John Day Fossil Beds, Painted Hills Unit

When most people plan a visit to Oregon, they’re thinking about the pounding surf of the Pacific Ocean, walking on warm sands, or maybe experiencing the rage of coastal storms, from a distance. Still others might pay a visit to Mt Hood and its neighbouring peaks, or even Crater Lake National Park. Few if any have even heard about the three units of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

This fall, I had the chance to visit the Clarno and Painted Hills Units, leaving me the Sheep Rock Unit to look forward to. We had but a few hours to spend at Painted Hills, but the drive there through the surrounding countryside made it well worth the drive.

The surrounding mountains

Through years of seepage and erosion, plus the exposure of volcanic layers, the resultant rhyolite clays that have extruded over the years have created a landscape that is incredibly unique. Though these formations are fragile, their composition does not provide a fertile growing medium, thus, being mostly free of vegetation, the layers give the hills their painted appearance.

Pretty good view from a parking lot!

Camping in the actual monument areas is considered off limits, but more information can be found here on lodging, among other things…..

I spent most of my time just enjoying the views from the trail that runs from the first parking lot, but there are a number of other paths to walk. I also strolled the nearby Painted Cove Trail, which comes complete with a boardwalk. This, and the other units, as the name implies, have also been the sites of significant fossil finds.

Painted Cove Trail


If ever you are travelling through Central Oregon on Highway 97 it is time well spent to meander your way to John Day Fossil Beds. You’ll certainly be glad you did!

Roadside views
A photographer’s paradise!

Remember when you are there to stick to authorized trails so that you do not damage any formations. They have taken countless centuries to form and can be ruined in seconds by careless human footsteps.

We were impressed not only by fascinating geology but also by the solitude of the John Day River and its quiet and colourful mountains. I know we’ll be back again!






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