Central Oregon Hiking John Day Oregon Trip report

Clarno Unit – John Day Fossil Beds and Spring Basin Wilderness

We officially kicked off our 2017 hiking season on 4/22 with a pair of hikes near Clarno, OR. The first was a 1.4 mile at the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. We parked at the day use picnic area 3.4 miles east of the John Day River bridge at Clarno.

Clarno Unit Trailhead

From the parking area we took the .3 mile Geologic Time Trail west toward the dramatic rock formations called The Palisades.

Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

The trail was lined with golden fiddleneck blossoms and passed several interpretive signs describing the history of the area that created the amazing features.

Fiddleneck along the trail at Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

The Geologic Time Trail ended at a junction with the .2 mile Trail of Fossils loop. Here we turned uphill to the right passing more interpretive signs. These helped identify fossils in the nearby rocks.

Interpretive sign Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

Leaf fossil at Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

Leaf fossils Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

Interpretive sign Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

The loop descended to a second possible trailhead where another trail, the .2 mile Arch Trail, split to the right (west) near a large signboard.

The Palisades Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

This short trail led uphill to the base of a rock arch along The Palisades.

Rock Arch Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

The views along the trail were amazing both across the highway and up close to the rocks.

Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

Looking south toward the Spring Basin Wilderness

Rock pillar Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

Rock wall along the Palisades - Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

Just before the rock arch was a sign describing a pair of fossilized logs 40 feet above the trail. For some reason neither of us could see them despite spending a few minutes searching. After visiting the rock arch, we paused again to look for the logs. This time they were easily spotted up in the wall of rocks above the sign.

Looking up at the rock arch

Petrified tree trunks in the rock walls of the Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

We returned to the Trail of Fossils loop and completed it then took the Geologic Time Trail back to the picnic area where another car was just pulling in. These were really interesting hikes and a great warm-up for our next stop, the nearby Spring Basin Wilderness.

Designated a wilderness in 2009 the 6,404 acre Spring Basin Wilderness has no official trails but similar to nearby Sutton Mountain old jeep tracks and open terrain make exploring the area fairly easy.  The wilderness is located south of Highway 218 across from the Clarno Unit.

For our visit we were planning on following the route described in the Third Edition of William L. Sullivan’s “100 Hikes/Travel Guide Eastern Oregon” (Hike #18). From the Clarno Unit we drove back toward Clarno 1.9 miles and turned left onto gravel Clarno Rd. After 3.2 miles we parked on the left at a pullout near a lone juniper tree. An outdated wilderness sign declaring a wilderness study area indicated that we were at the correct spot.

Wilderness signpost at the Spring Basin Wilderness

A faint but clear path led into the wilderness toward a draw on the horizon.

Spring Basin Wilderness

The views were dramatic from the start with jagged rock formation and green rolling hills.

Sun and shadows as seen from the Spring Basin Wilderness

View from the Spring Basin Wilderness

Spring Basin Wilderness

The path led us up into the draw passing a number of different types of wildflowers.





Prairie stars

Prairie stars

Balloon pod milkvetch

Balloon pod milkvetch


Another type of milkvetch





There was one flower that had not yet started to bloom that we had never seen before and we still aren’t sure what it was.

Wildflower getting ready to bloom in the Spring Basin Wilderness

After 1.3 miles the path reached a ridge top junction with an old jeep track marked by a rock cairn.

Spring Basin Wilderness

Near the junction we spotted the first of many hedgehog cactus.

Hedgehog cactus

None of the blossoms were open and we mistakenly thought we were a week or so too early to see them in full bloom. As we would discover later the blossoms would open to the Sun later in the day.

Hedgehog cactus

We turned left onto the jeep track and headed toward a knoll on the horizon.

Spring Basin Wilderness

We followed the track around the side of the knoll then turned uphill and went cross country to the summit marked by another cairn.

Spring Basin Wilderness

John Day River from the Spring Basin Wilderness

Our goal, Horse Mountain, was slightly southeast of the knoll.

Spring Basin Wilderness

To reach the summit of that mountain without having to lose and regain too much elevation Sullivan’s route called for a .9 mile cross country route due east through a juniper grove then up a draw to find the jeep track once again on the ridge line.

Spring Basin Wilderness

We surveyed the landscape and picked out the juniper grove before heading back down the knoll to the jeep track.

Juniper grove in the Spring Basin Wilderness

We followed the jeep track north a short distance to a low point then descended into a draw and headed for the grove. The initial descent was a little steeper than it had appeared from the knoll but it was not a problem and we made it to the junipers without any difficulty.

Juniper grove

Juniper grove in the Spring Basin Wilderness

From the grove we climbed up the draw we’d seen to the jeep track and turned right toward Horse Mountain.

Spring Basin Wilderness

On the ridge we found more hedgehog cactus amid other many other wildflowers.

