John Day Fossil Beds – trip report

For the Memorial Day long weekend we decided to head down to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in eastern Oregon. The park is made up of three sections or “Units” as they are called: Sheep Rock, Painted Hills and Clarno. Originally the goal was to spend the weekend photographing the Painted Hills unit of the park as it was the only section of the park I had heard about. But we decided to explore the whole park and I am glad we did.

Normally I do a post like this along with the photos I took of the location, but due to the amount of photos and the amount of details about the park I decided to dedicate this post to just detailed directions and info about the park. Check out this post for all of the photos.

Getting there:

If you are going from Seattle, you have a few options. If you want to hit the Clarno Unit and kind of get it out of the way, go down Hwy 97 and take Hwy 218 to Fossil. The Clarno unit would be on Hwy 218. The other option for getting there is to take Hwy 206 and Hwy 19 from I-85. My personal recommendation is to take Hwy 97/218 there and Hwy 19/206 back. Each direction has its own beauties. Most of the area where you are going doesn’t have phone access, so make sure you have a reliable GPS system with you. To be safe, I’d recommend bringing some print outs of maps of the area too.

19/206 Highways features:

The road is a winding highway that goes through a whole bunch of rolling hills, farms and wind farms. There are numerous old barns, buildings and some broken down churches on the way so keep your eyes peeled on the landscape (oh and try to watch the road when you can.)

97/218 highways features:

These roads have some nice open views of all the mountains in the area. Also the 218 leads to Clarno which is always a plus.


Where to stay:

There are plenty of campsites around, if you are the camping type. There are a few places to stay, but do not expect 4 star accommodations and hot stone massages. The way I would describe the lodging is that it’s more comfortable and cleaner than camping. As we wanted to have a bed to come home to, a shower and electricity to charge the batteries we did most of our research around lodging and less about camping, so that is what I can tell you about. The best place to stay, and probably the closest to all the excitement is Mitchell. The town is a cattle town so there is about 10 little buildings stuck together (Mitchell) and the rest is farmland so don’t expect a big town. There is a restaurant that closes at 6 ish, a store which closes around the same time and a gas station that is closed on Mondays. Fill up when you can, there is no gas for MILES (literally, next gas station on your way is Fossil 100+ miles away). Check out the bottom of this post for some links to some of the lodging that we found in the area.

The Fossil Beds:

Painted Hills Unit:


When you stay in Mitchell the closes unit of the park is Painted Hills. The Painted Hills unit is definitely awe inspiring and very very pretty. At first you don’t know what you’re looking for when you’re driving to the park entrance, until you go around a bend and there it is. The park has a few trails that are worth the little hikes. By the way, none of them are that long so plan to do all of them. The main hike (.5 miles) is the look out as you enter the park. Other ones I do recommend are Red Rock and the Painted Cove trail. The Cove trail is a nice boardwalk through the hills which takes you close to the hills so you can observe the popcorn texture up close and personal.

We tried to shoot both the sunrise and sunset here, but I cannot say that either was my favorite. Interestingly enough the light was at its best for us during the day. The hills are encapsulated in mountains so the nice side light of sunrise and sunset are kind of cut short by the surrounding mountains. Little hills and valleys have excellent texture and cast some interesting shadows. The other time I recommend heading down there is for star shots. Since you are absolutely in the middle of absolute no where there is no light pollution, so hello milky way in all its glory (if you don’t have the moon out).

My original assumption going there was that I was going to use a lot of wide angle shots. I had a 10-22mm lens with me so I could do some nice wide shots. Although that lens was useful and fun to shoot with, I found myself using my 200mm quite often. While the vast sceneries are interesting, some of the little crevices and grooves between the hills are just as interesting and eye catching.


