Getting Off the Beaten Path in John Day Fossil Beds


Last Updated on February 22, 2024 by Grant

One of the best and worst parts about exploring this country through the units of the National Park Service is going to out of the way places and seeing life in the smallest of small communities surrounding places like John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

I say best and worst because there are always good reasons why remote places are hard to get to. Often the terrain is tough to travel through with limited services and even fewer comforts. But there is a beauty to be had in the quiet. There are staggering views to be found off the beaten path. And how can you say you have seen this country if you ignore the small places?

Cathedral Rock at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
Cathedral Rock

John Day Fossil Beds NM is located in an off the beaten path, small place. When most folks think of Oregon, they think of Portland and the coast, of mountains and trees. Central Oregon, however, is arid almost to the point of being desert.

After spending weeks in Washington in cool temps, getting to Dayville and experiencing the 100-degree heat was a bit of a shock. Still, it felt good to warm up, even if it meant running the AC in the camper.

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Why Go?

John Day Fossil Beds NM preserves one of the richest areas for fossils in North America. The area was home to large volcanos, which not only help preserve fossils from several different eras but also helped create a variety of gorgeous landscapes, included painted deserts and badlands.

Getting to John Day Fossil Beds NM

Getting to John Day Fossil Beds NM is a challenge. The nearest major airport (Portland) is four hours away. It is nearly three hours from the nearest Interstate and the drive is not easy.

Grant pumping gas in Oregon
We were a little surprised to be able to pump gas in Oregon.

There is not much in the way of gas stations, so pay attention to your gas tank. This is especially true since Oregon’s laws regarding pumping your own gas in rural areas have changed, but many of the gas stations do not have pumps which allow you to pay at the pump. This can be a problem if you need gas after hours.

The drive through central Oregon is great for a motorcycle or sports car, with plenty of twists and turns, but towing our camper was tiring. Still, the drive is unique and beautiful.

Where to Stay

We stayed at the Fish House Inn RV Park in Dayville. The sites were large, easy to back in and had plenty of grass. It is also walking distance to the local restaurant (the Dayville Cafe), the local store and the gas station.

You can check out our review of the campground here.

Our campsite at the Fish House Inn and RV Park
Our campsite at the Fish House Inn and RV Park

The Dayville Cafe has great home cooking as well as some tremendous pies! I am a big fan of rhubarb pies and their raspberry rhubarb pie did not disappoint. Bonnie tried the marionberry pie, which has a tasty hybrid blackberry grown only in Oregon.

The local store, however, is pretty spartan in its selection. While it has staples, if you need specifics, you are better off getting groceries before you head in.

Exploring John Day Fossil Beds NM

There are three units of John Day Fossil Beds NM spread out across central Oregon and that poses some of the difficulty in visiting this site.

The rugged beauty of the Blue Basin
The rugged beauty of the Blue Basin

The main visitor center is located just north of Dayville in the Sheep Rock Unit. In order to get to the Clarno Unit from Sheep Rock, it is 81 miles and it takes two hours to drive, which takes you through Picture Gorge. The Painted Hills Unit is 45 miles from the Sheep Rock. 

Clarno Unit

The Clarno Unit is located about 18 miles off Oregon Hwy 19, the main route from Interstate 84 to Dayville. If coming from this direction, I would strongly recommend stopping on your way in.

We did not visit the Clarno Unit on our way in because we didn’t expect there to be any RV parking at the unit. After doing the long and tiring drive once, we just didn’t have the desire to do it again. We found out later that there is some RV parking at the Clarno Unit and we wish we had stopped on our way to Dayville. 

There are a few short trails and a picnic area there, plus the Palisades, which are cliffs formed by the remnants of volcanic mudflows. One of the cool features is a trail where you can see actual fossils in the rock.

Did I mention we are bummed we didn’t stop?

Painted Hills Unit

It may take a bit to get to this unit of the national monument from the visitor center, but it is one of the most visually striking places we have been to.

Painted Hills
Painted Hills

The Painted Hills reflect the massive geological changes which took place in this area over the years. The area was surrounded by a great number of active volcanos which would erupt often, creating red, gold, tan and black bands in the soil.

There are several short trails in the area. Being it was midday, hot and there is very little shade out there, we opted for the Painted Cove Trail.

The trail is brief, only a quarter-mile, but it leads you up close and personal with the painted hills.

Painted Cove Trail
Painted Cove Trail

There is a ranger station with a picnic area and restrooms on the way in, but otherwise, facilities are limited. We did enjoy eating a picnic lunch in the shade, however.

Sheep Rock Unit

The main unit of the park and home to the visitor center, we really enjoyed visiting the Sheep Rock unit. 

The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center serves as the visitor center and houses extensive exhibits on the fossil beds in the area. We were glad we were able to speak to a ranger, see the video and walk through the exhibits before we headed out on the trails the next day.

Since this is the only indoor visitor area, I suggest stopping here in the afternoon if visiting in the summer. While this area may boast a dry heat, it can still be REALLY hot on a summer afternoon. Take advantage of that air conditioning!

Fossil exhibit at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center
The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center at John Day Fossil Bed National Monument has great exhibits explaining how impressive the areas fossil deposits and geology are.

Just across from the Paleontology Center is the Cant Ranch. What started as a 700-acre ranch in 1910 grew into until stretched nearly 6,000 acres until the park service acquired the land in 1975.

While the ranch house still stands and you can tour it, the hours are very limited due to staffing shortages. Still, you can walk the property and see how this family thrived in this arid climate.

Cant Ranch House
Cant Ranch House

Just down the road are two additional locations, including a tremendous hike.

The Foree area has two brief trails that highlight the area’s geology and are worth a stop, especially if you aren’t up to hiking in the Blue Basin area.

Blue Basin
Blue Basin

We decided to get up early and hike the Blue Basin Overlook Trail, a 3.25-mile moderately strenuous loop, but, wow, are we glad we did.

When you get to the trail, be sure to head to the left. Trust me on this. While the left side has some pretty steep switchbacks, there are a few shaded spots to take a break. Even at 8 a.m., the sun was cooking us and temperatures were already in the mid-80s. If you head to the right first, you’ll be going uphill with absolutely no shade.

Check out our 10 essentials for hiking here.

Blue Basin Overlook
Blue Basin Overlook

Still, the hike was more than worth it. The views of the blue-green claystone formations are spectacular and the hike down was relaxing. It is truly one of the most unique hikes we have been on, geology-wise.

Final Thoughts

John Day Fossil Beds NM is a perfect example of the reason we enjoy visiting the units of the national parks so much. We would have never come to this corner of the country otherwise, which is a shame because it was so worth the trip.

While Dayville is remote and lacks a lot of modern conveniences, it is a charming town with some friendly folks.

Sunflowers in the desert

Scenery-wise? Wow. This place is chock full of rugged beauty, not to mention some good hikes.

In all, this is one place you should make time to visit.

Travel Resources
What do you use to find a flight?

We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.

What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.

If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.

We recently partnered with Stay22 to add interactive maps to each of our destination posts. This will allow you to see a plethora of hotels and vacation rentals all in one responsive map of the area.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.

Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.

How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices for booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.

What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.

What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viator first.
Click here to book a tour.

Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.
We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
Click here to get a AAA membership.

It may be out of the way, but visiting John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in central Oregon is worth the drive. The geology makes for a visual treat.
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