John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (OR)

Painted Hills Unit

One of the most visually striking areas in the Pacific Northwest is one that looks strangely Southwestern. In the arid deserts of eastern Oregon, there are formations that are as unusual as anything in Arizona. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is also a mother lode for fossils from the Cenozoic era when ancient mammals (including dogs, cats, camels, horses, giant sloths and rhinos) roamed the area. Several catastrophic events, volcanic eruptions from the ancestral Cascades, buried these mammals alive under enormous layers of ash, going back as much as 40mya. To this day, after heavy rains, fossils are continually being exposed and studied by vertebrate paleontologists at a field station at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, also serving as the visitor center.

John Day is in a remote part of Oregon. There are small towns nearby, but the closest large city is Bend, almost a two-hour drive away. The three units of John Day are not contiguous. In fact, they are separated by many miles, so that a visit to all three in a single day will be a challenge, especially if you, like us, have accommodations in Bend.

The most startling unit is the Painted Hills (top photo), highly eroded layers of claystones of golds, yellows, reds and blacks. About 3 miles square, the area has a badlands appearance that appears more spectacular the further away you view it. Though the hike to the end of the Overlook Trail gave us an impressive view of these hills, a more panoramic vista was even more so from the Carroll Rim Trail, further away. One puzzle is that a layer of a specific color does not continue across to adjacent hills, as it would if it were uninterrupted.

Nearby, the Painted Cove Trail, 0.25-mile long, consists of a boardwalk that gets you up close to the red, lavender and gold claystones. From interpretive panels along the way, you learn that bentonite clay expands greatly when wet and becomes very sticky, contracts when drying out to form its popcorn-textured appearance. In sections that were not boarded, saturated mud clung tenaciously to our hiking boots until we jet-sprayed it off when we got home.

Painted Cove Trail
Popcorn-like bentonite clay

The Sheep Rock unit provided another kind of experience. The Blue Basin Trail showcases blue-greenish gray hills, highly eroded and containing many fossil specimens deposited over a 40-million-year span. There are a few fossils displayed along the trail, encased in plastic capsules exactly where they were found.

Most of John Day’s fossils are found in the blue-green hills, such as along Blue Basin Trail.

Since it was late in the afternoon, we failed to make it to the Clarno Unit, the oldest at John Day at between 35-50 million years. Fossilized plant life discovered here indicates that this used to be an evergreen tropical forest. Proto-mammals roamed here, too, many of which have no descendants today. We drove back to Bend in time for dinner.

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