There are 129 National Monuments and an additional 2 pending. There are National Monuments in 31 states. California and Arizona are tied for the most. Both have 18. The most visited are probably The Statue of Liberty and the National Mall in Washington, DC. To my knowledge there is only one National Monument with 3 units, the John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon. Fossil Beds sound kind of uninteresting unless you’re a paleontologist, a studier of ancient life, but all 3 are worth traveling to and very different from each other. I thought Ruth and I could see all 3 in one day on our way East. That proved impossible because the 3 are not especially close to each other and in a difficult-to-get-around-in part of a very diverse and scenic state.
Oregon had a very different look 48 million years ago. Central Oregon, where the John Day Fossil Beds are, had more rain, palm trees, exotic fruit trees, and prehistoric animals like the brontotheres, 4-toed horses, and the bear-like hemipsaladons pictured in the illustration below. Over time, camels, elephants, and other more recognizable animals came across the land bridge connecting Asia to North America. Today the places where the 3 units are to be found are semi-arid.
The remotest John Day Fossil Beds Unit is Clarno. The closest town to it is little Fossil. Only 2-lane and often curvy roads take you there. Clarno is not beautiful but rather monumental and worth seeing because its the best for seeing real fossils. In fact, you can still spy them embedded in rocks on the ¼-mile long Trail of the Fossils. This is accessed by the ½-mile long Arch Trail that passes and includes this fossilized loop. This trail is backed by impressive palisades that formed many million years ago when a catastrophic series of volcanic eruptions caused lava flows that covered low areas trapping animals while uplifting the palisades.
The Painted Hills Unit is off busier Federal Highway 26 near Mitchell. Its ½-mile Painted Hills Overlook Trail is one of this National Monument’s prettiest. There are 4 other trails in the Painted Hills Unit. All of them are easy although Carroll Rim has a moderate climb, and all 4 are connected by paved roads. The picture at the top was taken there, and there were some interesting wildflowers along some trails. A lot of fossils have come from here, especially from the Leaf Hill Trail area. This was my favorite Unit.
Who was John Day? He was an 18th century hunter/tapper/explorer. On his way to Astoria in 1812, he and other expedition members were robbed of their possessions including all clothing. They were rescued by other trappers who were surely surprised by the sight of them. Thomas Condon was a frontier minister interested in paleontology when it was a new science. He named these fossil beds after John Day instead of himself. Fossil beds covered 20,000 square miles of Oregon, and the 3 Units of John Day comprise 14 thousand acres. What we see today is the way the land looked 5 million years ago.
It is recommended and a good idea to start your visit at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center in the Sheep Rock Unit, which was a roadside ranch until the John Day Fossil Beds became a National Monument in the 1970s. This is also the visitor center and repository of more than 60,000 found fossils. Hundreds of them can be seen along with murals and more.
As remote as the John Day Fossil Beds are, they welcome more than 200,000 visitors every year.