Take A Hike: John Day Fossil Beds

A few weeks ago, I took the opportunity to get out-of-town for a few days. I chose John Day Fossil Beds because it was relatively close to Portland (about 5 hours away), and I have never been there before.

John Day Fossil Beds

Fossils usually conjure up images of dinosaurs and all kinds of long-extinct creatures that no longer roam the earth, but the John Day Fossil Beds are not quite like that. The region was covered by an ocean during the Age of Dinosaurs, so you will not find evidence of those. The fossils that you’ll discover in this remote region of Oregon are of plants and mammals that lived in this area over the past 40 million years, the Age of Mammals.

Due to the volcanic activity in the Cascade region, there are an enormous amount of preserved specimens that bring researches from around the world to study. There is an active working research center where paleontologists are doing fossil science in the field, and in the lab.

Mitchell, Oregon

I lieu of camping, I chose to stay at the Oregon Hotel in the rustic town of Mitchell. Mitchell is pretty much a ghost town, and one could easily miss it if you didn’t take the business loop off US 26. In the town you’ll find two cafes, the hotel, a taco cart, and a small general store. There is no cell phone reception, but the hotel did have WiFi.

Don’t expect too much comfort if you decide to stay here. The bed was uncomfortable, the walls were thin, and my room didn’t even have a shower (bathtub only). However, if you can look past that, then you’ll be charmed by the friendliness of the staff.

Considering the remoteness of the region, I felt happy to stay someplace with a roof over my head. Also, since the John Day Fossil Beds are spread out over an expansive area, Mitchell was a perfect staging ground for the rest of my weekend’s adventures. I appreciated being out of the city for a few days, and I would stay in the hotel again if I ever travel back to the area.

If you’re looking for something larger than a town with 129 people listed as its population, then check out Fossil, Oregon (population 468 :)). I stopped and had a good meal at RJ’s Restaurant.

John Day Fossil Beds

Things to know

  • No fees
  • Limited or no cell phone reception
  • Few to NO gas stations – fill up whenever possible!
  • 3 major park units, each an hour or more away from each other
  • Watch out for rattlesnakes

None of the hikes are particularly long or challenging. I think that the Park Service limits where you can hike in order to preserve the environment and the vast collection of fossil samples that are pretty much everywhere.

Everything is accessible by vehicle, the drives are beautiful, and the lack of crowds are pleasant.

Printable trails brochure for all three units (PDF)

Painted Hills

The Painted Hills Unit is a beautiful mixture of yellows, golds, blacks, and reds. The hills are beautiful at all times of the day, and changing light and moisture levels can drastically affect the tones and hues that are visible.

John Day Fossil Beds Painted Hills

I hiked four trails in this park unit.

  1. Overlook Trail – The first trail that you’ll have access to after entering the Painted Hills Unit. There are some benches for resting or sight seeing along the way. There is a nice expansive view at the top that allows you to see the surrounding hills.
  2. Leaf Hill Trail – A short trail that circles a big hill with all kinds of fossilized leaves.
  3. Painted Cove Trail – A small trail that places you among some of the most brightly colored hills in this park unit.
  4. Carroll Rim Trail – The longest and highest elevated trail in this park unit. This one was my favorite trail in the Painted Hills.

Painted Hills

Painted Hills

Sheep Rock

The Sheep Rock Unit hosts the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. This is the best place to see fossils at the monument. Here, fossils from all three units of the park, as well as those from other federal lands in the area, are on display for visitors to see up close.

John Day Fossil Beds Sheep Rock

The trails in this park unit that I hiked are:

  1. Mascall Formation Overlook – Not much of a trail, more of  a drive up a hill and small walk to a viewpoint marker. Still, the view is nice!
  2. Thomas Condon Overlook Trail – A short trail with a view accessible from the parking lot of the visitor center.
  3. River Trail – A small trail down to the John Day River. It’s wheelchair accessible, and allows you to see the James Cant Ranch that hosted Thomas Condon and some of the first paleontologists to the area.
  4. Island in Time Trail – I walked this trail with a park ranger and received some cool information about the formation of the hillside, and about the fossils of the area. You’ll have a chance to walk along a creek that has green water, colored from the stone in the area. There is also some cool fossil replicas encased along the way. It’s unfortunate, but they use replicas in place of the originals found here in order to protect them from vandalism.
  5. Story in Stone Trail – A short trail along some colorful landscapes.
  6. Flood of Fire Trail – Another short trail that allows you to see different layers of volcanic sediment settled from past eruptions.

Island in Time Trail

Story in Stone trail

Flood of Fire trail


The Clarno Unit is located 18 miles west of the town of Fossil. Here you’ll find the Palisades. They formed 44 million years ago from a series of volcanic mudflows. Fossils previously found here include four-toed horses, huge rhino-like brontotheres, crocodilians, and meat-eating creodonts, as well as leaves, fruits, nuts, seeds, and petrified wood from 173 species of trees, vines, shrubs, and other plants.

Clarno was possibly my favorite unit to visit, although I could have been influenced by the weather since the nicest day of the trip occurred while I was there.

John Day Fossil Beds Clarno Unit

Here I hiked:

  1. Geologic Time Trail – A short trail that connects you from the picnic area to other trail heads. The trail represents a timeline of the last 50 million years, with signs along the way that mark prehistoric events. Each foot of the trail represents 37,000 years. The trail may be started from either end, taking you backward or forward in time.
  2. Trail of the Fossils – This was a really cool little loop that provided the weekend’s best sightings of fossils. As you walk among a boulder field, you’ll witness plenty of leaves, wood, and other petrified plants eternally embedded within the stone.
  3. Clarno Arch Trail – This trail takes you to the base of The Palisades. You’ll see petrified logs, and hundreds of swallows flying between the nests of mud that they have built along the rocks.

Clarno Unit

Clarno Geologic Time Trail

Clarno Arch Trail

Overall, the weekend didn’t contain the most rugged or difficult hikes that I’ve featured in the Take A Hike series, but I really enjoyed visiting this remote area of Oregon. It was nice to soak up the solitude and the scenery. I’d highly recommend visiting this part of the state if you ever have the opportunity.

The Take A Hike Series

Take A Hike: The Redwoods
Take A Hike: Columbia River Gorge – Dog Mountain
Take A Hike: Crater Lake
Take A Hike: Mt. Hood – Cooper’s Spur
Take A Hike: Goat Rocks Wilderness

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