One of my favorite getaways for a weekend of natural beauty and solitude is the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in central Oregon. Close enough to make a weekend trip from Seattle, Spokane, Tri-cities, or Portland but far enough to keep out the crowds. It’s also a great add in for any trip to Washington, Oregon, or Idaho. I’ve been there three times at different times of the year, including the 2017 total eclipse, and even on a long holiday weekend there is plenty of parking, room on the trails, and free camping. This is my perfect John Day Fossil Beds National Monument Itinerary:
If you leave work early enough, you will have time to catch the night program at the Goldendale Observatory State Park (Washington State). The night program that starts just after dark and includes viewing several planets and stars in various telescopes. If you arrive before dark there is a nice view of Mt. Hood. Entry is by Washington State Discover Pass ($10/day or $30/year can be purchased there)
Camping in Shaniko Ghost town
You can camp in this ghost town for free. If not up for camping you can stay in this cute B&B in Moro, Oregon, a bit north of Shaniko.
There are amazing sunrises in the desert. Check out this sunrise on the main street of Shaniko ghost town.
The whole drive in this area is very scenic. From deserted barns, to colorful cliffs, to the twisting John Day river, you will have the opportunity to make photo stops. If driving in the dawn or dusk, watch out for deer and antelope.
This is one of the three “Units” of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. There are some very short trails here under the cliffs to view a number of plant fossils in the boulders. This spot has toilets and picnic facilities so it’s a great place to have a picnic breakfast. For me, this unit is the most underwhelming so it’s great to visit this one first.
Blue Basin Hike
This is one of the longest hikes in John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and part of the “Sheep Rock Unit”. There are 2 hikes here… the one that treks in the floor of the basin, and the overlook loop that climbs 600 feet. The total distance is 4.1 miles if you hike both. This trail is especially scenic in the fall where you can see some fall colors.
Thomas Condon Paleontology Center
Also park of the “Sheep Rock Unit”, this is the main visitor center for John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and the location of the museum and laboratory. I’ve visited 3 times and have never seen any activity in the lab, but the museum is very interesting. There is a wide variety of fossils found in this area – many mammals and plants but not dinosaurs.
James Cant Ranch
This historic ranch is just across the street from the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. Make sure you tour the inside of the house and do the river walk with great views of Sheep Rock.
Painted Hills in the magic hour & sunset
The Painted Hills unit is my favorite of the three units of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. There are several outcroppings of “painted hills” that are colorful clay deposits, from reds and yellows and blacks. There are several short trails to amazing viewpoints. Make sure you visit all of them as each view is unique. If you have the energy and it’s not too hot, walk up the Carroll Rim trail for a 360 degree view. On the Painted Cove boardwalk, make sure you look for the view of the lake behind the painted hills.
Please do not walk off the trails. The materials of these hills are easily damaged by footprints and it will take years for nature to repair the damage.
Free Camping in Barnhouse or Priest Hole Campgrounds
I’ve camped at both of these. They are both within 20 minutes drive from the Painted Hills Barnhouse has a few spots amongst the trees and pit toilets to the southeast of Mitchell, OR. Priest Hole is a beautiful spot on the John Day river with pit toilets, northeast of the Painted Hills. Use a high clearance vehicle or drive carefully (my Honda Civic made it, but very carefully). If you don’t want to camp, you can stay in a guesthouse in Mitchell or John Day town.
Go back to painted hills for some morning light. There are even fewer visitors in the early morning. Have a short visit and then drive west to Smith Rock State Park.
Smith Rock State Park
By mid to late morning you should arrive to Smith Rock State Park. There are some great trails at Smith Rock state park. It’s worth a few hour stop at this park if you have the time. My favorite trail is the “Misery Ridge Loop” a 4 mile hike with some of the best views in the park. It involves a steep-ish climb followed by a walk along the river. Smith Rock state park pass is $5 per car for day use, can be purchased in automated machines in the parking lots or at the visitor center.
Goldendale Observatory State Park – Day Program
If you arrive at the right time, you can see the daytime program at Goldendale Observatory. They have a special lens and monitor that shows features of the sun. If you enjoyed the night program on Friday night, this may also be interesting.
General Tips for John Day Fossil Beds National Monument:
- The park is free! But they would appreciate your donations that can be made at the visitor center.
- The visitor center at the Sheep Rock Unit has camping maps and give you advice about conditions. When they warned me that the campgrounds would be deserted by mid September, they were right.
- Make sure your keep your car full of gas. One time I thought I would run out, but luckily there was a single pump of overpriced gas in Mitchell, OR.
- Be forewarned that this itinerary covers many miles and is a busy itinerary. Research your route and take a map before setting out.
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