgeous. How neat to see the sweeping look from above and then to hike down into it.. I especially like the photo of John hiking with the view of the Painted Hills off to his left. John Day has been on my list for a long time so thanks for letting me know when to go and that I can do it in a day trip although that’s a lot of driving between units.

    • placestheygo says:

      Sherry, the Sheep Rock and Painted Hills would be easy to visit in one day. The Clarno Unit is a two hour drive from Dayville. The mileage isn’t bad but the windy, slow back roads takes time. Since we lost one of our days in this area because of bad travel weather, we didn’t get to the Clarno Unit.

  11. Gerri & Mike says:

    Beautiful views on an amazing hike!! Very interesting area!! Great photos!!

  12. Jodee Gravel says:

    We too have to go back and see the Clarno area! You got great shots of the painted area – those colors :-)) Tessa really hated those open grate bridges at Blue Basin 😦

    • placestheygo says:

      We might consider visiting the Clarno Unit from Bend if we some time. It is actually a shorter drive from Bend than Dayville! I can’t imagine a dog walking on those bridges. Poor Tessa! John figured the dogs could walk on the top of the railing where it was smooth.

  13. LuAnn says:

    John Day is on our list but have yet to figure out a time to visit. Those colors are really striking!

    • placestheygo says:

      John Day Fossil Beds NM is an interesting place with the three location so far apart. Each area is also rather small. So making this your destination would be disappointing in our opinion. But stopping as you travel through is well worth the visit. The Clarno Unit is two hours from Dayville. However, it is “only” an hour and 45 mins from Bend! So if we decide to visit there, we will travel from here in Bend. There is only one, half mile trail with some foliage fossils and a small spiral rock area. Not sure it is worth all the driving.

      • LuAnn says:

        We definitely would defer to your judgment Pam. Terry is not into that much driving, as you probably remember.

      • placestheygo says:

        It was a nice stop, as I mentioned. But it was on our way to Bend. I originally thought I really wanted to see the Clarno Unit until I discovered it was another smaller area and the fossil were foliage not mammals. But do stop if you are near by but I definitely wouldn’t go out of my way.

  14. geogypsy2u says:

    Love those colors! Been about 15 years since my visit to all three units. But I don’t remember that visitor center.

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