Wildflowers in the Spring Basin Wilderness

Hedgehog cactus

We stuck to the jeep track for approximately 3/4 of a mile then veered off toward Horse Mountain when the track turned left amid more junipers.

Horse Mountain in the Spring Basin Wilderness

Our initial plan was to sidehill up to a saddle along Horse Mountain but we found it was actually easier to head directly uphill so we wound up gaining the ridge near it’s western end which was dotted with balsamroot.


Balsamroot in the Spring Basin Wilderness

We then followed the ridge up to the summit of Horse Mountain.

Horse Mountain

Along the way we passed a lone daggerpod in bloom,some lupine plants that were just beginning to show buds, and more hedgehog cactus.

Horse Mountain


Biscuitroot and hedghog cactus in the Spring Basin Wilderness

A small rock cairn marked the summit of Horse Mountain.

Horse Mountain summit in the Spring Basin Wilderness

The 360 degree view was spectacular. We sat on some rocks and examined the scenery.

View from the summit of Horse Mountain

View from the summit of Horse Mountain

View from the summit of Horse Mountain

Spring Basin Wilderness

To the far south the snowy Ochoco Mountains lined the horizon.

Lookout Mountain from Horse Mountain

It was amazingly peaceful on the summit. The only sounds were bird songs and the low hum of insects buzzing about. If the rocks had been a little softer we could have stayed for hours. As it was we eventually headed back down to the jeep track which we thought about following all the way back to the knoll. We had seen quite a few caterpillars on the ground all morning but now there seemed to be more and they were moving about.



From the ridge The Palisades of the Clarno Unit were visible to the north.

The Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds from the Spring Basin Wilderness

Raven with the Palisades of the Clarno Unit in the distance

After looking more closely at the map we decided that the jeep track swung out a little more than we were willing to do so we instead took a slightly different off trail route to the knoll.

Spring Basin Wilderness

We wound up climbing up the same draw we’d descended earlier in the day and regained the jeep track below the knoll. We then returned to the rock cairn and descended the gully back to our car ending our hike at 7.4 miles. We had been on the alert for rattlesnakes all day but had not seen nor heard any. That changed on our drive back to the highway. We spotted at least 4 rattlers sunning themselves on Clarno Road. Happy Trails!

Flickr: Clarno Unit and Spring Basin Wilderness

Central Oregon Hiking John Day Oregon Trip report

Painted Hills and Sutton Mountain

We have lived in Oregon all our lives and yet neither of us had ever been to the Painted Hills in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. We finally made it there on a weekend trip to Central Oregon. We had headed to Bend after work on Friday and planned on visiting the Painted Hills then checking out a pair of nearby wilderness study areas – Pat’s Cabin and Sutton Mountain.

The Painted Hills Unit is one of three units making up the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. It is located 10 miles NW of Mitchell, OR and contains five short hiking trails ranging from the .2 mile Painted Cove Loop to the 1.6 mile round trip Carroll Rim Trail. We began our visit at the Painted Hills Overlook Trailhead.
Painted Hills Overlook Trailhead

We had gotten our usual early morning start and had arrived a little before 7am. The Sun was just coming up over Sutton Mountain to the east and the sky was partly cloudy creating some interesting lighting.
Sun coming over Sutton Mountain from the Painted HIlls

The .3 mile Painted Hills Overlook Trail began at this trailhead and provided some great views of the Painted Hills, Carroll Rim, and Sutton Mountain.
Painted Hills Overlook Trail

Painted Hills

Painted Hills

Painted HIlls

Painted HIlls

Painted HIlls

There had been one other car at the trailhead but its occupant never left that area so it was just us on the trail with a host of birds that remained unseen but whose songs filled the air. The wildflowers on the other hand remained silent but stood out with their splashes of color.

Golden Bee Plant
Golden Bee Plant


Rough eyelash weed
Rough eyelash weed

Tolmie’s Onion
Tolmie's Onion


Uropappus lindleyi; Silverpuffs

After returning to the trailhead we walked across Bear Creek Road to the Carroll Rim Trail which climbs almost 400′ in .8 miles to a rimrock viewpoint.
Carroll Rim Trail

The Painted Hills stole the show, but there were other sights along this trail as well including our fist encounter with chukars.
Painted Hills from the Carroll Rim Trail

Painted Hills from the Carroll Rim Trail

Painted Hills from the Carroll Rim Trail

Carroll Rim







Orange globe mallow

From the Painted Hills Overlook Trailhead we drove 1.2 miles following signs to the Painted Cove Loop Trailhead. Here a .2 mile loop passes colorful claystone formations.



A short side trail forked off to the left leading to a viewpoint above the Painted Cove. While we were at the viewpoint Heather spotted a Coyote across the road.


