May 6, 2012

Journey Through Time

Every now and then we have days that completely take us by surprise.  Yesterday and today were two of those days.  Our destination was the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in eastern Oregon.  It sounded like an interesting place, but I really had no expectations about what we might see.  What we saw, both at the park and on our way to the park, completely blew us away.  The park was fascinating, and the drive was gorgeous.  In fact, Tim decided that this drive was one of his favorites of the trip.

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
Cathedral Rock
Sheep Rock
Sculpted Green Capstone
Picture Gorge
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.

The Palisades
Craggy Cliffs
Leaf Impression
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.


  1. Spectacular! When I first saw the Painted Hills photo I thought it was a painting! I have never heard of this park. It certainly is a hidden gem. LV

    1. LV, The park was spectacular, and the photographs don't even capture the amazing colors. It's always fun to find hidden gems. Sarah

  2. What beautiful scenery . That does se like a beautiful part of the country.

    1. Eastern Oregon is a beautiful part of the country. It may not be quite as scenic when the green fields turn to brown, but the geology would still be incredible. Sarah