John Day Fossil Beds Part I – Blue Basin Dreams

“No region in the world shows a more complete sequence of Tertiary land populations, both plant and animal than the John Day Basin”
Ralph W.Chaney

Oh come to me, dreams of blue (green) :)
Oh take me away my dreams of blue (green) :)

We’re finally back online after several days in the boonies and I have LOTS to share. You see the truth is I’ve been hiding stuff from you. BIG stuff. The real reason we came to this northeastern edge of Oregon was not for the John Day River or Chinese museums, it was for something entirely different. It’s a spot I’ve been dreaming about ever since I saw someone take a pic here years ago. A spot I put on the “list” and vowed I would make it to someday. A spot that I knew would blow me away even more than I imagined. All this other business…oh, it’s just gravy baby.

The juicy stuff I’ve been hiding is the John Day Fossil Bed National Monument. This amazing slice of Oregon is a window into the ancient history of the Cenozoic age. Forget dinosaurs, that age is gone. What this shows is the prolific period of evolution that followed, from the time Oregon was a teeming swampy, hot, tropical forest 44 millions years ago through the temperate forests of 33 million years ago, intense volcanic activity 29 million years ago, massive basalt flows 16 millions years ago to the cooling earth and dry land it is today. There is nowhere (in the world) that has the richness of both physical and fossil records from this long a period than right here. Every slice of time is captured somewhere in this 13,944 acres (5,643 ha) acre Monument…and yes, it is absolutely gobsmacking.

Map showing the 3 units of the John Day Fossil Bed NM
Map showing the 3 units of the John Day Fossil Beds

If you’re visiting the first thing to understand about this area is that it is very widely spread out-> there are 3 sections to the John Day Monument spotted around a loop of ~100 miles. Doing everything in one day really isn’t feasible especially if you want to do any of the hikes (which I really, really recommend).

Our plan was to take a week and two stops to cover the two main areas along scenic Hwy 26 -> Sheep Rock Unit and The Painted Hills. Clyde Holliday State Park* is only ~40 mins from the first of these and was the perfect base to wait out the weather and grab a clear opening. We dedicated a few rum & cokes to the Sun Gods, danced ceremoniously around our Weatherbug app and waited…and waited…until it finally happened. We woke up to sweet rays of light and the promise of a fine 70-degree day. Oh yes baby…this was it!

Now, it’s hard to describe how darn excited I was to be going to the Blue Basin. Take your average 2-year old child, feed it a few pounds of sweets, add-in a puppy and you’ve just about got the visual of what I looked like driving through the gorge to our hike. Poor hubby was forced to suffer my excess of inane espresso-fueled chatter the entire way:

Did you know the hills are blue…I mean really blue…actually blue-green…I mean far out blue..29 million years old blue…did you??!!
Yes, dear….

The overlook trail is stunning even before you get to the blue bits
The overlook trail is stunning even before you get to the blue bits

Thankfully the rather stunning scenery distracted his attention -> lovely curves of the John Day river, an unexpected gorge right before you enter the monument and then arriving finally at our hike. There are two main hikes around the 29-million year old blue-green claystone formation that gives this area it’s name. The ~3 mile Blue Basin Overlook (or rim) trail and the ~1 mile Island In Time trail into the center of the beast, all of which are dog friendly**. Our goal was to do both (which I highly recommend) so we gathered our backpacks and started the climb up the hill.

Me oh my how can I describe the visual impact? The first time you see this strange blue formation is really something else. Formed by spewing layers of volcanic ash-turned-stone it’s like a 600-foot layer-upon-layer mountain of whipped cream topping in brilliant blue-green…and it’s so intense it almost seems like a mirage.

“Holy moly” declared Paul “it really is blue”

Can you believe that COLOR????
Can you believe that COLOR????

