Postcard from the John Day Fossil Beds


A few of you who follow me on Snapchat may already know about my recent venture into eastern Oregon this past week. I spent St. Paddy’s Day in Bend and I had the chance to take a day trip further east to the John Day Fossil Beds.

Ever since seeing pictures of this national monument, I knew I had to make it over to explore more of eastern Oregon and to discover millions of years of history buried in the rocks. A lot of people don’t make it any further east of Bend in their travels through Oregon and it’s really a shame. Eastern Oregon is another whole side of the state, completely different from what you’d think of the ideal Pacific Northwest landscape – it’s much more like a desert.

John Day Fossil Beds - Oregon

The John Day Fossil Beds and the famous Painted Hills within the park are like stepping into an alien world. There are three park units spread out along Highways 26, 19, and 218: Painted Hills, Sheep Rock, and Clarno.

We managed to make it to the first two units during our day trip to the prehistoric spot, and it was about a 30-45 minute drive between the two. As you get near the intersection of highways 26 and 19 the scenery quickly goes from expansive green pastures to dusty and epic multi-color rocks. The other-worldly scenery quickly kicks in and you start to understand the essence of how special this place is.

Related: 14 Stops to Make on an Oregon Coast Road Trip

The drive to the John Day Fossil Beds

John Day Fossil Beds - Oregon

The past ecosystems from the John Day Basin span over 40 million years. It’s a geologists dream and there are plenty of interesting fossils and beautifully hued rocks to discover. Even if you think rocks sound boring, this is an incredible place with grand scenic lookouts, colorful backdrops, and so much history.

If you’re in Oregon it’s worth a visit for at least a day. It’s almost as if we stepped into the majestic canyons of Arizona while still in eastern Oregon.

John Day Fossil Beds - Oregon

John Day Fossil Beds - Oregon

The great thing about this place is that there are multiple hiking trails in each unit and they’re all fairly short hikes, so you get a variety of views and perspectives in the park in a short amount of time. It should be noted that there’s no camping in the units however, so make sure to figure out accommodation ahead of time if you plan to stay in the area, as well as make sure you have a full tank of gas.

The first unit we stopped in at was Sheep Rock, a rugged and layered place of pastel rocks of sea green and orange. The vibrant green is the result of layers and layers of volcanic ash from a time of long ago. It turned a green color through chemical weathering from a mineral called celadonite, and we now have a stunning spot that looks like a colorful prehistoric world.

John Day Fossil Beds - Oregon

John Day Fossil Beds - Oregon

The second stop we made was the popular Painted Hills unit where we came across a different scene in the extremely smooth hills and colorful deep brown and red hues we saw everywhere. They’re generally the most ideal to see in late afternoon for the richest color and best lighting. We even came across a few adorable baby cows as we made our way to the Painted Hills.

The Painted Hills at the John Day Fossil Beds - Oregon

The Painted Hills at the John Day Fossil Beds

A rare occurrence that was much appreciated about the John Day Fossil Beds is that it was completely free. Now that’s what I call a great day out in nature! If you’re staying in Bend and looking for the perfect day trip, this would be it. The long drive out to what seems to be the middle of nowhere has a way of revealing some astounding parts of Oregon individuality. And it helps that the journey itself is a beauty coming from Bend.

Have you been to the John Day Fossil Beds? What are your favorite spots and day trips in Oregon? 


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Postcard from the John Day Fossil Beds in eastern Oregon, USA

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Mimi McFadden
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