Crooked roads less traveled

Scenic adventure is found along backroads on a visit to all three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

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The Thomas Gordon Paleontology Center at the Sheep Rock Unit serves as the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument's visitor center.

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Nora the Schnauzer takes a snow break above 4,000 feet in the Strawberry Mountains.

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This pamphlet map shows the units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and the routes to reaching them.

Many crooked roads lead to the widely separated three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument of Eastern Oregon.

A small map in the pamphlet "John Day Fossil Beds" displays a few of the oft-traveled ones.

The less-traveled one we chose promised scenic adventure on a one-day visit to all three units.

By the trip's end, along with a weary buzzing in my head, we had accumulated more twists and turns than the entire monument has bones.

Well, maybe not.

Anyway, at 6:06 a.m., burdened with scones, sandwiches for lunch and coffee, we left Walla Walla.

Using the detailed "Official Oregon State Map, 1997-98," Darlene, Nora the Schnauzer and I wended through pastoral places galore, including Umatilla, Irrigon and Heppner along with Lexington, Ruggs, Hardman and Kimberly.

Our crooked path led up to snow-covered passes in the Strawberry Mountains and twists as sharp as treble hooks on a bass lure down to verdant valley floors.

We stopped at sandy parks and at snowy pullouts for Nora to romp, and she did with flapping ears.

At a junction between Spray and Kimberly, we turned south to Kimberly and along the John Day River.

There we watched anglers and saw occasional green cliffs, evidence of ancient claystone and red-lava formations dating back millions of years to the Age of Mammals.

A few miles past Kimberly, we entered the monument's Sheep Rock Unit and stopped at the Foree Area with its two trails, Flood of Fire and Story in Stone, and a toilet. We had the facility and the parking area to ourselves.

We walked both trails in a leisurely fashion and pondered green claystone formations often topped by layers of reddish lava.

Darlene said some flowing formations resembled Salvador Dali images.

I said, "OK."

A few minutes after continuing southward, we stopped beside the road to ponder Cathedral Rock, described in the pamphlet as a "29-million-year-old strata (that) turns the John Day River backward nearly 180 degrees."

Next we stopped at Blue Basin, with a one-mile trail among green claystone walls the pamphlet refers to as "badlands, (with) banded layers deposited 29 million years ago."

A three-mile Overlook Trail circles the rim of the basin, with wide views of the river valley.

Nora and I walked the basin trail where she lapped up a few licks from a puddle of green water and frowned.

Yuk!

Back at the parking area after noon, we ate the sandwiches.

Yum!

On the road south again, we passed Goose Rock, Picture Gorge and the James Cant Ranch before stopping at monument headquarters, the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, near the junction with Highway 26.

From the center's stone patio, we had a panoramic view of massive Sheep Rock across the highway. The center functions as a research facility that studies the John Day Fossil Beds.

It also has a fossil museum with exhibits on paleontology, a working laboratory with a collection room holding 45,000 specimens and eight murals featuring plants and animals through 40 million years of the Age of Mammals.

Well, by 2:39 p.m., we dashed off to the Painted Hills Unit, near Mitchell, and the Clarno Unit, near Fossil.

We still had miles to go before we slept.

Editor's Note: Part 2 of this report about a tour of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Eastern Oregon will appear in this spot next Wednesday.

Contact Don Davis at dondavis@wwub.com . More of Don's photos can be found online at www.tripper.smugmug.com .

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