A tour through John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is like taking a trip back in time. While fossil beds that extend over five million years are considered rare, the three units of this monument preserve a 65-million-year record of plant and animal life. Over millions of years, in what are now the desert hills of eastern Oregon, plants and animals fell into lake beds and sinkholes where they were buried by river sediments or volcanic debris and transformed into fossils.

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Painted Hills Unit.
©iStock
The Painted Hills Unit at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument are a perfect
example of the power of erosion.

Twenty-five million years ago, the John Day site was a warm, temperate-climate forest with birch, oak, sweetgum, chestnut, and beech trees. The important fossils at the Sheep Rock unit are mammals, including the oreodont, a pig-sized creature that grazed in small herds. Thirty million years ago, the climate was slowly changing from subtropical to temperate, as evidenced by the fossil leaves found in large quantities at the Painted Hills unit. Forty million years ago, the subtropical climate was more like that of countries such as India or Sri Lanka.

Fossilized leaf imprints and whole leaves at Painted Hills and Clarno indicate that a variety of plants grew here, including palm, fig, cinnamon, cycad, and tree ferns. The visitor center features fossils recovered from the John Day Basin, and outdoor trails lead past fossil beds and through the monument's scenic landscape.

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument Information

Address:

  • Sheep Rock Unit: Highway 19 between the towns of Dayville and Kimberly, OR
  • Painted Hills Unit: Nine miles northwest of the town of Mitchell, OR, just off Highway 26
  • Clarno Unit: Eight miles west of the town of Fossil, OR along Highway 218

Telephone: 541/987-2333
Hours of Operation: Park trails, overlooks, and picnic areas are open daily during daylight hours. The
Thomas Condon Paleontology Center hours are:

  • Daily 9 a.m. - 4 p.m., year-round
  • Mar. 1 - Oct. 31, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
  • Memorial Day - Labor Day, 9 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.

Admission: Free

Learn about these other national monuments:

­Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

Colorado National Monument

George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument

Scotts Bluff National Monument

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument

Devils Postpile National Monument

George Washington Carver National Monument

Ocmulgee National Monument

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve

Dinosaur National Monument

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Oregon Caves National Monument

Timpanogos Cave National Monument

Booker T. Washington National Monument

Effigy Mounds National Monument

Grand Portage National Monument

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Tonto National Monument

Buck Island Reef National Monument

El Malpais National Monument

Hohokam Pima National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument

Tuzigoot National Monument

Cape Krusenstern National Monument

El Morro National Monument

Homestead National Monument

Pinnacles National Monument

Walnut Canyon National Monument

Capulin Volcano National Monument

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument

Pipe Spring National Monument

Wupatki National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Fort Frederica National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument

Pipestone National Monument


Castle Clinton National Monument

Fort Matanzas National Monument

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Poverty Point National Monument


Cedar Breaks National Monument

Fort Stanwix National Monument

Lava Beds National Monument

Rainbow Bridge National Monument


Chiricahua National Monument

Fossil Butte National Monument

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Russell Cave National Monument


To learn more about national monuments, memorials, and historic sites, and other travel destinations in North America, visit:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Eric Peterson is a Denver-based author who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.