Continuing on our quest to see all 423 units in the National Park System, we spent a day exploring the Sheep Rock Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument during our fall 2022 travels south. The Monument protects more than 14,000 acres across three geographically separated units in east-central Oregon: Sheep Rock, Painted Hills, and Clarno. During our visit, we hiked the trails in the Foree and Blue Basin sections of Sheep Rock and then visited the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. We always enjoy the National Park Units and we knew Sheep Rock would be no exception, but our day far exceeded our expectations. We highly recommend this area for anyone interested in fossils, geology, or just amazing scenery!
Colorful rock formations at John Day Fossil Beds preserve a world class record of plant and animal evolution, changing climate, and past ecosystems that span over 40 million years. The three units of the monument hold some of the best fossil bearing locations within the larger John Day Fossil Beds, which cover most of eastern Oregon. Exhibits at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center as well as scenic drives and hikes at all three units allow visitors to explore the prehistoric past of Oregon.
The Sheep Rock Unit contains an amalgam of colorful strata and complex geology. From Cretaceous conglomerates to the flood basalts, the geologic features in this portion of the monument are a spectacle to behold. The predominant exposures of green rock seen on Sheep Rock are a multitude of reworked layers of volcanic ash. The rich green color of the claystone was caused by chemical weathering of a mineral called celadonite. This happened millions of years ago as water moved through the alkaline ash beds under high pressure.Source: John Day Fossil Beds National Monument Website
John Day Fossils Beds National Monument is open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year and is completely free to visit! The visitor center’s hours vary by season and is typically closed 1-2 days a week and most major holidays. Be sure to check the park’s website prior to your visit. The three units are located 1-2 hours apart, so allow plenty of time for driving if you plan to visit more than one unit per day. All are within a rural area of the state where cell service, internet, and resources such as lodging, food, and gas are limited requiring visitors to plan ahead.
The Sheep Rock Unit is the hub of monument operations with the visitor center located in the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center and the headquarters of the monument at the Historic Cant Ranch. The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center is the best place to see and learn about fossils with its fossil gallery and murals that take you through over 40 million years of the fossil record. There is also a 20-minute park film and a gift shop/bookstore.
Please recreate responsibly! Public collecting or digging for fossils is not allowed. Remember to follow Leave No Trace guidelines and stay on trail at all times. The geology is fragile and fossils may lay at or just below the surface. It’s important to preserve and protect the landscape for others to enjoy in the future. Dogs are welcome on the trails at John Day Fossil Beds, but they must be leashed at all times and their waste must be bagged and thrown away. Please do not leave poop bags alongside the trail!
Hiking the Sheep Rock Unit
There are eight hiking trails in the Sheep Rock Unit, ranging from a few hundred feet to 3.25 miles in length. We hiked all the trails except the two at the Historic Cant Ranch and the overlook trail at the visitor center (ran out of time). Those that we skipped are all short interpretive trails and are a good option for someone with limited time.
- Mascall Formation Overlook (430 feet round trip): this quick stop leads to a scenic view of the Mascall Formation, Picture Gorge, and John Day Valley. We made this our first stop of the day and enjoyed some nice early morning light on the area.
Blue Basin Trailhead
- Island in Time (1.3 miles round trip): this trail follows the canyon floor and ascends 200 ft in elevation through blue-green badlands. Exhibits and fossil replicas along the trail tell the story of the fossil landscape.
- Blue Basin Overlook (3.25 mile loop): climbs 760 ft in elevation to an overlook of Blue Basin. This trail provides breathtaking views down into steep canyons and grand vistas of the John Day River valley.
Of the trails we hiked, our favorites were Island in Time and Blue Basin Overlook. We combined the two trails into a 4.1 mile loop. Our total elevation gain was just over 900′. We recommend hiking the Blue Basin Overlook Trail counter-clockwise which puts you on the Island in Time spur trail early on in your hike. Island in Time reminded us of Badlands National Park in South Dakota with its spectacular formations. You’ll hike through the bottom of a canyon over a series of sturdy metal footbridges and stare up at the impressive formations. Back on the Blue Basin Overlook Trail, you’ll climb high above the formations for an impressive view down into the canyon you were just in.
- Flood of Fire (0.4 miles round trip): mostly easy with several stair steps, this trail ends at a dramatic cliff face and a view of colorful geologic formations and fiery floods of basalt across the valley.
- Story in Stone (0.3 miles round trip): this mostly level trail loops through dramatic pillars of blue-green claystone rocks that make up the Turtle Cove formation of John Day Fossil Beds.
Most people enter the Sheep Unit from the south making it tempting to skip the Foree trails at the far northern end, but you won’t want to miss these. The trails are short and lead to impressive formations. There are toilets and a picnic area at the parking lot making this a good area to stop and have lunch.
The Adventure Continues
Please join us on our next adventure as we enjoy lake camping in Nevada and our first hike in California. And don’t forget to check out our Amazon RV and Adventure Gear recommendations. We only post products that we use and that meet the Evans Outdoor Adventures seal of approval. By accessing Amazon through our links and making any purchase (even things as simple as toothpaste!), you get Amazon’s every day low pricing and they share a little with us. This helps us maintain this website and is much appreciated