Sheep Rock Unit:

We didn’t even know whether the Sheep rock unit was going to be interesting or not, but we decided to head down there anyways. This unit is the biggest of the three and does require some driving from Mitchell (about 35 miles), but it is absolutely worth it. Amongst the interesting points are Cant Ranch with the beautiful sheep rock in the back of it, the Blue Basin with its amazingly blue green rocks and formations, and the Cathedral Rock.

Sheep Rock is the first “mountain” you will encounter. Keep going till you hit Cant Ranch then stop and shoot there. I would strongly recommend this spot for sunset as the sheep rock is west facing and would have some magnificent light on it during the golden hours. In addition to shooting from ground level at the ranch, I recommend crossing the road and going to a high point on the other side. There you have a better vantage point over the ranch and a good view of the Sheep rock in the back ground.

Blue Basin is kind of in the middle of the whole park. There are two trails you can do. We ended up doing the trail that goes into the basin as opposed to the one that circles it. The trail is easy and short. Just keep in mind you are in the middle of the desert so bring water with you as there is no water around. I found this area a little harder to photograph as the scenery is very vast, but it is definitely worth the stop to see if nothing else. I am sure you would end up snapping away at some stuff anyways. While I was scanning the surroundings for something cool, I stumbled on a deer skeleton caught in a bush. I don’t think anything could have given a more appropriate feeling in the area than that.

Cathedral rock is about 10 more minutes drive from the Blue Basin and definitely worth the drive. As we were driving towards it we noticed there is a road sign pointing to the cathedral rock and it was literally an arrow up as if almost it is saying “Seriously you can’t see it? It’s right there”. When driving to the rock, you won’t find parking immediately. You should go and pass it and then come back. There is a nice pull out in the opposite direction where you can park the car and get a nice view of the rock. I strongly recommend getting there for sunrise. The Cathedral Rock is east facing so some morning light would definitely do your photos some good.

We didn’t have time to photograph them or tag the exact locations, but there are some really cool barns and buildings along the way with some nice back drops so keep your eyes peeled for opportunities.

Clarno Unit:

This is the more off the beaten path part of the park (try saying that 3 times really fast). To access this you would need to take the 218 from Fossil, so either do it on your way there or on your way back. (218 leads to 97 and back to WA so plan ahead before going there). This section has a few stops that are interesting for photos; a few rock formations before (coming from Fossil), the main Clarno fossil beds and section of the 218 between Clarno and 97.

The two rock formations are very interesting. I personally found the Clarno fossil beds more photographable, but that was mainly because of limited time and much much easier access to the Clarno rock formations; there is a trail that just goes right up to them. I especially love that last rock (or first depending on how you look at it), it totally looks like a face.

The road from Clarno to 97 (again, coming from Fossil) is at high elevation so you would have some fantastic light around sunset overlooking the entire valley. If you get lucky like we did and have a super clear day, once you make it to the 97 you will have views of literally every peak around: Rainier, Hood, Adams, Three Finger Jack and possibly more.

We hit this place around sunset and the sun was right behind the Clarno rock formations so it made photography a little hard and to be honest with you, I am not sure what time of day would be best for this, maybe sunrise. But given its location and how it is far from everything else, I would recommend leaving this for last and spending your sunrise at Sheep Rock unit.


All and all this was definitely one of my most favorite trips, and also one of the most tiring ones. 7 hours there and 8 back. We woke at 5:00 every morning to shoot the sunrise and slept at 2 Am the first night shooting the stars. I don’t think I was ever so happy to see my bed back home. But over all it was beautiful and I am definitely planning to go back there again, maybe not soon, but someday.


Here are some resources to check out before you go there.


Oregon hotel (where we stayed: friendly staff. We had the kitchenette room so we had a stove, fridge… The rooms are very clean and nice, so this met our expectations more than enough). And WIFI in a location that doesn’t have phone signal is always welcome.

Cottage Rentals: these go fast, so book ahead.

Sky Hook Motel.

Parc Information:

Also here is a map of the area.

For more on the location and directions, check out the map below, or check out my Photography Locations page for more places to shoot.

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