John Day Fossil Beds: A Study (Preliminary)
NPS Logo



The John Day Fossil Bed Formation is colorful and rugged. The most widely known of these fossil-bearing beds, with their attendant scenic features, are essentially contained within eight existing State park units. Five of these are along the John Day River and State Highway 19 between the town of Kimberly and Picture Gorge, and a sixth unit is west of Dayville; all are in Grant County. Two units are in Wheeler County: one between the communities of Fossil and Clarno on State Highway 218; the other, ten miles northwest of Mitchell on a local route known as the Bridge Creek Road.

Other areas of particular interest, such as Haystack Valley and Clarno Vertebrate Quarry are of paleontological importance but are not currently included in the State park system. Units of scenic value are:

Sheep Rock (3,965 acres) This colorful and spectacular park takes its name from a prominent and sharply pyramidical peak with an elevation of 3,566 feet and rising 1,337 feet above the valley floor. The peak is readily identified by its dark "cap sheaf" of Columbia River Basalt resting on top of the John Day Formation, which makes up the mountain mass. This basalt remnant has the appearance of being ready to fall from the peak top at any time. The geologic deposits forming the mountain mass are highly picturesque with their many bands of delicate tints and shades of changing color. Also within this unit is the interesting "Painted Gorge" which takes its name from the many Indian pictographs found on the smooth rock faces of the canyon wall. Their location within a few feet of the highway has made protection difficult and they have been rather severely defaced. The dark coloring of the gorge contrasts with the light shade of the surrounding area.

Sheep Rock, Thomas Condon-John Day Fossil Beds State Park. A major landmark of the John Day Fossil Basin and the key interpretive site. Photo courtesy of Travel Division, Oregon State Highway Department

Turtle Cove (240 acres) This unit is considered by scientists as the "largest exposure" of the John Day Formations in the area and takes its name from the fossil remains of land turtles and tortoises found here. The University of California party of 1899 referred to the area as "Blue Basin" because of its color and was described by them as a veritable labyrinth of canyons, gulches, and coves cut into the soft blue rock of the middle John Day Formation by heavy rains. The coloring of these beds is outstanding; all of the most delicate shades are prevalent.

The Foree Unit (80 acres) a few miles north on State Highway 19 contains similar scenic and scientific features.

Foree Unit, Thomas Condon-John Day Fossil Beds State Park. ABOVE: View of banded, colorful exposures of John Day Formation. BELOW: Detail view at same Formation.

The Cathedral (40 acres) This site presents one of the most impressive and striking views of the middle John Day Formation. Adjacent to the highway, it offers the traveler a close-up view of this fossiliferous division with its fluted columns of delicately tinted shades of blue and green.

William Mascall Overlook (2 acres) This site not only includes a comprehensive view of the Sheep Rock-Picture Gorge Unit but also the Cottonwood Creek Valley where the Mascall Formation rests upon the Columbia lava which overlies the John Day beds. An excellent view of the picturesque Mascall, Rattlesnake, and John Day Formations can be observed from this point.

View north from Mascall Overlook. Three of the four geologic ages of the Tertiary Period as represented in the Upper John Day Basin are visible from this point. Picture Gorge, with the cap of Sheep Rock immediately behind it, is at the right center. The Mascall Formation is in the foreground.

Davis Dike (20 acres) Here the traveler receives an impressive close-up view of the Columbia lava formation. At this site a lengthy, intrusive, basaltic dike crosses both State Highway 19 and the John Day River, a remnant of which rises some 10 to 12 feet above the river bank and is also discernible for some distance up the mountain slope east of the highway.

Clarno State Park (120 acres) This unit, while not as colorful as the others in the State park complex, is quite picturesque. Much of this formation is varicolored brecias, conglomerate tuffs, and rhyolite flows which have been eroded into peculiar shapes. It is a concentration of massive fluted columns. Its location adjacent to a highway, State Route 218, offers the traveler a close view of this colorful and outstanding example of the Clarno Formation.

Colorful, eroded spires in Clarno State Park.

Painted Hills State Park (13.2 acres in fee plus public use easement on 2,830 acres) This significant name so adequately describes the surface of this park unit that it almost overshadows its scientific importance. Two basic formations are exposed here—the Upper Clarno and lower John Day. The valley floor or the Clarno Formation is usually a grey or buff, but sometimes shows brilliant colorations of red, green and brown. Above the valley floor the rising center of the John Day Formations display their bright harmoniously-blended colorings on smoothly rounded domes, slopes, and ridges of varying heights. The State is negotiating for the purchase of the 2,830 acres of privately owned land.

Painted Hills State Park.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 07-May-2007