Prehistoric Oregon was a lush refuge for a zoo’s worth of exotic animals, which flourished amid tropical fruits, palm trees and a climate much like present-day Panama from 55 million years ago to 39 million years ago. Avocados and bananas were plentiful, and mammals such as oreodonts (piglike creatures); brontotheres, (a combo of horse and rhino) and a kind of mastodon called a zygolophodon had the run of the place because dinosaurs had disappeared from the world more than 15 million years earlier.
Other than the volcanic blasts that would cover the region with hundreds of feet of lava and ash and wipe out all living things every 15,000 years or so, life was good.
Today, the remains of those now-extinct animals — and the plants that sheltered and fed them — can be found scattered about the startlingly beautiful landscapes of the 14,000-acre John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in eastern Oregon, about a five-hour drive east of Portland.
“Paradoxically, visitors are up since covid,” said Roy Zipp, superintendent of the monument. “People are stir-crazy, and they need to get out. Even from Portland on a day trip, it’s not unusual for them to come here because there is nothing else to do.”
The park’s multiple trails and explanatory signs, which make it perfect for social distancing, might be part of the attraction. There’s also a visitor center with a working fossil lab. The monument may have one of the longest and best-preserved records of evolutionary changes during the Cenozoic era, which began 66 million years ago; its collection spans more than 40 million years.
“We’re unique in that we have a continuous sequence of time in one spot here,” said Nicholas Famoso, chief paleontologist and curator for the monument. “We have some of the first appearances of semiaquatic beavers and certain kinds of weasels. We have the last known primate in North America before humans arrived. We have a nearly complete sequence of the evolution of horses, as well.”
Visitors can explore this unusual record of time by visiting three major fossil beds, called units, spread 35 to 45 miles apart: the Clarno unit, the Sheep Rock unit and the Painted Hills unit. (There are other fossil locations in this 20,000-square-mile area that aren’t open to the public.) Basing myself in the town of Mitchell, I spent three days searching for fossils, hiking the park’s trails and taking in the psychedelic landscape of brightly colored rocks everywhere I turned. Knowing nothing about animals further down the evolutionary tree, I took in the helpful exhibits at the visitor center, where only 10 people are allowed at one time because of the coronavirus.
“The fossil beds are a record of climate change as things were cooling off and drying out,” said Michelle Ordway, a park ranger. “Your paleo environment was changing from a semitropical jungle to a deciduous forest.”
The western part of North America was like a cracked egg back then, with frequent burps of lava emanating from volcanic fissures in northeast Oregon that spread westward. The area had been an inland sea for millions of years, then morphed into a tropical zone. As the continent slowly shifted northward — because of continental drift — from 55 to about 34 million years ago, more seasonal plants appeared, creating forests. At 16 million years ago, meadows and grasses moved in. Beginning at 7.5 million years, the sagebrush steppe developed. Today, the area is high desert, with scattered cattle ranches and massive lava formations.
I decided to approach the three fossil beds from the north via the state Journey Through Time Scenic Byway (“time” here refers to the settling of the West, as well as its geographic formation). I joined the route on Highway 218 just to the west of the monument’s Clarno unit, a rock formation formed 48 million years ago by a now-extinct volcanic range to the south. A series of eruptions sent plumes of ash into the sky, causing a wall of boiling mud — called a lahar — to bury everything in sight under hundreds of feet of debris. Nuts, fruits, leaves and twigs were caught in the lahar, and their fossils can be seen in the Clarno formation along the Trail of Fossils. I climbed almost 200 feet up the Arch Trail where I could easily see a petrified tree trunk sticking out of the rock.
Visitors are not allowed to pick up or touch any fossils they may see, but you can drive 15 miles east of Clarno on a very winding road to the town of Fossil, where there are public fossil beds behind Wheeler High School to look for some yourself.
After a quick visit, I realized I didn’t know what I was looking for among all the rock fragments covering the grounds. Later, I asked Famoso, the paleontologist and curator, how one spots the remnants of a prehistoric beast. Famoso has visited the park and hunted for fossils behind the school since he was an 8-year-old growing up in southern Oregon.
“When we look for fossils, we are looking for something that looks biological, which will stand out from the rocks themselves,” he said. “Sometimes it’s something shiny, sometimes it’s something smooth.”
I headed south on the Journey Through Time route on Oregon Highway 19 along the John Day River until I reached the second — and largest — of the fossil beds known as the Sheep Rock unit. This is the home of the Thomas Condon paleontology center, a $7.6 million museum and visitor center. Thomas Condon, for whom it is named, was a 19th-century missionary and explorer who roamed the area while overseeing a church in The Dalles, a city on the Columbia River 147 miles to the north. He was the first person to realize the worldwide significance of the site and to alert other paleontologists of the find.
