Logo Things to do in Oregon

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

History | Sheep Rock | Painted Hills | Clarno Unit | Visitor Programs



Within the heavily eroded volcanic deposits of the scenic John Day River basin is a well-preserved fossil record of plants and animals. This remarkably complete record, spanning more than 40 of the 65 million years of the Cenozoic Era (the "Age of Mammals and Flowering Plants") is world-renown. Authorized October 26, 1974, and established in 1975, this 14,000 acre park is divided into three widely separated units; the Sheep Rock Unit, Painted Hills Unit, and Clarno Unit. 


Monument Information

Hours/Seasons:  Park trails, overlooks, and picnic areas open during daylight hours seven days a week. The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm year round. The James Cant Ranch House is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm during the summer, and from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm on weekdays during winter months, weekends by appointment.

CLOSED: All Federal holidays from Thanksgiving through Presidents Day.



John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is named after the river and not the man. Still, how was the river named?  John Day was born in Culpeper County, Virginia, about 1770. In 1810 he joined an overland expedition to establish a fur trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River. The party became divided and widely separated. Experiencing hardships, John Day's group dwindled to two people.  He and Ramsey Crooks eventually reached the mouth of the Mah-hah River along the Columbia. There, a band of American Indians took everything they had, including their clothes. They were rescued and reached Astoria (Oregon) in 1812.  Due to this incident, people traveling along the Columbia River would point out the mouth of the river where John Day was robbed. By the 1850's, the Mah-hah River was referred to and renamed the John Day River.  If you name the mouth of a river, you name every stretch of it upstream. It appears John Day never came within 100 miles of Sheep Rock.

Thomas Condon
Thomas Condon (1822-1907) was a pioneer geologist, teacher, author, and clergyman who came to Oregon around Cape Horn as a missionary in 1853. He established a Congregational church at the Dalles in 1862 which embraced all Christian faiths. Condon was the first scientific investigator of the fossils in the John Day region, beginning with a visit to the area in1865 and followed by many more. In 1872, he became Oregon's first state geologist while teaching geology at Pacific University. When the University of Oregon was founded in 1876, Condon was appointed its first professor of geology and continued as professor, and chair of Natural Sciences until 1907. Condon's book, "The Two Islands" was the foundation for the study of Oregon's historical geology.  Thomas Condon was originally born in Cork County, Ireland where he lived until his family immigrated to New York. There, he had attended the Theological Seminary at Auburn. Inspired by the Whitman expedition, Condon decided to become a frontier missionary. In 1852, he and his wife Cornelia came to the West Coast in a clipper ship, and settled in the Willamette Valley. By 1871, the Condons had eight children, and were living in the town of Forest Grove.  According to historic letters, one of Thomas Condon's sons also later collected fossils near Sheep Rock, and sent correspondence of his findings back to his father.  Most of Thomas Condon's fossil collections can be found at the University of Oregon and Pacific University in Forest Grove, near Portland. By Congressional legislation, the primary visitor center of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument will be named in honor of Thomas Condon.

James Cant Ranch House
The Cant Ranch House, built in 1917, replaced a smaller dwelling located on the present south lawn. The Cants, their four children, ranch hands, and herders all lived in the house. Mrs. Cant frequently served dinner for twenty or more. A room or meal was always available for a traveler.  Born in 1879, James Cant, Sr., left Scotland at the age of 20 for South America. There he spent five years raising horses to be used in the Boer War. He then came to the United States and traveled overland from New York to John Day country. Upon arrival in Dayville, in 1905, James Cant herded sheep for the Murray family. After a few years he was able to send for his sweetheart, Elizabeth, still in Scotland. They were married in Canyon City on October 10, 1908. Two years later, Mr. Cant purchased a ranch and 680 acres from the Officer family to begin his own ranching operation.  The furniture in the parlor is on loan by the Cant family. Many of the furnishings were gathered from other parts of the house. Photographs on the east wall include James, Sr. [top center], James, Sr. and Elizabeth's wedding picture [bottom center], and their children [left to right] Christina, James, Jr., Charles, and Lillian.  Lillian Cant married Lawrence Mascall, and moved to the Mascall ranch located on the south entrance to Picture Gorge. Earlier this century, the Mascall ranch was a stopping place for many prominent fossil hunters. They included Dr. John C. Merriam, a world-renown paleontologist, who named the Mascall Formation after the ranch.  The National Park Service acquired a portion of the Cant Ranch in 1975 and plans to maintain its historic appearance. To assure preservation, the ranch house, surrounding buildings, and 200 acres were designated a National Historic District.



