Hiking In Central Oregon - The Blue Basin Trails
Sheep Rock Unit and the Blue Basin
The Blue Basin and its trails are part of the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument located in Central Oregon.
Surprisingly, not many people know about the Blue Basin. The John Day Fossil Beds NM is composed of 3 different units--the Painted Hills Unit (probably the most popular and well known), the Clarno Unit and the Sheep Rock Unit.
While you can see "blue" hills along the back roads traveling within the confines of the 14,000 acres that comprise the monument, you'll miss the Blue Basin entirely if you don't hike in on the trails.
The John Day National Monument is an amazing trip back in time and the incredible scenery makes it definitely something any photographer would enjoy. However, due to the nature of the three units being so spread out, it's recommended that people try to see one unit in a day's time. Two might be doable if the days are long and the weather cooperative, but doing all three units in a day is not recommended. There's simply too much to see and do, especially if you factor in the driving between units.
One of the best ways to see any of the units is to hike the trails. Every unit has unique trails of varying difficulty and length. A few are wheelchair accessible as well.
Do keep in mind that the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is literally out in the middle of nowhere so plan accordingly. Camping, food, lodging and gas are available in the towns near the individual units but nothing is available within the NM itself.
Sheep Rock Unit/Blue Basin = Dayville, Oregon
Painted Hills Unit = Mitchell, Oregon
Clarno Unit = Fossil, Oregon
Contact the National Park Service, Department of the Interior for more information.
Park Headquarters: 32651 Highway 19, Kimberly, Oregon 97848 (Cant Ranch)
Blue Basin and Sheep Rock Trails
The Blue Basin part of the Sheep Rock Unit has two trails. There are other trails within the Sheep Rock Unit and in the general vicinity listed below as well.
- Island in Time Trail - 1 mile - flat terrain, leads you into the heart of the Blue Basin and ends at a bench where you can sit and look at the ancient "city" of rock formations. Along the trail, you'll find fossil exhibits and information about the rocks and their history.
- Blue Basin Overlook Trail - 3 miles and climbs roughly 600 feet - longest trail in the area and is moderate to strenuous though has benches to stop and take a rest along the way. This gives the best up-top view of the Blue Basin.
- Foree Area Flood of Fire Trail - 1/4 mile - north of the Blue Basin Trails. Have a caution as there is a steep cliff at the end of the trail.
- Foree Story in Stone Trail - 1/4 mile - accessible - exhibits with fossils along trail.
- Mascall Formation Overlook Trail - south of the Blue Basin near Dayville at the junction of Highway 26 and State Route 19 - fossil exhibits and overlook point.
- Thomas Condon Center Overlook Trail - 1/4 mile leaving parking lot at the center.
- Don't forget Picture Gorge along State Route 19.
Hiking Trails within the John Day NM
There are some simple things to keep in mind when hiking anywhere within the John Day National Monument, no matter what trail you're on or what unit you happen to be visiting.
- Fossils are protected by law and must not be removed or disturbed
- Digging for fossils is prohibited unless you have a research permit
- This also includes plants, animals and rocks--all are protected by law
- Stay on the trails! Fragile vegetation is present throughout the units and should not be disturbed
- Dogs are welcome on leash at all times -- waste clean up should be done and bring plenty of water for pets and humans
- Keep in mind that spring and fall are the most temperate for visiting the units. In summertime, the temperatures soar and the rock formations become a literal baking clay oven
- With increased temperatures, rattlesnakes are plentiful so beware--especially with dogs on the trail, it can be dangerous if they like to root around in bushes. This author took a trail at Clarno at the end of March and there had already been a rattlesnake seen on the trail
- Wear appropriate attire in terms of good shoe gear, hats or sunglasses and wear sunscreen as the Central Oregon sun is unrelenting
- Keep in mind that there are very limited services and that most of the fossil bed units are in remote locations - if medical care is an issue (or veterinary care), it could be a dangerous spot to be in
- Drinking water is available at all picnic areas in spring and fall
- Trails and picnic areas are open year round during daylight hours
- There is no camping within the monument but there are campgrounds nearby as well as hotels and/or lodges
- On the trails, be on the watch for rattlers, black widow spiders, ticks, scorpions and puncture vine - ticks are especially prevalent in this area
- Fishing is allowed within the monument with a current fishing license
- Contact the park staff regarding guns and hunting
- There is private land within the park - stay out where posted
- Remember--no off trail hiking! This is not a place to "leave your footprint!"
Sheep Rock Unit
There is much to see within every unit of the John Day Fossil Beds. The Sheep Rock Unit is no exception.
Take some of the back roads and byways and take in the beautiful scenery.
You might get lucky and see some of the following:
- Mule deer
- Pronghorn antelope
- Rattlesnakes - do not approach for any reason - though smaller than some species, they are just as venomous if not more so
- Cougars or mountain lions
- Bald eagles
- Rocky Mountain elk
- Steelhead salmon
Where Did Sheep Rock Get Its Name?
Sheep rock got its name from the fact that the first settlers to the area, the Cants, found that raising sheep was quite conducive to this part of the countryside.
More Views Inside the Blue Basin
The views along the trails inside the Blue Basin are mesmerizing.
The absolute quiet is also equally amazing and lulls one into a sense of peace and tranquility.
Visit the Cant Ranch at the Sheep Rock Unit
Call the National Park Service for operating hours as they have changed with recent government cutbacks.
This is a great place to visit with groups and/or school groups. Make reservations for tours of the ranch to get a sense of the history of the region.
Elizabeth and James Cant came to the United States from Scotland in the early 1900s and the ranch itself was built in 1917.
The Cant Family donated it to the National Park Service in the 1970's.
Wonder of the World - John Day Fossil Beds
For an amazing journey through the John Day National Monument, watch the video below. Breathtaking doesn't describe what you can see in this part of the country.
A Room with a View
The grounds of the Cant Ranch are immaculately maintained and a treasure trove of history.
The view from the back of the ranch.
Historical Farm Equipment
The Cant Ranch has many interesting pieces of farm equipment scattered around the confines of the ranch.
This is just one old piece of equipment on display at the ranch.
Thomas Condon Paleontology Center
No trip to Sheep Rock would be complete without stopping by the Thomas Condon Center. This beautiful building is set at the base of Sheep Rock and does offer a 1/2 mile trail as well from the center.
However, for a learning experience you won't forget, take a tour of the center and indulge in all the interpretive exhibits. Don't miss the 20 minute movie either detailing the history and geology of the area.
See How Fossils are Found
It's an incredibly tedious process to uncover a fossil. Here you can get a bird's eye view of just how long it takes to uncover something buried in rock.
Inside the Paleontology Center
Just some of the fascinating exhibits within the center.
Call for information on tours and operating hours as they have changed.
Ample parking is available for large groups and/or buses and motorhomes.
Where are the John Day Units Located?
This map gives a good general idea of how spread out the three units are within the John Day NM.
Take the time to visit all three but give yourself ample time to hike and observe all that you can in each one.
The John Day Fossil Beds represent 1 of 390 parks in the National Park Service. Of the 390, there are 232 national parks that have fossils.