Located in central Oregon, 240 miles from Portland and 100+ from Bend, the three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, offers a story of massive geologic events now painted in layers of multi-colored ash eroded by wind and time. The Painted Hills unit -- one of three including Clarno and Sheep Rock -- is best seen when the sun's angle if low. But even in full sun, the hills reveal their intense colors as muted and soft. Painted Hills (off highway 26) has a few short (1/4 to 1/2 mile) trails to get closer to hills. Sheep Rock (off highway 19) has the monuments headquarters and the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. There are no campsites in the national monument area but a few public sites in the general area like Ochoco Divide USFS campground with 28 sites on highway 26.
The Sheep Rock Unit is home to the Monument headquarters, as well as being the grounds where the most important fossils have been uncovered. A major factor in the discovery and resulting publicity was Thomas Condon. In memory of Mr. Condon’s trips not only is the county seat of Gilliam County named for him, but the new Thomas Condon Paleontological Center serves as both the central visitor center and museum for the entire monument, as well as the administrative center. The old headquarters can be found across the road - OR 19 just to the north at he Cant Ranch - a historic ranch house from the turn of the 20th century. High above all to the east stands Sheep Rock. A couple mile north brings you to the main tails to be found in this unit - Blue Basin. The Island in Time trail takes you 0.6 miles up an old creekbed past exhibits showing replicas of some of the fossils found here, like tortoises and saber-toothed tigers. Another trail circles above the Blue Basin gaining 1090 feet over the course of its 3.2 mile loop.
Some 30 million years ago, volcanic ash rained down and was washed into a lake basin along with plant material. The ash preserved the leaves long enough for impressions to be created under the pressure of succeeding rock layers. These are some of the fossils you can discover - and uncover - behind the football field at Wheeler High School. The most abundant fossils are leaves of the met sequoia - dawn redwood - a deciduous cousin of the Californian varieties - both of which are evergreen. Once thought to be extinct, the dawn redwood was rediscovered in central China in 1948 and they do well replanted in northwest soils - one I planted at a house I used to live at is up over 50 feet high now.
When the football field was dug out of the hillside here in the late 1940’s, the fossils were discovered - a few animals have also been uncovered amongst the vegetable debris. The beds can be visited by the general public and you can collect - for $5 - as many fossils as you can carry between your two hands. Most of the rocks contain leaf impressions so it shouldn’t take you too long, but you should know that the rock is very soft. You will want to wrap them up in something to preserve them after finding them. No special tools are really needed, but rock hammers are present for loan at the entry to the beds. A trail takes you to the beds around the edge of the football field. Notice the size of the high school with half of the school being taken up by the gymnasium.
I stopped to get fresh fruit at the retail stand at the orchard. They had an excellent selection of various fruits. It was fairly late in the season - October, so I didn't think they would have so much, but I guess the season is longer in that region. Everything was delicious. The retail stand also had products such as apple butter, jams and such. Prices were reasonable. The orchard also is open for u-pick, so that could be an activity for anyone visiting in the John Day Fossil Beds region.
Be sure to stock up on provisions before heading in to the John Day Fossil Beds region, especially if you're a vegetarian. There aren't too many places where you can buy fresh vegetables. The general store in Fossil is pretty good. They have a small but decent produce section, and also stock things like Nancy's yogurt, etc... They also sell some hardware and other things. In 2006, I stopped at the food market in the town of Mitchell. At that time, it had very little produce - it seemed to sell mainly canned and boxed foods -- nothing much fresh.
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