There was also a nice bloom of John Day Pincushion on the hillside.

Next we headed to the Leaf Hill Trail traveling back the way we’d come and following signs to the trailhead.

This loop passes around a small hill containing many fossils (we didn’t spot any though).



Finally we visited the Red Hill Trail which leads to a close up view of a hill of red and yellow ash.



Near the end of the trail we spotted our first ever bitteroot flowers. They were just beginning to open but it was exciting nonetheless given we had looked for these on other hikes and failed to find any.

Our next destination for the day was a bit of a wild-card. While I was doing research for the Sutton Mountain hike I had seen references to another nearby wilderness study area calls Pat’s Cabin. i wasn’t able to find much information about it, but I did find a 2011 BLM map of the area showing a trail going up Pat’s Cabin Canyon. Internet searches turned up nothing in regards to the trail so we decided that we would check it out in person. The BLM map showed a parking area along Burnt Ranch Road just before reaching the Twickenham-Bridge Creek Cuttoff Road. We parked in a grassy area next to an old corral near a sign for the Burnt Ranch and Priest Hole Recreation Sites.


From there we crossed Burnt Ranch Road and passed through a barb wire gate on an old dirt road. After approximately a quarter mile we came to a sign marking the boundary of the wilderness study area.

Just on the other side of the sign was Bridge Creek. Bridge Creek lacked a bridge here and the flow was swifter and deeper than we were comfortable with trying to ford. Later in the year it may have been doable but on this day Pat’s Cabin would remain a mystery to us.

Our final destination for the day was on the other side of Sutton Mountain so we drove to Mitchell and turned north onto Highway 207 for 9.3 miles. We were hoping to spot two things during our Sutton Mountain hike that we had not yet seen during a hike, pronghorns and hedgehog cactus. We spotted some pronghorns in a field before we even made it to the trailhead.


That didn’t count since we weren’t on the hike yet, but it was still neat to see them.

The trailhead we were looking for was located just beyond milepost 15 behind a wire gate in a grassy meadow with lots of signs of cattle.

An old roadbed serves as the trail.

We followed the roadbed along a wire fence to a private barn. There were horses on the other side of the fence and cows on our side. We hesitated for a moment when we realized there was also a bull, but after he gave us a look he headed away toward the barn. The roadbed turned uphill to the left so we began to climb.

There were a few wildflowers and as we climbed we began seeing more, especially different colors of paintbrush.

Sagebrush false dandelion

Wild onion

Prairie star






There was also plenty of lupine but much of it had not even started to bloom.

A mile from the trailhead the roadbed curved to the right across a dry wash. On this side of the wash the lupine was further along and a few more flowers made appearances.




As we climbed the trees gave way to grassy meadows where wildflowers dotted the ground with color.

Maybe a grass widow

Old man’s whiskers


An arnica



Just over a mile after crossing the dry wash we arrived at an old corral and another barb wire fence. A roadbed continued straight from the corral but the correct route turned left and continued uphill on a fainter old roadbed on the far side of the corral and fence.


We spotted additional wildflowers as we continued to climb.

Dwarf yellow fleabane

Shooting star

The fence eventually disappeared but we just stuck to the roadbed which was easy enough to follow. The open meadows allowed for some great views including the bottom portion of Mt. Jefferson.



As we were taking in the views we spotted some pronghorns on the opposite hillside.


They were a lot further away than those we spotted in the car but at least now we could say we had seen some while hiking.

Just under a mile and a half from the old corral the roadbed came to a pass where it curved to the right and continued to the NW. Our goal, the summit of Sutton Mountain, was to our SE though so we left the roadbed here and headed uphill along the rim cliff.

We had seen our pronghorns but not a hedgehog cactus which we knew to bloom in the area in late April or early May. We had nearly given up hope as we neared the summit when Heather spotted the first one.

They seemed to only be present in a small area along the rim and then only on the SW facing slope.



We spent quite a while studying the different cacti before finally making our way to the official summit where we took a break and admired the view.


Mt. Jefferson in the distance and the Painted Hills unit below.


Lookout Mountain in the Ochocos.

Many butterflies were out as we returned the way we’d come.




We returned the way we’d come and found that the cows had moved from their earlier location and now the trailhead was crowded.

The cows had thoroughly inspected our car leaving smudges in the dust along the body and drivers side window where they had licked the vehicle.

It was a wonderful day of hiking. It had been warm but not too hot which was nice given the lack of shade on these hikes. There was a great variety of wildflowers and wildlife including several of each that were new to us, and there were birds signing almost everywhere we were. We couldn’t recall another hike with as much birdsong, much of which came from western meadowlarks. For what it’s worth Sutton Mountain made its case to for becoming an officially designated wilderness. Happy Trails!