John Day Fossil Beds

Exploring Oregon’s geological history

story by Kim Cooper Findling

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We drove north and east out of Bend on a sunny spring day, passing through Prineville into the Ochoco Mountains and the sagebrush plains of the high desert beyond. Our destination: the John Day Fossil Beds, and a chance to explore some of the most amazing geological history in Oregon.

The 14,000-acre national monument in the center of Oregon is misnamed, in a way. John Day Fossil Beds consists of three separate units not all that close together, and not really that near the town of John Day, either, unless your scale is the entire state.

The name comes from the fact that the three units are each in the John Day River Basin; the deep valleys carved by this river have revealed fossils of great variety and age, from tiny plant seeds to large rhinoceros skulls. These fossils, plus dramatic and lovely geological features, make JDFB a great destination, even if all you have time for is a drive-through. Some up-close exploration with the family in tow makes the trip all the better.

The Painted Hills

It’s difficult—but not impossible—to see all three units of JDFB in a daytrip from Bend. The loop consists of about 300 road miles, maybe more depending on what sort of side trips one takes. We had the whole weekend free, so intended to make a leisurely loop from the south, visiting the units over a couple of days, with a stay at Wilson Ranches Retreat, in Fossil, in the middle of our journey. We hit the Painted Hills first, just past Mitchell, after making our way through the Ochoco’s forests, home to some of the last remaining massive old-growth ponderosa pine in the state.

The Painted Hills are gentle mounds of white, red and gold ash, layered in uneven stripes. The best time to be here is just after a rain, when the colors really pop. But even on this warm day, the hills were striking—surreal and lunar. A short hike revealed that up close the hills appear to be comprised of small pebbles more than ash, piled into neat, smooth cones of varying sizes.

“Mom,” my eight-year-old daughter Libby said. “I feel like we’re on the moon!”

The Sheep Rock Unit

After our walk on the moon, we continued east towards Dayville, arriving next at the Sheep Rock Unit and the Cant Ranch, marked by a stately white clapboard home built in 1910.

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Before the visitor center was built across the street a decade ago, Cant Ranch served as the primary interpretive site for the John Day Fossil Beds. The site boasts a direct view of Sheep Rock, a layer-cake-like geological pyramid with a rim rock top. The Sheep Rock Unit is best known for 30-million-year-old green claystone layers, and vertebrate fossils.

The Ranch is still open to the public, but erratically. The day we were there, no one was around and the place was locked up tight. We settled at a picnic table under a locust tree, a hot wind pulling at our napkins and whipping poplar leaves into a steady rustle noisy enough to drown out the chirping cicadas in the distance.

After sandwiches and potato chips, I circled the house to study the various trees planted on the property—white poplar, lilac, metasequoia. I climbed a short stair and pulled open a screen door, stepping into an enclosed southern style porch. All became suddenly quiet and peaceful, and I imagined resting there for the afternoon, a peaceful reprieve with a view of Sheep Rock.

But then: “Mom! Mom, let’s go!”

Thomas Condon Interpretive Center

I caught up with my family in the kid’s exploration room at the Thomas Condon Interpretive Center, across the street from Cant Ranch. “Mom, look, this was a real creature, it was a kind of fish.” Maris, age six, rushed towards me, holding a small rock fossil. “It lived in dinosaur land.”
In fact, the John Day Fossil Beds region does not preserve any dinosaurs. The era represented here is from 44 to 7 million years ago, when this part of Oregon was a rainforest—much later than when dinosaurs lived, at which point our entire state was under the Pacific Ocean. Fossils found in John Day include more than 100 species of mammals, including ancient saber-toothed tigers, horses and camels, as well as fish and lots and lots of plants.

The girls ran from exhibit to exhibit, pointing at the spectacular murals—each depicting a different prehistoric era of a changing landscape. Over millennia, the forests of Oregon became less tropical and more temperate, continuing to dry out until it became a desert landscape, a region that today gets less than a dozen inches of rain a year.

Wilson Ranches Retreat

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A dozen years ago, Phil and Nancy Wilson converted a historic 1910 Sears Roebuck bunkhouse that had once housed ranch hands into a bed and breakfast. The 9000-acre Wilson ranch has been in the family since the 1800s; today guests join the Wilsons in the daily activities of an authentic working ranch, including moving cattle by horseback. Our group of seven horses and riders made an hour’s climb above Butte Creek Valley, which resulted in not only the delivery of a dozen cows to their summer grounds but also incredible views of the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier to the far north. Nearer were rolling high desert hills covered with grasses the color of cumin; all around was the incredible fresh air of the high desert.

A good night’s sleep was followed by breakfast: at the Wilson Ranch, an informal but elaborate affair, served family style at an enormous farm table set with placemats boasting Wilson family photos—Phil spinning a lasso, Kara and her siblings at a summertime parade, Nancy bundled in quilted clothing next to a horse. We ate Dutch babies and ham, oatmeal from a gigantic bowl and scrambled eggs, before continuing on our JDFB journey.

The Clarno Unit

We drove Bend-bound taking a northern route to intersect with the third section of the John Day Fossil Beds, the Clarno unit, known for preserved remains of large mammals and reptiles: four-toed horses, rhino-like brontotheres, crocodilians, and meat-eating creodonts. These animals were fossilized when volcanic mudflows overtook them exactly where they stood.

The Clarno Unit is home to the Palisades, a cliff formed by a series of ancient volcanic mudflows that now sits high above the surrounding landscape. We took one last hike through a rocky terrain, skirting boulders and greasewood to discover leaf and tree limb fossils preserved in rock—a glimpse back in time before the existence of the wild, rural desert of Oregon, before our return to the big city of Bend.

John Day Fossil Beds – nps.gov/joda

Wilson Ranches Retreat wilsonranchesretreat.com

photos: Painted Hills – Christian Heeb, Mud Flows – Shutterstock, Horseback riding – Wilson Ranches