Monday, February 6, 2012

John Day Fossil Beds: An Oregon Treasure

As you drive through Eastern Oregon passing miles of arid, sagebrush covered hills, it is difficult to imagine the landscape was once a lush subtropical forest filled with banana, cashew, and fig trees and the home to rhinos, saber-toothed tigers, and pigs as big as buffalos. Millions of years ago, the region received over 100-inches of rainfall annually; today, only 14. How scientists know these facts and what happened to create such drastic changes are some of the stories that unfold at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
Located about 75 miles east of Bend in the John Day River Basin, the park consists of three units covering 14,000 acres. The fossil beds are some of the richest in the world and present an almost continuous 40-million years of flora and fauna. Their importance as a paleontological site led Congress to designate the area a national monument in 1975.
Condon Paleontology Center
A good place to begin a visit is the Sheep Rock Unit home to the new Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. Condon, a missionary pastor in The Dalles, had a strong interest in geology and was the first to explore and catalog fossils in the region in the 1860s. Half of the building bearing his name serves as a research center drawing scientists from all over, while the other half houses an excellent interpretive center. Using murals, actual fossils discovered in the John Day Basin, and other artifacts, the museum shows the evolving landscape from tropical to grassland to hardwood forest; the geologic events that triggered these changes; and the types of plants and animals that inhabited the land over the past 50-million years. A window in the lobby allows visitors to observe paleontologists working on fossil specimens.

James Cant Ranch House
Across the road from the center is the James Cant Ranch House, a former sheep ranch dating back to the early 1900s when wool was an important commodity in central Oregon. Exhibits tell the history of human settlement in the area from Native Americans to livestock ranchers.  Rooms look as they did 60-years ago, some with original furniture. Short trails lead to the John Day River and Sheep Rock Overlook offering a great view of the valley and the looming Sheep Rock Mountain. A short distance south of the center is the spectacular Picture Gorge on Route 26 and, to the north, is the Blue Basin where interpretive trails extend into the blue-green canyons.

Clarno Unit formations
In the Clarno Unit, about 20 miles from the town of Fossil, towering rocky pillars look more like they belong somewhere in the southwestern United States than in Oregon.  These cliffs of the Clarno Palisades were formed 40 million years ago when volcanic mud flows buried a forested landscape. Interpretive signs explain the volcanic action that created this environment, and the fossils of plants and animals trapped in time. From the picnic area, the short Trail of Fossils follows the base of the Palisades and provides a close up view of plant fossils in the rocks along the way.

By far, the most spectacular and colorful unit of the park is the Painted Hills area near the town of Mitchell. Here the bare, rolling hills are striped in vivid bands of gold, red, brown and black created by layers of volcanic ash containing different minerals. Over time, the ash was compacted and chemically changed into the colorful claystone of today. Two short walks in the unit are absolute musts.

 The Painted Hills Overlook trail is an easy walk along a ridge offering a variety of scenic vistas of the hills.

Painted Cove Trail
The nearby Painted Cove Trail provides a fascinating close-up examination of the textured, colorful hillocks.

Since the park’s units are separated by nearly 90 miles, it is wise to plan an overnight stay in the area. Towns and shade are few and far between so plan ahead and bring plenty of sunscreen and water.

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