I am now convinced that the central part of eastern Oregon is a hidden secret. I knew very little about it, and it’s barely mentioned in most literature about the state. Imagine our surprise when we drove east on Highway 26 and encountered spectacular scenery. Beautiful hills, green valleys and dramatic rock formations were just a few of the sights that kept our eyes glued to the sides of the road. The portion of Highway 26 that we drove is not listed as a scenic byway, but it should be. The fact that we encountered very few cars on the road made the drive even more pleasant.
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument contains one of the richest and most varied fossil beds in the world and encompasses one of the longest and most continuous records of evolutionary change. The fossils here are extraordinarily well preserved specimens.
The museum at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center presents the story of the fossils in a way that the average person can understand. The specimens on display are presented as parts of eight ancient ecosystems, or assemblages. Although the fossils of mammals were cool, my favorites were the plants, perhaps because you can actually see an entire leaf or frond preserved in rock and not have to image what an animal might have looked like. A picture window into the laboratory at the center allowed us to watch scientists at work. Fossils are still being unearthed through partnerships with researchers and other institutions.
|Tim Enjoyed the Exhibits at the Fossil Museum Gallery|
|Fossils of Plants Are Cool|
|Fossils of Mammals Are Also Cool|
|We Watched Scientists at Work in the Laboratory|
Even if no fossils had been discovered at John Day, the landscape alone would be worth a visit. The park is broken into three geographic units, and each one has unique attributes. Painted Hills is the most dramatic, with a landscape colored with deep crimson and gold. It’s almost as if a watercolor artist had taken a brush to the hills. We were there in the middle of the day, and I can only imagine what it must look like in late afternoon sun.
|The Painted Hills Unit Is Spectacular|
|The Colors Hardly Seem Real|
|What a Beautiful Sight!|
|Imagine the Colors at Sunset!|
The drive between the Painted Hills and Sheep Rock units was just as spectacular, with more colorful rocks and interesting geological features. The rock formations at Sheep Rock were spectacular including Cathedral Rock and Sheep Rock peak, which has become an icon for North American paleontology.
|The Drive to Sheep Rock Along the John Day River|
|Sculpted Green Capstone|
Clarno unit is known for its towering Palisades. Here we hiked among the cliffs and saw leaf fossils up close. This is the only trail in the park where you can readily see fossils in the rocks.
|Fossils Along the Trail|
John Day is one of the “greenest” parks we’ve been to, and the use of renewable energy, including solar and wind, is a high priority. The park also interprets evolution and climate change, which is not typically presented at most parks. How could you talk about fossils that range in age from six to fifty-four million years without interpreting these themes? It’s what this park is all about.
|James Cant Ranch - The Park Even Interprets Its Cultural History|
When we left the Sheep Rock unit of John Day, we did follow one of Oregon’s scenic byways. The aptly named Journey Through Time Scenic Byway winds through much of north central Oregon, and a long section parallels the John Day River. The John Day Wild and Scenic River is North America’s second longest undammed river, but we mostly saw the scenic part. This drive equaled yesterday’s drive in dramatic scenery, and it only made me want to return to eastern Oregon to see what else this region has to offer.