Tucked into the back roads of northcentral Oregon is the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. This hidden treasure is just 31⁄2 hours from the Tri-Cities, and is well worth the drive.
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is separated into three units — the Clarno, the Painted Hills and Sheep Rock.
The Clarno Unit is 18 miles west of Fossil, and features The Palisades, which were formed about 45 millions years ago.
The trail from the parking lot to the beautiful rock formations and back is about a half-mile. The trails are flat and easy to maneuver, great for those who are not hikers, but good shoes are a must.
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The Clarno features many unique shapes and fossils. There are signs pointing out the important things to see.
The route between the Clarno Unit and The Painted Hills features a few colorful claystone hills, but you don’t get the true beauty of the Painted Hills until you reach the unit 10 miles west of Mitchell.
The sights are jaw-dropping. Who knew these were here? They are more than 33 million years old.
According to information signs at the site, the red in the Painted Hills is from rusty iron minerals, oxidized by long exposure. The golden layers reveal a mix of oxidized magnesium and iron and metamorphic claystone minerals. Black hash marks are rich with manganese. Each color represents a different geologic process.
Whatever it is, it’s beautiful.
The Sheep Rock Unit is at the intersection of highways 19 and 26. Here you will find the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center and Visitor Center, the Blue Basin, Cathedral Rock and Sheep Rock peak, which is a beautiful hill across from the Paleontology Center.
About two miles up the road from the Paleontology Center is the Blue Basin. A half-mile trek puts you in the middle of a natural amphitheater carved of blue-green claystone. Again, an easy trail, and again, worth every step.
And, just up the road from the Blue Basin, is Cathedral Rock, a large formation with bands of green, red, gold that has stood the test of time for 29 million years.
These sites are a must-see for those looking for an overnight trip, and it would be to your advantage to travel the few extra miles to stay in John Day. There is little else along the way. The best part of the trip is that everything is free, from parking to visiting the Paleontology Center.
A word to the wise: Stay on the trails and keep your hands to yourself. Taking rocks and fossils is prohibited, and walking on the Painted Hills is highly frowned upon.