John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon

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John Day, the town, is about 80 miles southwest of Baker City. It is a small town perched beside the John Day River. The river flows north to the Columbia River and has the distinction of being the 3rd longest free flowing river in the contiguous U. S.

We noticed that everything in the area seemed to bear the name John Day: 2 towns (John Day and Dayville), a river, a national monument, and even a dam in Glendale, WA. So, who was John Day? Turns out that John Day was born in Culpepper, Virginia and was a hunter and fur trapper. He was hired by the Pacific Fur Company to accompany overland travelers to Oregon in 1812. He is famous or rather infamous for a particular incident. When he and Ramsay Crooks were traveling in eastern Oregon, the Indians attacked them and stripped them of all of their possessions, including their clothing. Some how they managed to reach help but they became part of the Oregon Trail lore and travelers would point out where this had happened. One thing is for sure, he was certainly well-known in the region.

We stayed in the quaint town of John Day over the weekend. On Saturday, a group of about 100 motorcyclists stopped in town around lunch time. They were members of the Oregon Veterans Motorcycle Association and their organization had worked to have Hwy. 26 designated as a POW/MIA Memorial Highway. This ride was part of the dedication and they brought a sample of the commemorative signage that is to be placed along the highway with them. The Elks Lodge in John Day fed them all lunch and they came into town with a police escort. It was a sight to see that many motorcycles gathered in one place.

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While we were in the area, we decided to visit John Day Fossil Beds National Monument which was established in 1975 and covers almost 14,000 acres. As the name implies, this part of east central Oregon has yielded a plethora of plant and animal fossils over the years. It was not until about 1864 that Thomas Condon, an amateur geologist, became aware of the scientific importance of the region. After exploring the John Day River and its creeks, Mr. Condon began to give public lectures and provided reports on his finds. He became Oregon’s first state geologist in 1872 and became very famous both nationally and internationally. He sent fossils to the Smithsonian Institute and other museums worldwide. Today the Paleontology Center at the National Monument bears his name. It serves as a museum and also continues the research that Condon began. Unfortunately for us, due to COVID, we were unable to tour it.

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Unlike other national monuments that we have been to in the past, this one is divided into three units: the Sheep Rock Unit, the Clarno Unit, and the Painted Hills Unit. These sections are not adjacent to each other. For example, Clarno is 1.5 hours from Sheep Rock and the Painted Hills is 1.5 hours from Clarno. As a result, we only made it to two of the three locations, the Sheep Rock Unit and the Painted Hills Unit.

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The Sheep Rock Unit is the largest and the most visited. This part of the National Monument includes the upper John Day River Valley and a canyon called Picture Gorge. As you enter the National Monument, you travel through Picture Gorge which was formed by 17 distinct floods of lava. The vertical columns embedded in the sides of the canyon walls resulted when the lava cooled, contracted, and cracked from the bottom to the top layer forming six-sided pillars. This gorge received its name from the Native American pictographs found on the walls of the rocks.

Perhaps this unit’s popularity is due in part to the fact that the Paleontology Center (mentioned above) and the James Cant Ranch are located here. James and Elizabeth Cant bought the land along the John Day River in 1910 and built the main house in 1917. They were sheep and cattle ranchers. Today, the main house serves as the park’s headquarters and also has a museum that recounts the history of human inhabitants in this valley.

When you visit, you can see original buildings, a barn, and a collection of farm equipment and tools. The lawns around the house are well-kept and there are many fruit trees that provide shade. It’s a great place to picnic.

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From the house, there is a path down to the river. We were warned to be mindful of rattlesnakes near the riverbanks. When we strolled down there, we did see a snake so we decided not to press our luck. We chose to hike up to a viewpoint overlooking Sheep Rock and the river below instead. Sheep Rock is a prominent summit that looms over the valley. It was so named because big horn sheep used to make their home there.

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From the ranch, we drove farther north past Cathedral Rock, a greenish and red outcrop, to the Foree Area. We hiked two short trails to get a closer look at these colorful rock formations. We had a wonderful day poking around the Sheep Rock Unit.

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Another day we traveled to the Painted Hills Unit. It covers about 3,000 acres and is about 9 miles from Mitchell, Oregon. These hills are fabulous because they have colored bands interwoven through the hills. This area used to be a river floodplain and as climate changed it distributed different colored sediment. The red and yellow layers contain iron and aluminum. The darker soil comes from vegetation and the grays are mudstone, siltstone, and shale. This layering produced some amazing geologic formations.

There is an Information Center and a nice grassy picnic area near the entrance. To help you view the Painted Hills, there are several trails throughout the park or you can drive through the park on the gravel roads. Either way, you will be astounded by the breathtaking beauty of this place. It is clear why the Painted Hills is designated as one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon.

The landscape here with the colorful and unique formations is amazing and well worth the detour to visit the area. The eastern part of Oregon is dramatically different than other parts of the state and the small town of John Day is the best hub from which to explore it.

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