‘The desert, when the sun comes up…I couldn’t tell where heaven stopped and the Earth began.’-Tom Hanks
One of the hidden gems of Central and Eastern Oregon is the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. That an area like this exists is remarkable! The (free) park is actually three locations, Sheep Rock, Painted Hills, and Clarno Units. While you can do them all in one day with Bend as your base, I recommend breaking it up into two trips, Sheep Rock and the Painted Hills together and Clarno separately. There are benefits to this, one, being more time, but the drives to each are worth the trip themselves. Sheep Rock/Painted Hills takes you through Ochoco National Forest, where you climb to just shy of 5,000 feet and when you reach the top, the world opens up. To Clarno, you drive through grasslands and come around the bend (no pun intended) and the view of the hills is stunning then on the way back, you can see the Cascades in the distance!
Fun Fact, John Day didn’t actually discover these fossil beds! He was an early pioneer to Oregon and the John Day River runs near the sites! Each unit has its own wonders. Sheep Rock has stunning vistas and green rock formations. I went in the fall and winter and while both are beautiful, the rocks with a dusting of snow really adds to the scene. It’s as if snow covers the markers of human existence and you experience the landscape untouched.
The Clarno Unit is the furthest west. It does not look anything like the other two and, truly, felt like I was back in Southern Utah amongst the hoodoos of Bryce or the formations of Grand Escalante. This section is where the ‘fossil’ portion of the national monument really comes into play. The fossil trails are actually along the road, which as I was the only person there, gave a bit of comfort and safety. The trail is a loop and there are markers pointing out the various fossils. The mile hike culminates underneath the Clarno Arch (be sure to look up)!
The most famous portion is the Painted Hills and for good reason…you feel like you are on Mars! There are trails along the hills and, while designed to protect the natural phenomena, you can see the sand up close. Like I have said before, that wind can create such things and that it still exists (!!!) is truly something else. The area is a very popular destination but I went in the Fall during the week and only a handful of people were there. It allowed me to sit in the silence. Highly recommend!
I have really loved exploring Oregon during this past year. The irony of the pandemic is that it has focused me to travel locally, something I probably wouldn’t have been doing as much if the world was wide open. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument maybe my favorite non-ocean related spot!