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John Day Fossil Beds, east of Prineville, make for wonderful day trip to a photogenic past

LON AUSTIN - The magnificent Painted Hills, a highlight of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The Painted Hills Unit is one of three in the national monument, along with Clarno and Sheep Rock. The units each have unqiue elements but each are family friendly, have nice hiking trails and, located in Wheeler and western Grant county, are relatively close to the Prineville area.

Recently, I took a drive to one of my favorite places to photograph in Central Oregon, the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

If you are from Prineville, you probably immediately think of the Painted Hills. Those from Madras may think of the Hancock Field Station in Clarno. Both of you would be right, but the fossil beds have so much more to offer.

The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is divided into three units, all with different things to do. All three units have hiking trails, and each has its own attractions. The three units can be reached in a large loop covering just over 240 miles. The Journey Through Time Backcountry route will allow individuals to see all three units in a single loop.

The three units of the fossil beds are the Clarno Unit, the Sheep Rock Unit and the Painted Hills.

Those wishing to see all three units from Madras should head north on U.S. Highway 97, then veer east on State Highway 293 toward Antelope. Continuing east, you will soon travel down a long grade to Clarno. Clarno has three listed trails, plus a fourth easily accessible trail.

From the main parking lot is the Geologic Time Trail, a half mile trail from the picnic area to the other Clarno trails. The Trail of Fossils covers just a quarter mile, but has easy to find examples of leaf fossils. The final listed trail at Clarno is the Arch Trail, a half mile trail that climbs 200 feet to a small arch hidden amongst the steep cliffs.

The fourth Clarno trail, which is off the beaten path, starts from a small parking area near the Hancock Field Station. The trail heads out through an open field, then climbs steadily to a series of rocks with some great examples of leaf fossils. The fossils are much more clear and diverse than those on the Trail of Fossils. However, the trail is steeper and longer, something to be aware of on a hot day.

Once finished at Clarno travelers should continue east driving through Fossil and then to Service Creek, Spray and finally Kimberly. If you would like to hunt for fossils, the place to stop is at the Fossil High School. There is a small parking area at the east end of the school and a trail running around the baseball field to a digging area easily visible on the hillside.

If hunting fossils is not your speed, there are several accessible fishing holes in the John Day River between Service Creek and Spray. A few more fishing spots are also available between Spray and Kimberly.

Once in Kimberly, be sure to stop at Thomas Orchards for U-pick fruit. Peaches should currently be available.

Leaving Kimberly, head south and you will quickly come to the Sheep Rock Unit. First up is Foree, which has a pair of short trails leading to good examples of eroded badland outcroppings, as well as basalt cliffs that turn orange in the late afternoon sun. About five miles further south is the Blue Basin, my favorite portion of the John Day Fossil Beds. Like Foree, Blue Basin has a pair of hikes. However, both hikes are longer than the hikes at Foree and Clarno.

The Island in Time trail is 1.3 miles and heads up the canyon floor slowly climbing to a set of blue-green badlands. Along the trail are signs explaining the history of the area as well as displays of fossil replicas.

Those wishing for a more difficult hike can take the Blue Basin Overlook Trail, a 3.25 mile loop that climbs in a loop around the basin providing sweeping views of both the badlands and the John Day River Valley.

There are four more stops in the Sheep Rock Unit, the first at a roadside pullout with great views of Cathedral Rock. The rock is not part of the fossil beds, but is certainly worth a look. A short distance after Cathedral Rock is Sheep Rock and the Historic Cant Ranch. The ranch has ample parking and has examples of old farm equipment, a historic barn and a beautiful old farm house. Not all of the ranch is currently open due to COVID-19, but there is still plenty to see roaming the grounds.

Across the highway from the Historic Cant Ranch is the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. The center has a solid collection of fossils taken from the three units of the fossil beds. At last report the center was closed, but that could change at any time. From both the Cant Ranch and the Paleontology Center, there are great views of Sheep Rock across the valley on the other side of the John Day. The area has three short trails, and orchards with fruit for the picking. All the Monument rangers ask is that you don't climb the trees.

Picture Gorge and the Painted Hills

Continuing south toward Dayville, travelers will go through Picture Gorge where several examples of Indian rock art still adorn the cliffs. The final formation in the Sheep Rock Unit is the Mascall Formation Overlook. The area has no trails, but does have an interesting badland formation.

Backtracking through Picture Gorge, take a left at the first intersection and head west toward Mitchell. To reach the Painted Hills Unit, take a right about three miles after Mitchell. The Painted Hills are six miles up a winding paved road. Once to the end of the paved road, take a left and you will immediately see the Painted Hills.

The Painted Hills Unit has five marked trails, including the Painted Hills Overlook Trail; the Painted Cove Trail which follows a boardwalk through a small section of badlands; the Leaf Hill Trail and the Red Scar Knoll Trail. All four trails are a half mile or less in distance. The fifth trail at the Painted Hills Unit is the Carroll Rim Trail, which climbs 400 feet on the opposite side of the road from the main section of painted hills, giving a dramatic view of the painted hills from above. The 1.6 mile trail is the steepest trail in the entire fossil beds, but certainly worth the effort.

Leaving the painted hills is one more possible side trip. Instead of returning to the paved road, you can turn left and hit the John Day River Canyon at either Priest Hole or Burnt Ranch. Both are rough roads, but have great access to fishing and swimming holes in the river.

Once back to the main highway, continue over the Ochocos to Prineville, then return to Madras.

If coming from Prineville, you will probably want to reverse directions and head to the Painted Hills first. However, which direction you travel is up to you.

Those wishing to spend more time in one specific unit, or not wanting such a long drive, can shorten the loop by turning at Service Creek. Coming from Madras that will mean that you will miss the Sheep Rock Unit, but will still see the Painted Hills Unit and the Clarno Unit.

If you chose to shorten the trip coming from Prineville, you will miss out on the Clarno Unit, but will see the Sheep Rock Unit.

Another choice is to spend more than one day on the road as there are numerous camping opportunities along the route.

Don' be surprised if you see deer, elk, antelope, wild turkey, hawks, vultures as well as wrens and other song birds along the way. Driving the entire loop makes for a long day, but it is more than worth it.

Regardless of how much of the John Day Fossil Beds you choose to explore, or how many days you choose to take, there is plenty to see and do. For more information go to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument website at https://www.nps.gov/joda/index.htm


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