The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a landscape of enormous vistas and endless horizons along one of the longest undammed rivers in the Lower 48.
From its headwaters in the Blue Mountains to its salmon-rich confluence with the grand Columbia more than 225 miles away, the John Day River twists, turns, and carves a path through a 14,000-acre treasure trove of colorful volcanic history and some of the world’s most important fossil beds.
The national monument is a three-unit preserve that draws professionals and amateurs alike from many different fields--as well as the generally curious who want to learn more about Oregon’s geologic history and a fossil record dating back 45 million years.
The Sheep Rock Unit (thirty miles west of the town of John Day) is home to the monument’s main visitor center and fossil collection. Colorful Sheep Rock looms above the narrow valley and its green fields on either side of the snaking river.
That’s about all the green you’ll see at a place that turns time on its head. When you stare up at the brown and tan rock walls in the sweltering heat that cooks like an oven, it’s hard to imagine that a lush, near-tropical forest once existed here.
But according to the monument’s curator and paleontologist, Josh Samuels, “the records in the rocks don’t lie.”
Samuels added, “This is a wonderful area to study changes in plants and animals or biological evolution. We see animals coming into existence in these fossil beds and, millions of years later, disappearing. It’s also an area where we have abundant fossils, so we go out and collect fossils there It’s a very important place.”
Josh Samuels said that visitors are best served to begin their adventures at the Thomas Condon Visitor Center.
Condon started collecting fossils in the 1860’s (he was actually a minister, so fossil collecting was a second job of sorts.) He found fossils in the area and sent them off to a variety of scientists at institutions in the country and really helped highlight what’s been found in this area brought it to the forefront of paleontology.”
Samuels added that classes and lectures teach you more about the region, while the center’s murals and fossils give perspective on periods that reach back 50 million years.
“You really have a jungle in those times with things like crocodiles that truly contrast with today’s dry, arid environment of open sage brush and grass land environments with things like deer, mountain lions and elk running around.”
The center is administered by the National Park Service and also serves as an active research area, so you may chance upon the laboratory and see how specimens are prepared for analysis: the past is revealed in front of your eyes – one grain of rock and sand at a time.
Technicians use patience and critical care to remove the rock so to expose fossilized animals that lived so long ago.
The Sheep Rock Unit is a good starting point for your journey through time. It prepares you to understand the remarkably vivid colors of the ash deposits at the Painted Hills Unit about sixty-five miles south of Sheep Rock and near Mitchell, Oregon.
The Painted Hills Unit lies at the end of a three-mile paved access road.
It’s a popular site for photographers who wish to capture the brilliantly colored ash deposits that range from rose to pink, from gold to bronze, and seem splashed across the eroded contours of nearby hummocks and hills.
This is the kind of treasure Oregon legends are made of, and I never tire of an early morning or late evening visit when the light is just peeking up or winking down the hillsides.
Several short hiking trails allow closer inspection, and you will also find shaded picnic tables, water, and restrooms, as well as exhibits and trail guides.
At the “Painted Cove Trail” you’ll appreciate the fact that they have built a boardwalk above the environment in order to protect it – in this case, it’s ash fall dating back 33 million years.
Samuels noted, “It’s a breath-taking view – we can actually see very colorful layers of rock – alternating bands of brown and red and some black. They really make it a photogenic place. The way the clay erodes gives it that beautiful color but also it’s kind of a slow process, so any foot print will last for years – so, if someone walks up on one of those hills we can see that for years so it’s very important that people stay off the hills so we can preserve it for everyone.”
“Leave no footprints and take only memories,” is a standard and strict rule inside the parkland, but fifty miles to the northwest, the Clarno Unit sits on the banks of the John Day River.
Here you’ll witness a succession of ash-laden mudflows that repeatedly buried a forest landscape, leaving behind one of the finest fossilized collections of leaves, nuts, and seeds in North America--some 300 different species and counting.
You may have the most fun up the road a piece at Wheeler High School in Fossil, Oregon, where you can dig the fossils--for keeps. Kids especially love that activity.
Stroll through the back gate at the high school - where donations are kindly accepted - and pass under the goal posts to take up a hand full of fossils that you can actually keep.
School Superintendent, Brad Sperry, told me, “It has been kind of a local secret, and the community knew about it; would come up and kick around in the rocks and pick up a fossil. Got on a couple websites and before long, it looks like today: busy.”
All you need to dig your own fossils are simple tools, a strong arm, keen eyes, curiosity and a ton of patience.
For just a few minutes, I dug, pried, and separated the layers of muddy shale and found perfectly preserved imprints of ferns, cedar fronds, and an unusual leaf.
In less than an hour, I collected half a dozen very fine specimens to add to our family collection.
The specimens here date back 32 million years to when the local terrain was a rain forest and the larger area was home to huge pigs and enormous rhinos.
Successive and massive mud and lava flows washed away or covered everything that stood in their way.
Brad noted, “None of these plants survived the era, of course, but it is the record of this tremendous diversity of life and the record of a totally catastrophic end that, taken together, really make you think.”
Just down the street from the school, the new Paleo Lands Institute will teach you much about the fossils that you collect and perhaps provide a new way to look at the high desert.
Institute spokesperson, Anne Mitchell, said, “I think a lot of people come out and go –‘I want to dig up a fossil.’ But when they actually get here, they start learning how it all goes together. This center was designed to be sort of a hands-on, get dirty and get comfortable with science and learn about fossils and geology.”
It really helps to present what people have right in their own backyards – there are fossils really,” added Samuels. “These fossils are something that we can highlight and help others to appreciate the history of the area and the valuable natural resources that are here.”