The visitor center is actually the best place to start one’s tour of the monument, as it offers helpful brochures, maps and trail guides. It was there that I could peruse the exhibits, which included oddities such as the fossilized brain case for a beaver, to learn what a fossil looks like. I was told to look for any irregularity in a stone that would suggest a bone or leaf fragment. The park collection has more than 53,000 fossils representing some 2,000 species, and its collection pre-pandemic drew more than 200,000 visitors annually.
“We have extremely well-preserved fossils,” said Zipp. “There are fossil beds all over the world, but typically they only project a fraction of the geologic record.” In addition, he said, “The fossils in this record are very datable because of their proximity to geologic sub strata.”
And the strata can be quite dramatic, which was the case a few miles north of the visitor center at Cathedral Rock, a cliff that sports a bright green celadonite clay band against the surrounding sand- and red-hued bands to constitute what Zipp calls “a geologic layer cake.”
North of that at a stop in the Sheep Rock unit known as Foree, there were trails offering views of the Picture Gorge Basalts, which are rimrocks ribboned with multi-shades of brown-layered rock. The landscape was tilted at odd angles, showing some of the immense geologic forces at work in the area. The area was immaculate, with clean asphalt paths and new-looking benches, but it got cool and windy at 2,200 feet up.
The next stop, called Blue Basin, contained two hiking trails through the sagebrush to overlooks. I spent the rest of my day there and elsewhere in the unit viewing the effects of massive amounts of lava and volcanic dust that, layer upon layer, shaped the landscape.
The next day, I tackled the Painted Hills section of the monument, which lies an hour west of the visitor center and about eight miles from the nearest town, Mitchell, which is worth a stop of its own. It’s a funky location with 125 residents, two art galleries and a few storefronts adorned with paintings by local high school students. A pair of ancient-looking pumps in the middle of a dirt parking lot passed for a public gas station that’s only open during daylight hours.
The locals were happy to share stories with me, such as the one about the ghost of a 2-year-old girl (killed by her mother) who wanders about the town, and the coffin races that take place on the main street during Halloween. The weather was sunny that week, so I was disappointed to also learn from them that the Painted Hills show off their brightest colors after a rainstorm.
They also offer the most famous vista in the John Day monument: a palette of red, yellow and black-striped hills created over a 33-million-year period. The red layers are fossil soils that mixed with rain and oxidized during more tropical times; the white rock at the base is pure volcanic ash that hardened quickly; the yellow layers are ash that weathered slightly before hardening and the black bands are petrified plant material, low-grade coal.
There are several trails scattered about those hills, including the Painted Cove Trail, which is a boardwalk through enormous rust-red sand dune-shaped hills, and Leaf Hill Trail, where scientists found plentiful leaf fossils starting in the 1920s. The area has been swept clean of visible fossils because, Famoso told me, people tend to steal them.
The most spectacular of the walks was the Overlook Trail near a panorama of red-and-yellow-striped hills that has been reproduced on a legion of postcards and dubbed one of the “seven wonders of Oregon.”
While wandering about the monument one morning, I encountered an Israeli-Taiwanese couple, now living in Boise, who had brought their kids to see the place. The mother, Hsin-I Huang Pushkin, mirrored my thoughts. “Some people said this place is overrated,” she told me, “but I found it to be really beautiful.”
Duin is a writer based in the Seattle area.
Where to stay
The Oregon Hotel
104 E. Main St., Mitchell, Ore.
Cozy rooms convenient to the Fossil Beds national monument in a hotel built in 1938. Offers WiFi and continental breakfast. Rooms from $55 per night.
Hyatt House Bed and Breakfast
828 Main St., Fossil, Ore.
Charming bed-and-breakfast located in a historic house. Amenities include WiFi and continental breakfast. Rooms from $75 per night.
What to do
John Day Fossil Beds
The national monument boasts well-preserved layers of fossils and contains three units: Sheep Rock, Painted Hills and Clarno; driving between units takes between
45 minutes and two hours. From Portland, drive east on Route 26 for 180 miles to the turnoff for the Painted Hills. Drive time is close to five hours, and the road is winding.The Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center is typically open seven days a week, but indoor attractions are closed until at least Dec. 17 per state restrictions. Visitors can still tour the outdoor portions of the monument. No cellphone or Internet service at the monument, except at the Painted Hills picnic area. Check the website for informational videos and updates. Open daily sunrise to sunset. Free.
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