September 6 Fossil, Oregon Overcast and in the 70’s
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is an amazing treasure in Oregon. It is made up of 3 different units that are located along sections of Highway 26, and Highway 19 west of the town of John Day. We traveled through John Day back in 2008 via Highway 26. Not far from town is the lovely Clyde Holiday State Park, touted as a jumping off point for visiting the Fossil Beds, as is the town of John Day itself.
Instead, I picked Fossil as our home base for exploring the area, with thoughts of possibly staying at the Spray wayside, or even in John Day for the latter part of the stay. No matter how we planned various unit explorations, we still had to do several backtracks, and some repeat drives. Maybe the map will help explain it. As closely as I can estimate, we drove more than 375 miles to see all three sections of the park from our site in Fossil. I don’t think we could have managed it with any fewer miles from any other location. The green lined blocks on the map are the different units of the John Day Fossil Beds. Most folks traveling along Highway 26 will take a short trip up to the visitor center and the Sheeprock Unit, but it takes a bit of effort to get to the other sections.
The trip today to the Sheeprock Unit took us through Spray, where we checked out the possible camping choice and came up with a resounding NO! The river is very low, the campground is open and has no hookups, and for $12 doesn’t offer much in the way of amenities. I think it would be a good spot to get on the river if there happened to be water there, but at the moment not so much.
There are only two hikes in Foree, both of them only 1/4 mile long, but they are well signed, and one of them is even wheelchair accessible. we looked into our first example of the Turtle Cove formation, somewhat subdued by the gray light, and still found it amazing. One of the more delightful aspects of hiking in the John Day Fossil Beds is that we can take Abby on all the trails. It is a dog friendly place, hard to find in any kind of national park or monument.
A few miles south along the river we came to the Blue Basin Area of the Sheeprock Unit, where the rain clouds didn’t have any downpours planned for us and decided that the 3 1/2 mile Overlook trail would be much more fun than just walking into the short Island in Time trail.
The first part of the trail is not too steep, and there was fresh elk scat still steaming. Never did see the elk, but we did see lots of evidence of many different kinds of critters in the area. Looking back along the trail, I was surprised to see just how much elevation we had gained. The trail was steep and narrow, but not incredibly difficult. The newly constructed boardwalk across some of the more unstable portions of the trail was great.
Once at the summit overlook the skies lightened just enough to make things interesting. The view below was magnificent, and the trail continued along the contours for another mile or so before making a very steep descent via switchbacks to the valley below.
Continuing south along the John Day River, we arrived at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center which also serves as the information center for the park. I loved it! There is a large lab with a window that gives you the chance to see the grad students at work painstakingly cleaning fossils. There is extensive information on the process of fossil collection and documentation, and of course there are incredible exhibits.
The fossils at the John Day Fossil Beds encompass the entire range of existence of mammals, 40 to 50 million years, with more than 2,000 species found in the park. I was enthralled with the magnificent murals depicting theories of life during the different ages. Looking at the tiny pieces of bone, I couldn’t help but wonder at the science of paleontology. How in the world do they figure that stuff out?!?! Soil science is a piece of cake compared to that kind of detective work.
There isn’t a lot of fuel around the area, and after visiting the Center, we drove a few more miles through Picture Gorge toward the little town of Dayville and its one lonely gas pump for Tracker fuel at $4.19 per gallon. I think there was another pump in Spray, but it looked pretty old and who knows how much gas was there. Later we discovered that there was indeed another pump in Fossil, but when we left the Center, we weren’t too sure about that one and decided to not take a chance.
It never rained on us all day long, and the sun even came out for our drive back home along the river. As the temperatures started to rise, I found myself really grateful that we didn’t have to hike in the hot sun. I guess it is a trade-off, because with the clearing skies, I hoped for a bit more light to capture the amazing colors in the Painted Hills unit tomorrow.
On the drive home near Cathedral Rock, I found this blue heron sitting high above the river. Seemed so funny to see a heron in such a desert situation.