John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, John Day

#26 of 251 in Nature in Oregon
Must see · National Park · Nature / Park
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a U.S. national monument in Wheeler and Grant counties in east-central Oregon. Located within the John Day River basin and managed by the National Park Service, the park is known for its well-preserved layers of fossil plants and mammals that lived in the region between the late Eocene, about 45 million years ago, and the late Miocene, about 5 million years ago. The monument consists of three geographically separate units: Sheep Rock, Painted Hills, and Clarno.

The units cover a total of 13,944 acres (5,643 ha) of semi-desert shrublands, riparian zones, and colorful badlands. About 210,000 people visited the park in 2016 to engage in outdoor recreation or to visit the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center or the James Cant Ranch Historic District.

Before the arrival of Euro-Americans in the 19th century, the John Day basin was frequented by Sahaptin people who hunted, fished, and gathered roots and berries in the region. After road-building made the valley more accessible, settlers established farms, ranches, and a few small towns along the river and its tributaries. Paleontologists have been unearthing and studying the fossils in the region since 1864, when Thomas Condon, a missionary and amateur geologist, recognized their importance and made them known globally. Parts of the basin became a National Monument in 1975.

Averaging about 2,200 feet (670 m) in elevation, the monument has a dry climate with temperatures that vary from summer highs of about 90 °F (32 °C) to winter lows below freezing. The monument has more than 80 soil types that support a wide variety of flora, ranging from willow trees near the river to grasses on alluvial fans to cactus among rocks at higher elevations. Fauna include more than 50 species of resident and migratory birds. Large mammals like elk and smaller animals such as raccoons, coyotes, and voles frequent these units, which are also populated by a wide variety of reptiles, fish, butterflies, and other creatures adapted to particular niches of a mountainous semi-desert terrain.

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John Day Fossil Beds National Monument reviews

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452 reviews
  • Do stop at the visitor center on the way into the park - it’s really the only place you’ll see any fossils. I guess we expected to visualize embedded fossils along the trail, but, according to the...  more »
  • Lovely place visited every unit blue basin was my favorite with lots of cool ash colored rocks. Painted hills had amazing scenery and clarno unit had lots of fossils in the rocks. Lots of birds...  more »
  • What an amazing place ! This trip we stopped at the Sheep Rock Unit of the park. If you're into geology, this is the place to be. Make sure to go to the Thomas Condon Paleontogy and visitor center...  more »
  • Gorgeous, we are lucky enough to have timed our visit to match the harvest moon. We were rewarded with a colorful sunset and a beautiful moonrise. We enjoyed it so much so that we returned the next day. It's a great place to bring your gravel bike otherwise you'll have a few short hikes.
  • Very nice place to visit. Not very big but well worth it. Sufficient parking place. Sun can make taking pictures somewhat difficult, especially in the middle of the day.
  • This is such a beautiful park. The ranger staff is awesome and really knows their natural history. The visitor center is on par with many of the countries fine museum institutions. They even have a great junior ranger program for the young kids. This place is a hidden gem in the more than four hundred national park units. I hope to be able to return.
  • This is a fantastic place to get first hand information about the history of the earth. Here you get the evidence that volcanic eruptions formed the planet for millions of years. You see the many layers of different rocks through the ages and learn how the climate was that time. The people here are experts who know nearly everything about biology, geology and earth's history. I recommend the visit to all students.
  • Bring the camera fully charged you will not regret it. So many beautiful places to explore and and snap shots to take. Just an amazing place. Lots of wildlife and history to investigate for the kids.

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