Sheep Rock

Sheep Rock, towering 1,100 feet over the John Day River, gives its name to this unit. Wild big horn sheep and later a thriving sheep ranch both occupied this landscape in the recent past. Meanwhile, the colorful layers of Sheep Rock represent a more distant time, approximately 28 to 25 million years ago. Then, the region was covered by deciduous forests, inhabited by three-toed horses, rhinos, oreodonts, saber-toothed cat-like animals, and lemur-like primates.


The Sheep Rock Unit is home to the James Cant ranch house (built 1918), now the monument's visitor center. The visitor center features a fossil museum and is the administrative headquarters for the monument. A series of trails, outdoor exhibits, and overlooks are also available here.


The Painted Hills Unit is 3,132 acres of scenic beauty unique in the Pacific Northwest. Located 10 miles west of Mitchell, and 75 miles east of Bend, it is visited year around. Over 32,000 people visited the unit last year, with almost 10,000 of them hiking one or more of the unit's interpretive trails. Outdoor exhibits and a picnic area are also available for visitors here.

The yellows, gold, blacks, and reds of the Painted Hills are best seen in the late afternoon. Even after several visits, one may not see the same tone or hue as the claystones differ with ever-changing light and moisture levels. The colors of the hills are sublime. We like to think they even give the passing pronghorn or mountain lion pause to reflect.  Most years, the peak days of wildflower season in late April to early May is spectacular.


Clarno Unit

The Clarno Unit is 1,969 acres in size and is located 18 miles west of the town of Fossil. It has hiking trails, exhibits, and a picnic area, and received over 12,000 visitors last year. The modern vegetation here is typical of Central Oregon's near-desert environment with a variety of grasses, sagebrush and juniper.
The cliffs of the Palisades are the most prominent landform in the Clarno Unit. The Palisades were formed by a series of volcanic mudflows in a much different environment 44 million years ago. These mudflows, called lahars, preserved a great diversity of fossils. At that time, the Clarno volcanoes dominated a landscape covered by near-tropical forest, with approximately 100 inches of rain per year. Tiny four-toed horses, huge rhino-like brontotheres, crocodilians, and meat-eating creodonts roamed the ancient jungles.


Visitor Programs

  • Plaza Talks ... 10am & 2pm daily on the plaza of the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. Join a park ranger for a 20-minute presentation introducing the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
  • Cant Ranch Walk ... Beginning at 1:00 pm daily starting on the porch, these 45-minute tours feature an 20th century ranch life and eastern Oregon cultural history.
  • Evening with a Ranger 7pm on Saturdays at Clyde Holiday State Park. Special talks on the mysteries revealed in John Day Fossil Beds national Monument.
  • Blue Basin Hikes 10:30 am, Fridays-Sundays. Join a ranger for a 90-minute, guided hike into the colorful Blue Basin. Tours begin at Blue Basin trailhead in the Sheep Rock Unit.
  • Dark Skies Call (541) 987-2333 for more details and times. Join a park ranger for a two-hour exploration of the night sky over the Painted Hills. Programs may include sky tour and observational session with telescope, or a hike under the full moon. Meets at the Painted Hills Overlook.






For Additional Information Contact:

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
HCR 82, Box 126
Kimberly, OR 97848-9701
(541) 987-2333


For more information visit the National Park Service website