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Spend a Few Days with Kids at Oregon’s John Day Fossil Beds

Our family loves camping and looking for “treasures.” Whether we are looking for shells, crabs, slugs, rocks, cool sticks, Big Foot, or berries, we ALWAYS have something in mind while we are exploring. This camping trip was different, though. We planned our trip around fossil hunting. Let me tell you, the John Day Fossils Beds did NOT disappoint.
Located in Wheeler County, Oregon, the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a great place to go exploring. There are three separate sections; Painted Hills, Sheep Rock, and Clarno.

Fun Fact, the Painted Hills is one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon. Since you are probably wondering, the other 6 are the Columbia River Gorge, Crater Lake, Mt. Hood, Oregon Coast, Smith Rock, and The Wallowas.
The Sheep Rock Unit is where the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center is located. It has a collection of over 40,000 fossils, and you can even watch scientists study fossils through the window into their laboratory. The visitors center has a bookstore, speakers, and wonderful exhibits.

We stayed at the Clyde Holliday State Recreation Site in Grant County, just south of Mt Vernon. It runs along the John Day River near Mt. Vernon. Camping is open from March 1-Nov 30, but you can use it daily all year long. There are 31 electric sites with grass and a large paved parking pad for RV’s. There are two teepees to rent as well (these are reservations only).

The bathrooms are spacious, and the entire campground was immaculate. You can purchase ice and firewood on-site. They also have an RV dump station, horseshoe pits and an outdoor amphitheater. If you are traveling with kids, they can ride their bikes, wade in the river, and even go fishing. There is plenty of space for them to run around, and the grassy campsites were terrific for keeping our tent and shoes clean. We chose to stay near Mt Vernon. We wanted to be close to the Blue Mt. Mini Mart (in case we forgot anything) and The Silver Spur Café that was open daily and made delicious coffee.

I was a little nervous about our campsite being semi-close to the main road, but the traffic sounds were not bad, and we slept great. The next morning we got up early (because…kids), had breakfast, and decided that we would do a little fossil hunting and hiking at The Painted Hills.

The Painted Hills Unit gets its name from the yellow, gold, black, and red colors of the soil. Due to lighting and moisture presence, you will be able to see different colors and hues each time you visit. The best viewing time is late afternoon, and there are a lot of places to pull over and take photos. There are four hiking trails located in the Painted Hills Unit. We went along a few of them, and the kids had no problems keeping up. But they just wanted to climb all over the hills and look for cool plants and treasures. Thankfully they knew that we couldn’t pick anything or take anything home. But I did end up with a camera full of photos of their finds. Next, we went to the Clarno Unit to hike and have a picnic.

The Clarno Unit is filled with pillars that were formed by waterfalls and volcanic sludge from over 44 million years ago. The desert environment there can get hot, so if you are hiking, make sure to wear a hat and bring extra water. There isn’t much shade available on the trails. There are three hiking trails in the Clarno Unit. We only hiked trail while there. The sun was hot, and we were all a little hangry. After our hike, we ate lunch and then headed back to the campground to play in the river. While we were there, the water was shallow. The kids didn’t have a hard time walking or sitting in it, and we didn’t have to worry about them going too deep. It was a perfectly relaxing afternoon.

The next day we packed up camp and started our journey back home. We did manage to find a few antique stores along the way and stopped for mom to search for treasures. And the treasures I found! With the bonus of having very reasonable prices. I will go back there this summer and make sure to research and go to every antique store possible. Great finds!

All along the John Day Highway, you will get spectacular views. There are plenty of hikes, biking trails, and a few stores and restaurants scattered throughout. Cell service and gas stations are sparse, so make sure you fill up before you need to. There is no mountain biking allowed on monument land, but the Malheur National Forest has biking trails. More information on the Malheur National Forest can be found here.

Fishing is allowed along the John Day River with an Oregon fishing license. You can also go rafting on the John Day River, but you cannot pass through the monument itself. Be aware of the venomous rattlesnakes and spiders, scorpions, and poison ivy. Mosquitos are also quite prevalent in May through July.

Nearby, the town of Fossil has a museum, B&B ranches, motel, RV park, restaurants, a gift store, the Thomas Benton Hoover House, and the only public fossil field in Oregon (located behind the High School). There is also a 6-hole golf course nearby in Kinzua, which is considered a ghost town. The town of Fossil holds an annual bluegrass festival on July 4th and the Wheeler County Fair and Rodeo starting August 1st. Plan your adventure now. You will not be disappointed!


Written by Heather Dembeck

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  1. Excellent! Thank you for sharing! I am saving this, as I have never been, and definitely want to go!!! I have lived in Oregon all my life, and this is the first time I have heard of it. I used some of your information to present a virtual field trip for our students in the special needs class where I work. I can’t wait to go!

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