A steep climb along a lovely trail leads to a panoramic view right into the center of the basin and I tell you, it takes your breath away. As you walk around the rim you keep getting shifting views of the blue-green in hues that move with the sun***, and when you finally hit the Island in Time trail and walk into the center it’s like you’ve wandered into a different world. Oh, did I mention the cool fossils on the latter trail?

We followed our hike with a drive to Cathedral Rock and a stop at the most excellent Visitor Center. In the latter you’ll read about the entire history of the region, as well as get the chance to touch specimens of ancient history and drool over actual paleontologists working on fossils in the windowed lab (yes, it is drool-worthy stuff). It’s one of the best visitor centers I’ve been to in a long time and I definitely recommend it.

Filled with visions of blue we made our way home to dedicate yet another rum & coke, this time in thanks to the RV Travel Gods (we make sure to cover our bases in the beast). My first dream fulfilled I started to ponder the next portion of my visual escapade a few days away. You see despite my abundant excitement at this spot, blue-eyed Sinatra said it most fittingly when he crooned “the best is yet to come“. Prepare yourself for the artistic madness of the Painted Hills….

* CAMPING -> Clyde Holliday State Park is ~40 mins East of Sheep Rock Unit and a very pleasant spot to stay. If you want to be closer and have full hookups The Fish House Inn & RV Park is in Dayville and only a skip and a jump from the Sheep Rock Unit.

** DOGS IN THE PARK -> Dogs are permitted on leash throughout the entire monument & on all the Basin Trails. The 3-mile Overlook trail is great, but the 1-mile Island in Time trail that leads into the center of the basin has 13 sharply grated metal bridges which are not great for paws. If you want to bring doggie on this latter trail I recommend paw covers (or you’ll have to carry them over the bridges). Trail information HERE.

*** PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS -> For the photography buffs amongst you, the best time to get lit pics of the Blue Basin is between 10AM and 2PM. Before/after this time the sun starts to cast shadows in the basin (still great for pics, but just a different mood). Midday the blues are rather washed out while late afternoon the blue-greens are deeper.

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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do

  1. Michael says


    I have always wondered what 29 million years old blue looked like. I can cross that one off and add John Day Fossil Beds to my list :~]

    As always, your story telling and pic’s brought the place to life. Would have loved to seen a video of you in your excited state on your way there. It really is all about the simple pleasures. Thanks again for sharing yours.


    • libertatemamo says

      Indeed there is nothing like 29 million year old blue. I tried to convince hubby we should re-paint “the beast” in that color, but sadly he nixed the idea. Wouldn’t it be fabulous though?


  2. says

    Wow, how did I miss the blue? It’s been quite a while since visiting John Day, but I remember all three units were so uniquely awesome. I get the excitement about rocks.

    • libertatemamo says

      This was such a fabulous place. Could’ve spent several days in the blue, but weather didn’t cooperate and we had to move on. I’m glad we got a full day out of it though.


  3. says

    WOW, never heard of this place and it is a wow place indeed! Beautiful! and I can visualize the two year old in you :)
    Those colored mountains reminded me of Death Valley NP which I think should be on your list :)

    • libertatemamo says

      Oh yes, Death Valley. Have been there many times in my life (pre-RVing), but need to go back in the rig. Sunrise and sunset are magical there.


  4. says

    Holy Moly says Paul……any place that elicits such excitement from Paul goes to the top of my bucket list! hahahahahahaha!

    Seriously, I never knew such a place existed and I can’t wait to see it myself. Thanks for taking us along Nina, we love your enthusiasm.

    • libertatemamo says

      Yup, the fact that he finally agreed on the awesomeness of this place was pretty special :) he was pretty blown away.


  5. says

    Thanks, Nina, for another excellent area to add to our list. You know how I love my rocks, colored rocks are even better. I was fascinated by the rock with the rainbow coloring around the edge.

    • libertatemamo says

      You would be in total heaven here Pam. You know I read all about that swirly red rock at the Visitor Center, made a mental note of all the details and promptly forgot all about it…duh! There’s a good story there if just I could remember it!


