A trip to eastern Oregon’s John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is like visiting three parks in one. Divided into “units” — Sheep Rock, Clarno, and Painted Hills — and covering 14,000 acres, you’ll find each unit surprisingly distinct. The park itself is named for a river and not a man, but John Day was a real person who arrived in Oregon from Virginia in 1812. Mr. Day, however, is not known to have visited this area.
As the park’s name implies, fossils are the focus here, and every summer the park's paleontology staff collects, identifies, prepares, and preserves rare fossil specimens found throughout the park. Scientists also collect soil and rock samples to better understand the ancient ecosystems and climates of eastern Oregon. As you look around at today’s near desert environment, it’s hard to believe that 50 million years ago crocodiles and palm trees flourished her.
Sheep Rock Unit. The Sheep Rock Unit is named for the big horn sheep that live in the area, and a 1,100-foot high rock formation also bears the same name. The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center is the only visitor center at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, so be sure to stop here. Located on Highway 19 between the towns of Dayville and Kimberly, it’s just two miles from the junction of Highway 26 and Highway 19. Named for an Oregon minister and self-trained scientist, Thomas Condon was the first person to identify the John Day fossil basin as a world-class paleontological area. Mr. Condon began excavating fossils here in 1865, and in recognition of his scientific successes, was appointed the first Oregon State Geologist in 1872. Today, the Paleontology Center displays hundreds of fossils, and corresponding wall murals depict what some of the ancient animals must have looked like. You can also watch paleontologists working in the lab, and a hands-on area makes learning especially fun for kids.
One-quarter mile down the road from the Paleontology Center is the Cant Ranch Historical Museum. It serves as the monument headquarters and contains indoor and outdoor exhibits. James and Elizabeth Cant were Scottish immigrants who bought 700 acres in 1910, and built the house in 1917. In addition to raising four children, they raised wheat, alfalfa, and were sheep ranchers. The Cants were known to host many social events and often had house guests. The local schoolteacher even lived with the family and taught school in the third floor attic for a time. Photos and furnishings inside the house, and remnants of farm equipment outside, give you a good idea of how the Cant family lived.
Clarno Unit. To reach the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, head 18 miles west of the town of Fossil along Oregon’s 286-mile Journey Through Time Scenic Byway. Although it’s a near-desert environment today, had you visited 44 million years ago, you would have seen a jungle-like landscape inhabited by tiny four-toed horses, huge rhino-like creatures, and crocodiles. Volcanoes would have towered in the background. The Palisades is the most striking feature in the 1,969-acre Clarno Unit and is a remnant of the ancient volcanoes. The spires were formed by volcanic mudflows called lahars. The red, buff, and beige layers are known as tuff (a rock formed of compacted volcanic fragments). The greenish rock contains celadonite, a mineral in high iron content. Each layer has a unique chemical composition and color, depending on the time of the various volcanic eruptions.
For a closer look, stop at the Clarno Palisades picnic area. Three different quarter-mile hiking trails lead from here to the base of the cliffs. To see plant and nut fossils embedded in rocks, take the Trail of the Fossils. You won’t find dinosaur fossils here, though, because this part of the country was beneath the Pacific Ocean during the time of the dinosaurs. Petrified logs are visible in the cliff face of the Clarno Arch Trail, and interpretive signs along the Geologic Time Trail denote pre-historic events of the last 50 million years. Each foot of this trail represents 37,000 years! Keep in mind that you’re in rattlesnake country. If you see a snake, just back away slowly to let them know you mean no harm. But it's best to be on the safe side and wear snake gaiters— don't take a chance!
Painted Hills Unit. Nine miles northwest of Mitchell, Oregon just off Highway 26, the aptly-named Painted Hills Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is over 3,000 acres of scenic beauty. If you enjoy wildflowers— pink prairie clover, purple penstemon, yellow bells, white bitterroot, and many others—the best time to visit is late April or early May. But even if you miss peak bloom season, the vividly-hued layers of volcanic ash are amazing year-round. Contrasted by green sagebrush, the red, gold, beige, and black hummocks make for great photos, and the changing light and moisture content ensures these hills never look the same way twice.
The unique colors of the Painted Hills were formed by volcanic eruptions that sent clouds of ash over much of Central Oregon. Over time, layers of ash formed with different minerals, which led to the bands of color seen today. As the climate here changed, the layers of ash were covered by water and formed the bottom of a lakebed. After millennia, the lake eventually dried up, allowing wind and rain to erode and carve it into mounds. The black soil comes from the vegetation that once grew on the edge of the lake, and the red coloring attests to the fact that the area was once warm and humid. After exposure to air and water, the minerals in the volcanic ash oxidized and transformed into a kaleidoscope of claystone.
Although there are several trails, hikers should not walk on the Painted Hills themselves. The clay is very susceptible to erosion and damage. Stick to the boardwalk on the Painted Cove Trail, and to designated dirt trails elsewhere. Gaiters for hiking will help with the dust, but it's best to wear Snake Gaiters when wandering anywhere in Oregon's high desert areas.