Road Trip: John Day Fossil Beds Country

October 26, 2015 (Updated October 14, 2016)

The first time I saw the Painted Hills in Eastern Oregon, I was in a hurry. My group had stopped at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, which acts as the interpretive center for the hills and the rest of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and learned about its stunning history — 55 million years of plant and animal evolution and a collection of 40,000 fossils that represent one of the two most complete fossil records in the world.

The thought of stopping at the nearby Painted Hills and walking through the same landscape that ancient cousins of elephants, camels, rhinoceroses and sabertooth tigers had was enticing. But with a full day ahead of us, we would have blown right past it but for the insistence of a very passionate local resident.


“We’d really love to, but we don’t have time,” we said.

“You must make time,” she said.

And the way she said it, we knew we didn’t have a choice. So we drove six miles out of our way, checking our watches and grumbling under our collective breath. Then we stepped out of the car and were absolutely blown away.

Where were we? On another planet, but right here in Oregon. The bare earth undulated in folds of scarlet, ochre and yellow by turns. In the golden light of late afternoon, the sunset hues intensified. Tiny birds flitted past and alighted in the fragrant sage, their twittering an otherworldly music in the deepening dusk.

The insistent local, now our friend, beamed as she saw us all absorbing the beauty of the place. She knew we’d go home and try to tell people about it, and end up explaining that you just have to go see for yourself. Here’s how:

Ancient History: The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument comprises three separate locations: The Sheep Rock Unit, The Painted Hills Unit and the Clarno Unit. Each site has short trails to dramatic views of colorful rock formations. The Sheep Rock Unit, home to the Paleontology Center, is between the towns of Dayville and Kimberly on Highway 19 two miles north of Highway 26. The Painted Hills Unit is nine miles northwest of the town of Mitchell, with the entrance six miles north of Highway 26 on Burnt Ranch Road. Find the Clarno Unit on Highway 218 about 20 miles west of the town of Fossil. All three sites will give you a view into the earth’s biography through the plant and animal fossils and rock layers.

Recent History: East of the fossil beds in the town of John Day, the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site is an imperative stop for a look at the more recent past. Walk through a veritable time capsule of the late 19th and early 20th century in this small building, which first opened in the late 1800s and served as a Chinese apothecary, general store and social hub for what was once the third largest China town in the country. The store was also the home to its proprietors, Ing “Doc” Hay and Lung On, who lived here for more than 50 years.

Get Outside: John Day is the point of departure for the Old West Scenic Bikeway, a challenging 174-mile loop ride through the remote beauty of John Day Fossil Bed country. Ride the route as a multi-day adventure, or just sample part of it.

Eat: Don’t miss 1188 Brewing Company for craft beers like the Box Canyon Pale Ale as well as a hearty menu of sandwiches, salads and wraps. Try the Oxbow Restaurant & Saloon in Prairie City for lunch and nearby Roan Coffee Company for a caffeinated pick-me-up.

Sleep: The Historic Hotel Prairie in Prairie City first opened in 1910 and underwent a complete renovation in 2008. The charming two-story brick hotel puts you in the heart of town. In the town of Mitchell, the Painted Hills Vacation Rentals offer two charming guest cottages, each with a private garden and full kitchen. For a genuine country getaway, check out the Triple H Homestead in the town of Monument. Spend the day hiking, fishing or horseback riding and cozy up in the bunkhouse at night.

About The

Eileen Garvin
Eileen Garvin lives and writes in Hood River. When she’s not hunched over her keyboard or digging in the garden, you can find her mountain biking, kiteboarding, hiking, skiing or camping somewhere in Oregon.