As one of the 7 wonders of Oregon, the Painted Hills are over 35 million years old and made up of a mix of layered ash, minerals, and soils. These iconic and beautiful hills are found in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, which is located in the high desert of central Oregon. The other two parts of the monument you can visit include the Clarno Unit and Sheep Rock Unit. Visiting this area has been described like visiting another planet!

Animals of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, as you might imagine, is home to fossils that are millions of years old. These fossils have provided an insight to what life was like in the area during different parts of history.

But nowadays, there are plenty of animals that call the national monument home. You can often find northern pike minnow and bridgelip suckers in the John Day River around the Sheep Rock Unit and steelhead or chinook salmon have been known to swim through that same river during the spring. Amphibian like the Western Toad and Pacific Treefrog can be found in the small seeps and springs throughout the park.

Other animals in the area include coyotes, Rocky Mountain Elk, mule deer, pallid bats, Great Basin Pocket Mouse, and mallards. For a full list of animals in the area and their abundance, check out this species list for the John Day Fossil Beds from the NPS.

Layers of Life: Stories of Ancient Oregon

This video tells part of the natural history of the the national monument.


Indigenous Land

It can be very easy for non-native folks to forget that the land of the Americas once belonged to thousands of indigenous tribes with millions of people once residing here before European colonization. According to the site Native Land, what is now called the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument was inhabited largely by the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla peoples, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and the Numu (Northern Paiute). You can actually learn more about the area from the National Park Service’s ‘John Day Fossil Beds Historical Resource Study’, including the first chapter on indigenous peoples and cultures of the area.

Visiting John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

In this national monument, there are plenty of trails and areas open to the public to explore and sight see. Services are limited because of the Covid-19 pandemic but if you do make it to the area, stay safe by wearing a face mask around others and social distance.

The trails in this park aren’t for intense hikers looking for an all-day climb. Instead, many of the trails in the area are to simple get a better view or different perspective of the landscape and hills. That said, there is still plenty of walking to do! The Sheep Rock Unit has seven hiking trails that range from a quarter-mile long to 3.25 miles. In the Painted Hills, there are five trails that range from a quarter-mile loop to a 1.6-mile round trip.


Dogs are welcome on trails and at picnic areas at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument but you’ll need to keep them on leash while there and pick up any mess they might make. Like most other NPS lands, dogs need to be on a 6ft or shorter leash and aren’t allowed inside any government buildings like the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center.

  • NOTE: it can get really hot in this area during the summer, sometimes even exceeding 100°F/37°C. Summer months like July and August might not be the best time to go with your dog, especially if you have a breed that does not do well in high temperatures. Like anywhere, do not leave your dog in the car to explore the Painted Hills or other parts of the monument.

Don’t Hurt The Dirt Pledge

These hills are a beautiful mix of dirt, ash, and minerals and while it can be tempting to take some as a souvenir or go off trail, doing so can be damaging to the hills and disruptive to the native plants and animals. Not only that but going off trail creates foot prints in the hills that can easily ruin the scenery for others. Be kind and respectful by staying on the path and leaving only with photos and trash.


Explore From Home With Your Kids

If you have kids in your life and aren’t able to make it to the John Day Fossil Beds right now, there are park activities you can do right at home! For this park, the National Park Service has a digital Junior Ranger Program, coloring pages you can download and print, mystery fossil game, and more!

Have you ever been to the Painted Hills or other parts of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument? Let me know in the comments!

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