Visiting the Clarno Unit of the John Day National Monument

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Eastern Central Oregon contains some of the most remote and beautiful landscapes in the Pacific Northwest.

We recently took a trip through this beautiful land to dig up some fossils in Fossil, Oregon. On the way back, we paid a visit to the Clarno Unit of the John Day National Monument for a quick hike and extra fossil discovery opportunities for the kids.

About the John Day National Monument

The John Day National Monument is spread over a large swatch of Central Oregon and consists of three distinct units.

The Painted Hills unit is the most well-known, located just north of Mitchell, Oregon. We recently visited the Painted Hills as well, and suffice to say that the reputation is well deserved! Look for that post to pop up on the website here soon!

The second most visited unit is the Sheep Rock unit, which is located approximately 1 hour from the painted hills. The Sheep Rock unit contains several mid-distance hikes that highlight the events that shaped the geography of the John Day National Monument.

The monument’s final and least visited unit is the Clarno Unit, which lies 2 hours north of the Sheep Rock unit.

Visiting the Clarno Unit

Even though the Clarno Unit is the smallest of the three and only requires an hour or two, at most, to visit, the site’s remoteness means seeing this unit along with either of the other two will make for a very, very l especiallyecially if you’re day-tripping from Bend or Portland.

We decided to visit the Clarno Unit on our recent trip to Fossil as it lies directly along the route on Highway 218.

The trailhead area of the Clarno Unit has a nice parking lot with covered picnic tables, drinking fountains, and restrooms, so it makan excellent a good spot to stop if you’re passing through. Even if you’re not looking to hike any of the trails, there aren’t many other rest stops in this area!

There are two parking lots to choose from at the Clarno Unit. Coming from the west, a small pull-out along the side of the road allows immediate access to the Trail of Fossils and Clarno Arch Trail. This parking lot had a drinking fountain (it wasn’t working when we visited) but no restrooms.

The main parking area is another half mile down the road and hall of the amenities mentioned above. It isn’t a huge parking lot, probably room for a dozen cars or so, but this area isn’t very busy, so parking typically shouldn’t be an issue.

Hiking Trails at the Clarno Unit

There are three short hiking trails at the Clarno Unit, and they are all connected, so looping through all three doesn’t take long.

  • Geologic Time Trail (1/2 mile out-and-back)
  • Trail of Fossils (1/4 mile loop)
  • Clarno Arch Trail (1/2 mile out-and-back)

Geologic Time Trail

Clarno Unit Geologic Time trail interpretive sign

Starting at the main parking lot, the Geologic Time Trail heads west along the cliffs that run along highway 218. The trail is only 1/4 of a mile long (1/2 mile to do the out-and-back) and has interpretive signs along the entire length.

The signs represent each stage in the area’s geological history and talk about the forces that shapregionhe area and plants and animals that thrived during different periods.

The kids loved running up to each sign and looking at the animals that once inhabited this now seebarrenpitable place.

geologic time trail at the clarno unit of the john day national monument

The views along this stretch were beautiful as we followed along these ancient cliffs and had stunning views out over the hills of Central Oregon.

At the end of this trail, you can do either of the following two trails; the Trail of Fossils and the Clarno Arch Trail.

Weather at the Clarno Unit

The day we visited the Clarno Unit, it was in the mid-80s with almost no wind. This might not usually feel too hot, but walking along the cliffs made it much hotter!

Our kids are usually pretty good about hiking, but after a mile, they were starting to get pretty beat!

This area is very exposed to the elements, so on cold, windy, or hot days, the impact of the elements can feel even more intense.

If you’re looking to avoid spending too much time outside but still want to see some of the highlights of the Clarno Unit, then I’d recommend parking at the first pull-out and making a quick loop of the trail of fossils first. If you’re still feeling good, you can also add on the Clarno Arch trail.

The Geologic Trail is fascinating but primarily serves as a connector between the main parking lot and the fossil and arch trails.

Trail of Fossils

Trail of Fossils at the Clarno Unit

The Trail of Fossils at the Clarno Unit is a short 1/4 mile loop trail through boulders that have fallen over the years from the cliffs above.

This trail begins at the end of the Geologic Time trail, which is also at the small parking area along highway 218.

Out of all the trails at the Clarno Unit, this is probably the most well-known and often hiked.

There is a good reason for this! Where else can you pull off the highway and immediately take a walk through rocks containing ancient fossils?

There are a ton of boulders to wander through, with small interpretive signs scattered throughout the trail helping to point out what fossils you may be able to find.

Along the trail, leaf fossils and petrified wood are embedded within the rocks. Half the fun is finding the fossils, so I won’t spill any secrets on the best spots to look!

Clarno Arch Trail

Clarno Arch Trail at the Clarno Unit

If you feel like stretching your legs a little further and heading up to the base of the cliffs above, I’d recommend taking the short hike (1/2 mile round trip) along the final trail at the Clarno Unit, the Clarno Arch Trail.

The Clarno Arch Trail starts at the same spot as the Trail of Fossils and has a little elevation gain as you head up to the cliffs above. I wouldn’t say any part of the trail is all that steep, but climbing the trail and walking right along the hot cliffs on a warm day can wear you out quickly!

I loved this trail section as you can get a good look at these beautiful rock formations up close.

At the top of the trail is a small arch up in the cliffs (hence the trail name) and two large petrified wood logs embedded in the cliff face. There is also a bench and a few boulders that offer pleasant shade from the afternoon sun!

From here, it’s just a matter of making your way back to the car. You’ve seen it all at this small but interesting park.

Places to Stay and Eat near the Clarno Unit

I hate to say it, but you’re on your own when it comes to food or lodging at the Clarno unit. The closest options for both will be 18 miles to the east in the town of Fossil, Oregon.

Fossil offers a few campgrounds as well as a small motel and B&B. They also have two restaurants, although their hours can be hit or miss. Fossil also has a merchantile/grocery store for grab-and-go snacks.

This really is a spot that I’d recommend stopping at when passing through to other attractions rather than making it a dedicated trip.

One Last Note About the Clarno Unit

Remember that the Clarno Unit is part of a national monument designed to be enjoyed by you and generations to come.

So please stay on the trails and DO NOT collect any rocks or fossils from the area. If you hike the trail of fossils, you will probably notice areas where people have attempted to break fossils off of the rocks. This is a huge bummer, so please don’t follow in their footsteps.

If you want to collect your own fossils, then head down the road to Fossil, Oregon, to visit their public dig site. Here you can dig up and take home as many fossils as you’d like.

About the author
Derek Carlson
Pacific Northwest native, cross-country skier, hiker, mountain biker, wannabe fly fisherman, writer and owner of Roam the Northwest