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Common Fossils You Can Find in the John Day Basin

The rules about collecting—and not collecting: While the John Day Fossil Beds are a world-renowned fossil locality, they are now part of a National Monument, and also part of the National Park system. Collecting Fossils or rocks (or anything else) is prohibited on the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument without a permit—permits are granted only for research purposes. All collecting is also prohibited on the Pine Creek Ranch, Warm Springs Tribal lands. Collecting vertebrate fossils on other federal or state lands is prohibited without a permit. You may, however, collect plant and invertebrate (mollusk, worm, ammonite, trace fossils, etc.) Fossils on Federal BLM and U.S. Forest Services lands without a permit.


We can help connect you with a guide for a day of successful fossil hunting at the Wheeler High School Fossil Beds (collecting) or other localles (not collecting) for individuals, groups, school classes or families. Please call us at (541) 763-4480, contact us on Facebook or email


If you are going to look for fossils or rocks on your own, please check with local BLM and USFS field offices for up-to-date collecting information before you head out. And, please be sure you are on public lands for hiking and collecting. Our maps, brochures and Volunteers at the Oregon Paleo Lands Center are available to help you plan your visit(s).


About 100 million years ago, in the heyday of the dinosaurs, this was a rugged beach. The most abundant inhabitant was a coiled-shell mollusk known at an ammonite. These animals, relatives of the modern chambered nautilus, died out in the same extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. 


Paleocene fossils, 65-57 million years in age, are rare, but some have been found east of Pendleton. These plants are even more tropical that the Eocene Clarno plants (below).


Mudflows and stream deposits of the Clarno Formation, 57-35 million years old, yield fossil leaves of subtropical plants. Some of the most common fossil found in the mudflow deposits are simply casts of branches or limbs caught in fast-moving mudflows. In places where quieted waters prevailed, (lakes, ponds, and sluggish streams) common fossils include magnolia leaves, palm fronds and walnuts and walnut leaves. Older Eocene lakebeds and tuffs can yield bald cyprus needles and wood.


The easiest place to collect fossils in Wheeler County is at the Wheeler High School Fossil Beds in Fossil. Here, you’ll find well -preserved fossil leaves 32.5 million years old that fell into a shallow lake. The site is publicly accessible, and the small fee ($5.00) helps support the Fossil Public Schools. Common finds include Metasequoia, the Oregon State Fossil and a deciduous conifer, as well as oak, alder, maple, and sycamore leaves.

Links and PDFs

“Fossil Flora of the John Day Basin, Oregon”, a publication by Frank Knowlton, 1902.   Historically interesting, and a foundation for subsequent paleobotany:


Link to current catalogue of most plant fossils recognized on the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and other portions of the John Day Basin: 


Link to current catalogue of most common animal fossils found at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument:

Oregon Paleo Lands  
Institute Center

2024 Summer Hours

Thursday - Sunday 


*we will be closed

one hour for lunch

Want to Volunteer?

The Paleo Lands Center invites you, to meet the public and school groups at our educational hub of the John Day Basin. Volunteers can serve as Board Members, Advisors, Center helpers and docents and help share exciting natural history exhibits, brochures, and books with visitors and schools.
Please Contact the Center at

541-763-4480 or for details


Road and Weather Conditions


*Please call or email if you would like to schedule your school group for a visit during the week. Thank you!


Contact Information

333 West Fourth Street

Post Office Box 104

Fossil, OR 97830
Phone: (541) 763-4480




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