  6. Caryl Kirk says

    Oh my….you are such a hoot, Nina! Can hardly wait to get started…your helping keep this dream alive! If plans had gone as I planned, we would be in Calif and 100+temps and wildfires….soooo, it does pay to abide in the ‘zone’…AND BE PATIENT…I don’t do that well! 😉

    • libertatemamo says

      Oh yes, those fires in CA are terrible. So terrible. Your time will come…have faith in serendipity :)


  7. says

    Poor Paul….although he looks pretty stoked as well! Our list has a separate “geo” column to note places with geological goodies. I’m already looking at how we can add this to our route next year! Tessa thanks you for the paws note on the bridges.

  8. says

    Definitely has to go “the list.” But that list of places to see keeps getting longer. I need to convince my wife that we need to hit the road a few years earlier than she intends – like maybe tomorrow!

    • libertatemamo says

      And I tell you the “list” NEVER ends. Mine keeps getting longer too :) Hope you manage to convince her to part-time, even if you don’t get to full-time. Lots of people love that too.


  9. says

    Another amazing Oregon find! I can’t believe we missed all of this wonder when we were in eastern OR last fall. Yet another reason to go back I guess :) Can’t wait to see your photos of the Painted Hills!

    • libertatemamo says

      This is such a unique and under-visited place. Seems there are lots of these hidden gems in Oregon.


  10. says

    We’ve just put this area on our list–thank you for a great post! Back in the late 60’s, a friend & I camped out–under the stars–in the Clarno Unit. I worried about snakes getting into my sleeping bag–sheesh! Youth is wasted on the young!!

    • libertatemamo says

      Ah, the naïveté of youth. If only we knew then what we know now, eh? The Clarno unit is the one unit we didn’t get to see! Gotta come back for it sometime.


  11. Dennis says

    What the Hey was that scull? Did you just stumble upon that or was it displayed by the Park? Fascinating!

    • libertatemamo says

      That skull is super cool isn’t it? Its a formal display by the park. They have several of these along the Island in Time trail. The skull was listed as a nimivarid, an extinct family of carnivores that is sometimes called “false” saber-tooth cats. They looked like cats, but they were actually not cats. Cool, eh?

      Here’s a little more info:


    • libertatemamo says

      I could barely believe the color when I saw it. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before.


  12. says

    We drove by there last year when it was closed for the gov’t shutdown. We’ll have to try again this year. We’re not stalking you, but we’re headed in the same directions and I think we’ll be in Pt. Townsend at the same time.

    • libertatemamo says

      Oh excellent! We should be staying at the Marina so if you see us there stop in and say “Hi”.


  13. Liz says

    Absolutely spectacular! Thanks for sharing. This helps to clinch the deal as to why I love Oregon and the Pacific Northwest so much.

  14. Leland Saunders says

    Hey folks … would you mind sharing your opinion on one fundamental question about fulltime RVing. My wife and I are currently in animated conversations about the pros and cons of 5th Wheels vs A-class motorhomes. And you say …

    • libertatemamo says

      That’s a trap question :) there’s actually no right answer. You’ll hear passionate pros and cons from each side, so it totally depends on your personal preferences.

      Pros of Class A
      – ease of set-up, pull-down
      – your pets travel in comfort with you
      – can access everything on the road
      – you can pull an ecomonical (great MPG) toad for sightseeing

      Cons of Class A
      – typically more expensive in maintenance (2 engines to keep)
      – they really don’t like to “sit” (they’re made to be driven)

      Pros of 5th wheel
      – cheaper maintenance (only one engine to maintain)
      – nice layouts (often more homey than class A’s)
      – easy to leave for long periods
      – typically lighter (in weight) which can be a pro for boondocking

      Cons of 5th wheel
      – once in camp you’re stuck with a large truck for sightseeing/shopping
      – pets have to travel in the truck with you which means moving them out of the 5th wheel and securing them in the truck

      We love our Class A and would choose the same again for our pets and the ease of travel (set-up, pull-down and the ability to have a toad in camp). But there’s no right answer. People fulltime with both.


