Let’s Talk About This Super Trippy Desert in the Middle of Oregon
This wild national monument is a 40 million year time capsule.
What you don’t typically associate with the Beaver State? The desert, and the otherworldly, Dr. Seussian landscapes you typically find in Arizona and Utah. But venture east of the Cascade Range and you’ll stumble into dry, high-desert terrain that feels lightyears away from rain-soaked Portland.
To wit: the sunset-striped hills and badlands of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. You’ll find the park about an hour and a half away from the city of Bend, and it contains one of the richest fossil sites on earth—evidence of fluctuating climates and changing ecosystems that span millions of years.
“What I find most exciting about the story that John Day Fossil Beds tells, is how complete of a story it is,” says Sarah Holman, Chief of Interpretation and Education at John Day. “It’s not just a small glimpse into a couple hundred, or a couple million years. We range over 40 million years, and that’s extremely difficult to comprehend.”
The region consists of three “units:” Clarno, Painted Hills, and Sheep Rock. Although it is possible to see all three sites in one day, Holman strongly recommends spreading them out, as each unit is around a 1-2 hour drive from each other. Holman adds, “We like to describe the three different units as chapters of the same book. Each of them speaks of a different time frame within the Cenozoic era.”
With its towering palisades and weathered arches, Clarno is essentially a rainforest that has been locked in stone. About 50 million years ago, ancient Oregon was a lush, tropical ecosystem. But when volcanoes erupted, mudflows ensued, cementing together rocks, standing trees, and even some unlucky wildlife—everything from tiny, four-toed horses to rhino-like brontotheres. “You can actually see some of the leaf imprints and fossils on the rockfall along the trails,” says Holman. Keep a sharp eye out for glimpses of the fossilized plants in the boulders and cliff walls along the aptly named Trail of Fossils.
The star of the show, Holman advises getting to the Painted Hills unit early, as it tends to be the most crowded of the three. These sweeping badlands are brushed with brilliant hues of red, gold, and pink. You can choose from five hiking trails that vary in difficulty, but the most popular is the Painted Cove Trail, a leveled boardwalk that leads you straight through the rolling red clay hills. For a panoramic view from above, take the 1.6-mile Carroll Rim Trail.
The soils get their vibrant colors from the remnants of ancient deciduous forests. Depending on the season, or even time of day, the hills will take on a unique appearance as changing light and moisture levels drastically affect their tones. Come in the spring and you might spot some wildflowers.
At the Sheep Rock unit, you’ll find stunning, blue-green clay stones that date back as far as 95 million years. A number of trails offer scenic views overlooking the John Day River Valley—the most spectacular of which is the 3.5-mile Blue Basin Overlook.
Besides hiking, you can swim and fish in the John Day River, or enjoy a packed lunch at one of the many picnic areas. And if you’re interested in seeing excavated fossils up close, make a visit to the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center, where you can peer into a laboratory of scientists who continue to discover new fossils each year.
It’s not unusual for temperatures to reach the nineties, so extra water and sun protection are key. “Since we’re in a high desert area, you may be hiking and not realize how much you are sweating, because it evaporates so quickly,” Holman notes.
But even if paleontology or geology isn’t your thing, the monument is still worth exploring as an unexpected addition to the natural wonders of Oregon. “When I first moved here, I was expecting big, tall Evergreen trees, and the very wet environment of what I now know is western Oregon,” Holman explains. “And I was so surprised to see a desert with cacti and sage brush. I think there’s something really special about visiting places that completely upend your expectations.”