The Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds are home to plenty of interesting rock formations, many with fossilized remains of plant and animal life over 40 million years old embedded right in them. The rock formations were created around 44 million years ago when lahars, or volcanic mudflows, swept over the landscape, burying the ancient, diverse prehistoric life with it. Now, you can mosey through this interesting and desolate landscape and, by getting away from the main visitor area right off the highway, have a beautiful hike and likely see almost no one.
To begin your hike, look for a parking area right before the gates of the Hancock Field Station. The field station is a small enclave of private land, predating the national monument. Study of the many fossils of the area is conducted there, and it is home to OMSI’s Camp Hancock during the summer. But, it’s also private, so respect their privacy and stay outside their boundary.
If you look across the road to the north, you will see a trail heading across a flat, grassy area towards a canyon. This is your trail. This area is very remote so don’t’ expect to find trail signs and markers. The trail will travel through the broad, flat valley for about a 1/3 of a mile before you come to a small stock pond. There is also a nice view of Red Hill from here. Continue heading up the canyon as it begins to narrow. There will also be more and more cool rock formations along the hillsides.
About ¾ of a mile from the trailhead, you will reach a second stock pond. There is a faint trail veering right here and heading up the hillside, but you don’t want to take that. Well maybe you do but it won’t get you to Red Hill, which is the name of this hike, so if you don’t even go there it’s got a stupid name. So continue heading up the canyon.
Another ¼ mile will get you to a fork in the canyons. Head to the left here and enjoy the adventure as the canyon really narrows up. You will have to scamper up small drops along the canyon floor and in some places, it hugs the side on a narrow ledge. It only drops about 5 feet below that though, so don’t worry about your fear of heights or anything. This is also the stretch where you can find a fossilized tree embedded in the cliff face. Its really cool.
After exiting the canyon, the trail will begin climbing the ridgeline that runs along the backside of the monument. Views extend in all directions here, with Iron Mountain to the north, Black Rock towering over the John Day River to the west, or the endless parade of hills disappearing into the horizon to the south. The trail follows along the ridge as it begins winding and dropping down towards Red Hill. You will pass a couple trails before reaching Red Hill heading down different canyons. Those will both take you into the Hancock Field Station, so avoid those.
Two and a half miles into the hike, you will drop down onto Red Hill. The Red Clay the makes up the hill is caused by rich amounts of iron and aluminum in the soil, deposited during a tropical time period. The trail travels right along the ridgetop above the red clay before crossing over its face and heading down in front of it. The views and experience are awesome.
After descending Red Hill, there seem to be a lot of rail options. You will first head down the trail as it follows a fence line, but then the main trail will veers to the right as it continues down the canyon. After heading down the canyon for only a tenth of a mile, the trails will fork again. This time you will want to head to the right and up and over a small saddle to the next drainage. The trail heading down the canyon you were in also leads to the Hancock Field Station, as does the next one the climbs a small hill on top of the saddle. Once you reach the next drainage, again only 0.1 miles from the last one, follow the trail that heads down the sandy creek and then loops back around towards the road. You will reach the road in about 2/3 of a mile and your car in a mere tenth of a mile up the road from there.
From Madras, head north on Highway 97 for 17 miles to the small farming community of Willowdale. Just before heading up the steep grade of Cow Canyon, make a left onto 293 towards Antelope and Clarno. Follow this windy road for 13 miles until you reach Antelope, and then make a right onto 218. From there, it is 17 miles to the Clarno Unit. There will be a gravel road on you left heading towards the Hancock Field Station. The views as you crest over the breaks and begin heading down towards the John Day are pretty impressive. The trailhead will be on your left. Take this road and drive down it for 0.6 miles until you reach the parking area just outside the field station.
Passes: No passes are required.
Dogs: Allowed and must be on leash or under voice command at all times.
Open Season: Open and accessible all year. Area can be scorching hot in the summer. Spring is a nice time to visit when the bunchgrasses are still green and the temperature is pleasent.