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Central Oregon John Day National Monument

Updated on September 3, 2012

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is comprised of 3 separate entities - the Painted Hills, Sheep Rock, and the Clarno Unit. 

Each of the 3 entities has a unique history and is famous for different parts of this geological wonder of the United States. 

The entire monument encompasses 14,000 acres over 3 widely separated areas.  However, each is memorable in its own way.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
  Painted Hills    Sheep Rock    Sheep Rock    Painted Hills    Blue Basin    Clarno Unit - all courtesy NPS
  Painted Hills
Painted Hills
    Sheep Rock
Sheep Rock
    Sheep Rock
Sheep Rock
    Painted Hills
Painted Hills
    Blue Basin
Blue Basin
    Clarno Unit - all courtesy NPS
Clarno Unit - all courtesy NPS

The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument was created October 26, 1974 under the legislation passed by then serving president Gerald Ford. A national monument is different from a national park in that there are different criteria to be met and different legislation involved in creating a national monument.

Oftentimes in the past decades, presidents have created a national monument simply to override Congress or bypass them when they felt they were not taking swift enough action to ensure the safety of natural resources although this in itself has caused many uproars. For instance in Wyoming when it was done to protect Jackson Hole by then acting president Franklin Roosevelt, it caused such a rift that there now is no proclamation authority in Wyoming.

The creation of a national monument comes under the Antiquities Act which was passed in 1906. This came into being because there was worry that prehistoric and Native American ruins and artifacts on lands in the West would be destroyed. This act allowed presidents to make the proclamation unhindered that a site can be designated as a national monument and thus would be protected (along with the objects or antiquities).

However, this act also allowed the protection of 'objects of scientific interest'. Devil's Tower in Wyoming was the first national monument ever proclaimed by President Theodore Roosevelt. The Grand Canyon was proclaimed a national monument in 1908 again by President Teddy Roosevelt - this was a massive 'object of scientific interest!' It later became part of the national park, however.

During President Jimmy Carter's presidency, he proclaimed 15 national monuments in Alaska in 1978. He did this after Congress had adjourned and it caused another backlash; the proclamation authority is no longer available in Alaska. Fortunately though, most of these national monuments in Alaska were incorporated into many of the national parks and wildlife preserves.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton proclaimed the Grand Staircase-Escalante a national monument in Utah which was extremely criticized. He went on to proclaim 16 which are managed by the Bureau of Land Management rather than the National Park Service.

A president can also not only proclaim a site a national monument but he can also request that one be enlarged. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson added Ellis Island to the Statue of Liberty National Monument.

There are currently 100 national monuments in the United States - see them all here at wikipedia.

National monuments can be managed by any of these federal agencies - Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, or the US Forest Service. Again, they can be declared at the president's discretion without the approval of Congress. National monuments do, however, have less protection of wildlife usually than within a national park, although national monuments can incorporate vast areas of wilderness that will offer more protection than a national park.

So What's So Special About John Day Fossil Beds?

The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a treasure of geological wonders that have existed for the past (roughly) 65 million years! Paleontologists have had numerous archaeological digs uncovering all many different kinds of fossils over the years that have outlined the history preserved in the museums and exhibits in the monument.  

The semi-arid desert climate that is now associated with Central Oregon at one time was really a tropical rain forest and all manner of animals, birds and species of plants inhabited this area. It is also a reminder of the Native American heritage as can be seen in the uncovered pictographs.

The Painted Hills unit of the John Day Fossil Beds is an amazing site with its many different layers of volcanic rock and ash and the amazing colors it produces. At any given season of the year, you will see different colors. It is an almost spooky place to visit because of the quiet and the amazing sparseness of the landscape. Even in this vast wilderness, however, wildflowers somehow manage to take root and bloom in spring and fall. The hiking trails are easily accessible. In all of the units, leaving the trails is prohibited and pets must be on a leash.

The Clarno Unit is known for its hiking trails and most especially for the Blue Basin hiking area. Here you can see fossils in the rocks that have fallen and split apart.  The Blue Basin is a lake carved from volcanic ash that has turned to claystone now through centuries of erosion effects. Minerals give it its blue color - much as minerals give the Painted Hills their variety of colors.

The Sheep Rock Unit is most notable for its museum and tours. You can learn all you need to about the area at the Sheep Rock Unit. This unit also has some unique views and topography along with hiking trails.

Sheep Rock is near the town of Dayville while the Painted Hills are just outside of Mitchell. Lastly, the Clarno Unit is outside the town of Fossil. All 3 of these little rustic towns have a great deal to offer in terms of charm and character. While there are no campgrounds within the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, there are many nearby.

