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.

Petrified Forest National Park (AZ)

Petrified wood is a mysterious byproduct of geological processes. A petrified log looks just like wood on the outside but is usually a jumble of colorful quartz on the inside. How did this come to be?

Here too in Petrified Forest National Park is the Painted Desert, the name given to the “badlands” whose outrageous colors layer the eroded slopes in the northern part of the park. It’s hard to describe the impact that this riot of colors has on your traditional notions of landscapes. The Painted Desert actually extends beyond the park, reaching as far as the Grand Canyon and the northern part of Arizona, like a giant horseshoe. The intensity of the pastel colors changes depending on the time of day; the most breathtaking canvas is reserved for sunrise and sunset.

Painted Desert

Painted Desert

The biggest log specimens are found in the Giant Logs trail at the park’s southern end, including “Old Faithful,” 9½ feet in diameter. Old Faithful is a good example of permineralized wood (see Geology Notes). Here we came across a collared lizard who was happy to pose for all the photographers.

Old Faithful

Old Faithful

A few miles up the road is the Crystal Forest whose floor is still strewn with petrified fragments and sections of logs, even after years of specimen collecting by thoughtless tourists.

Crystal Forest is still littered with petrified wood and fragments

Crystal Forest is still littered with petrified wood and fragments

The eeriest trail in the park is Blue Mesa where the highly eroded hillsides of blue and gray bentonite clay gives the impression of an alien landscape. Here you can also see petrified wood in rubble piles where they fell from eroding hillsides.

Blue Mesa

Blue Mesa

Since taking specimens from the national park is illegal, you can purchase petrified wood at the many rock shops in the area. These stores presumably get their stock from private land. You can see them along Interstate 40. In Holbrook, where we stayed, Rainbow Rock Shop on Navajo Blvd has two dinosaur models made out of cement and reinforcing bars. There are piles of petrified wood all over the place, including some really nice, polished specimens displayed inside.

Petrified Forest was the last place we visited in the Southwest before returning home.

Geology notes: The geologic layer that is prominently exposed in the park is the Chinle formation. It is probably the easiest formation to identify in the Southwest because of its highly friable, typically sloping sides that result from its composition of siltstone, mudstone and claystone, and because of its characteristic layers of pastel colors. When exposed to wind and rain, it erodes rapidly to form sloping hills and narrow gullies. It is in this layer that petrified wood is typically found. Because Chinle erodes rapidly, new petrified wood is exposed all the time.

Over 200 million years ago, ancient conifers were buried by sediment and volcanic ash. This phenomenon must have been sudden because entire trees were buried and subsequently petrified. This graveyard is devoid of oxygen to hasten the decay of the wood. Then quickly, petrification begins. In some cases, the minerals in the water filled up the very cells of the plant, thereby preserving the very structure of the wood. This process is called permineralization. In most cases, however, large-scale replacement of organic matter took place where very little, if none of the plant’s original structure remained.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park (Escalante, UT)

Permineralized wood

You don’t have to go to Petrified Forest National Park to see petrified wood. Along Highway 12, north out of Bryce Canyon National Park, we stopped at Petrified Forest State Park that has some splendid examples of petrified wood. As soon as you take the trail into the hills, you begin to notice some pastel-shaded soils of green, purple and gray. It looks like someone dumped a lot of colored chalk, when in fact these hills are eroded layers of mostly shale of a geologic layer(s) known as the Chinle Formation, where petrified material is typically found. This formation is found in great abundance throughout the Colorado Plateau.

The soil has a pastel green appearance along the trail to petrified wood samples

The main trail (Petrified Forest Trail) is a one-mile loop, littered with thousands of petrified wood samples, a hike that we easily fit between Bryce and Capitol Reef.

Various elements like carbon, iron and manganese give petrified wood its colors

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (UT)

At 1.9 million acres, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) is the largest park in the Southwest, but one of the least visited. This is one big mother of a park, complete with all the geologic wonders that make the Southwest so visually stunning—hoodoos, slot canyons, buttes, mesas, towering cliffs, all in brilliant colors of vermillion, burnt orange, golds, pinks, purples—and man-made ones (ruins and petroglyphs). Its sprawling size and points-of-interest that are widely spaced apart, not to mention the largely undeveloped roads, make it unlikely to become a tourist magnet anytime soon. Most of the secondary roads become impassable in heavy rain or snow. Its national monument status was conferred by President Clinton only in 1996. As its name suggests, the park is part of the enormous and geologically unique formation, spread over two states, called the Grand Staircase. Think of it literally as a stairway that, at its lowest point, starts at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, stepping in ever higher elevations through the North Rim, Chocolate Cliffs, Escalante, Zion National Park, Bryce, and ending up the Aquarius Plateau at a dizzying 11,000 feet in elevation.

Image from wikipedia (click to enlarge)

To get to Bryce from Page, we had to backtrack westward on Highway 89 along the southern edge of GSENM, then cut through the national monument along the unimproved Cottonwood Canyon Road, which parallels a geologic formation known as the Cockscomb Monocline. This is not really just a way to get to Bryce but another spectacular Southwest scenic area.

Specializing in paleontology, the Big Water Visitor Center on the southern end of Highway 89 is a fascinating place to visit. Inside, there are a 30-foot mural that depicts the Cretaceous period and a complete dinosaur fossil. The enthusiastic ranger there told us that a complete dinosaur fossil is found on average once a month in the park.

Big Water Visitors Center specializes in paleontology

Big Water Visitors Center specializes in paleontology

Here we picked up a handout that identified the points-of-interest along 47-mile-long Cottonwood Canyon Road, including a 90-million-year-old oyster bed, some slot canyons, Grosvenor Arch and Kodachrome Basin State Park.

Oyster fossils are 95 million years old.

Oyster fossils are 95 million years old

Most of these were very hard to find; in fact, the handout relies on using your car’s odometer to locate them. Signs along the road were also not very explicit. A couple of the hikes were fruitless because they weren’t well marked. We wandered around without finding anything that resembled a trail. At least, attempting to find the trail to Lower Hackberry canyon, there was an sandstone upthrust that was immense.

Uplift along Cottonwood

Our car is dwarfed by this uplift

Another trail led to a boulder-littered slot canyon, definitely not conducive to an easy hike.

Boulder-strewn slot canyon

Boulder-strewn slot canyon

We finally salvaged something out of the day when we found Grosvenor Arch, the first arch (a double arch, in fact) we saw on our trip.

Grosvenor Arch

The double arches of Grosvenor Arch

The Cockscomb, more formally known as the East Kaibab Monocline, is so named for the alternating layers of white and red rock, like a rooster’s cockscomb, that lie almost vertically along the Cottonwood Canyon Road, as if these layers were tilted from folding over.

Cockscomb layering along the East Kaibab Monocline

Cockscomb layering along the East Kaibab Monocline

You can easily spend a week to explore the many geological wonders here. If you’re willing to do considerable off-roading, hiking and canyoneering, there are many splendors to experience that many visitors to the park will never see.