  15. says

    Nina, your writing is melodious, the photos fabulous!! Can’t believe we’ve missed John Day all these years. Thanks for sharing this great location.

  16. Rowanova says

    Awesome! As a Washitonian, I actually think, sometimes, that Oregon has more natural and scenic diversity than Washington.
    And that is saying a lot, as Washington is very diverse itself.
    Thanks for an amazing post, Nina. I’m already looking forward to the next one(s) on the area.

    • libertatemamo says

      Can’t wait to see what Washington has hiding for me. I am SURE I will be equally blown away there too.


  17. says

    While you guys are in the area have you heard about Cottonwood Canyon State Park yet? Oregon’s newest! No hookups in the campground but you have beautiful scenery and you can’t beat the quiet. The Bighorn Sheep make an appearance just about everyday too, you can watch them from your campsite! It’s right on the John Day River, check it out! We’re hosting here now and absolutely love it :)

    • libertatemamo says

      Actually I had NOT heard about it. Just looked up the location and looks like it’s in a great spot. Not far from the Columbia River either. Nice! Hope to visit it someday.


  18. Jil says

    I can’t believe you are telling all these people about all these wonderful places that have hardly anyone there…now you know it will triple in visits and no one will be able to get close to anything any more….:)

    I am so glad you are loving this place we do and we really think that parts of Oregon are some of the most under utilized of all the states…

    • libertatemamo says

      LOL…yeah, the crowds are gonna start coming now for sure. Oregon does have SO many hidden gems. I guess it’s part of what I love about the state. So many places to see with so few people in them. Makes it seem like we’re “discovering” many of them for the first time.


  19. says

    Could your images be any more mind-blowing? I am putting this place very high on my list thanks to your description and spectacular photos Nina. Thanks for sharing this gem. :)

  20. says

    I’d have a difficult time carrying Jack over the bridges, but I bet Mushers would work. It’s so great that your back in Oregon, Nina. I absolutely love the Columbia River. I’ve wiled away many a day sitting on its banks.

    • libertatemamo says

      We couldn’t carry Polly either so Paul and I had to go separately in that portion. Mushers would work great.


  21. says

    I read your first paragraph and said ME TOO! Dreaming of it for years. #1 on my Oregon List and now you just make me drool some more. It’s very hard on my keyboard. No boondocking closer than 40 minutes? That’s sad.

    • libertatemamo says

      I didn’t find any boondocking close to this section of John Day, BUT the town of Dayville is really close and has a very cute little RV Park (the one I listed at the bottom of the post). That’s probably as close as you can get. No camping allowed withing the monument itself.


  22. says

    If it wasn’t for the sky, the grass and Paul in the pictures, I’d tell you your camera settings were way, way off. 😉 Those hills are a bit surreal but stunning. You guys find the neatest places. Have fun!

    • libertatemamo says

      It was actually hard to get the camera to capture them properly. I usually take my pics with a “warm” color setting (cloudy) which enhances the reds, but with that setting the blue color was washing out completely. So, I had to reset to cooler temps. That did the trick!


  23. says

    Wow, I’ve been there several times and not only did NOT see the blue basin, I didn’t even know it existed! Thanks so much, glad to have found your page.

    • libertatemamo says

      We kinda found the Blue Basin by accident too. I had seen a pic of the Painted Hills several years ago which got me hooked on visiting the John Day Fossil Beds. When I dug deeper I “discovered” the Blue Basin and decided we had to stop there too. So glad we did!


  24. Leland Saunders says

    Nina … thank you for your response. It is much appreciated. We are still cogitating … but we have a transition plan.



  1. […] some time roaming around this area after reading about it in depth on the excellent RV blog WheelingIt.  However, the daytime temps were becoming stifling and we decided our visit this time would be […]

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