Summing It Up

There is no place quite like the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and the 3 separate units that comprise it.  It is a unique place to visit and the natural beauty of it is stunning.  It is a great thing that some of these national treasures are being preserved for the world to see and learn from - it would be wonderful to see many of the other national monuments as well because they are all unique in what they show us.

The John Day area has over 50 species of birds, 40 species of mammals, 14 species of reptiles, 6 species of amphibians and 10 species of fish.  There are also over 240 plants and flowers that have managed to grow in this locale according to the National Park Service.  It is a beautiful place that literally will take your breath away.  There is much to see there and much to learn!


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    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 

      11 years ago from Georgia

      Please add this to our hubtrail! Add the word "hubtrail" to your tags, then email the link to Ohma.

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      11 years ago from Washington

      Thanks, earnestshub for stopping in - it is a spooky kind of place to think of all that came before us there but it is beautiful all the same!

    • earnestshub profile image


      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      America has some of the worlds best National Parks and reserves. These ones I have sadly missed, but this hub helps! Thank you for a great hub.

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      11 years ago from Washington

      Thank you Raymond for commenting - I think it is vital to preserve all this beauty as well for the next generations to see.

    • Raymond Tremain profile image

      Raymond Tremain 

      11 years ago from Metro Manila Philippines

      I feel that yes we should try to protect the National Parks regardless to what sort of park it is, just so that the next generation will have some beauty to see as we see it now, but one day it will all be gone, then we will see the most wonderful beauty of all (HEAVEN)

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      11 years ago from Washington

      Thanks, Laurel - I usually catches bits and pieces of things - I did see one recently on Yellowstone. It was actually wonderful but unfortunately it got Griffin all wound up! It is too funny but any programs with wildlife he literally watches nonstop and gets so 'into' it that we end up laughing ourselves silly and missing most of it! I told Bob he needs to tape them so we can watch them 'in private' later on. Thanks so much for commenting - there are SO many beautiful things to see!

    • lorlie6 profile image

      Laurel Rogers 

      11 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      I had no idea that national monuments and parks had such intertwined histories. I wonder if you watched the PBS special on national parks recently-loved it myself!

      Thanks so much for this great hub!

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      11 years ago from Washington

      Cool - I know this really crazy lady who loves to cook and who has the craziest dogs on the planet - she is always entertaining - in more ways than one! Come on down!! (over) Thanks for commenting as always.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 

      11 years ago from Georgia

      Sounds like a cool place, and I love your descriptions! Hubby wants to take me out West - maybe we'll make it there!

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      11 years ago from Washington

      Too funny - I guess it pays to be president (on some level) har har but then it comes back to haunt them anyhow because Congress gets their little feelings all a flutter! I guess in my own little blonde mind, I'm thinking any way they preserve and save something - it's all good! Thanks so much for commenting DeGreek. It is a fascinating place and one we always take our friends and family to see.

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 

      11 years ago from UK

      Such a fascinating description. I could not get my wife off the computer as she was absorbed in the legal aspects you described (She is a lawyer). Wonderful stuff ;-)

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      11 years ago from Washington

      I have to be serious once in a while - ha ha - actually someone posted a thing on the forum for me to do one on it so figured I'd better 'just do it'! Thanks for commenting Shellie!

    • theherbivorehippi profile image


      11 years ago from Holly, MI

      wow...this looks pretty cool!! Thanks for sharing. Just when I think you're the "one" that makes me go and teach me something too! lol

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      11 years ago from Washington

      Thanks Darlene - it is a unique part of the country that's for SURE!

      Drbj - in one of the other 3 hubs I did on the area, John Day was one of the first settlers in the area - he actually got robbed by Indians and was unharmed. He discovered the MOUTH of the John Day River which is the largest river without a dam coming off the Columbia River in Oregon. It seems that if you discover the MOUTH of a river, it is named after you - too bad I can't discover a river~! The John Day River courses from the top of Oregon state down to the John Day Fossil Beds and that is why they named it after him - and he ended up in Astoria - how crazy is that? Anyhow - lovely part of the US - lots to see and the mountain desert climate is to die for. The redneck lifestyle - well, not so much I'm finding- but oh well! We have had some experiences!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      11 years ago from south Florida

      Interesting information but I'm wondering, who was John Day and why was this 3-entity national monument named after him?

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 

      11 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      What an awesome place to visit, I would love to go there. So well written and great video. Thumbs up...

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      11 years ago from Washington

      Thank you so much for commenting!

    • coletta7 profile image


      11 years ago from cleveland hts.

      Wow! I almost feel like I've been to these places." Very good information here.

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      11 years ago from Washington

      Thanks, Sandyspider -it is so weird it is awesome!

    • Sandyspider profile image

      Sandy Mertens 

      11 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      I haven't gone there, but would like to. Thanks for sharing this.


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