A 600-foot climb leads to stupendous views

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Blue Basin formations look impresive from 600 feet above on the overlook trail.

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The one-mile round-trip Island in Time Trail climps is an easy walk.

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This Rattlesnake Formation exhibit suggests a habitat that dominated the area 7-million years ago.

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The ledge provides a close-up look at the Blue Basin's blue-green clay.

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The Mascall Formation Overlook, with toilets, is the first stop at the Sheep Rock Unit..jpg

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Exhibits inside the Thomas Condon visitor center reveal the types of fossils in the monument.

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The Thomas Condon Overlook Trail provides a view of the visitor center and the James Cant Ranch.

WHEELER, Ore. - I won't pretend that Darlene and I actually planned a strategy for our visit to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument during the two hours that we spent driving from Burns to John Day.

We accepted some limitations, however.

We could visit two-of-the-three units on the monument without too much trouble, the Sheep Rock Unit and the Painted Hills Unit.

Driving to the third, the Clarno Unit, would entail an additional 70 to 80 miles from our room at the Best Western motel in John Day.

Besides that, we planned not to rush.

So, before 9:30 a.m. on Thursday (May 17), I stopped for gas, Egg McMuffins, OJ and coffee in John Day.

We continued through Mt. Vernon and Dayville on Highway 26. We stopped at the Mascall Formation Overlook, visited the toilet and read the natural history exhibits about the John Day Valley and Picture Gorge.

At the junction of Highways 26 and 19, I drove a mile north to the Sheep Rock Unit of the monument. It includes the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center and Visitor Center, the Blue Basin Area and the Foree Area.

Because of the sunshine heated truck, Darlene sat with Nora first at the visitor center.

The center features fossil exhibits and murals depicting the area's ancient tropical forests with saber-toothed predators. It features many informative presentations, pamphlets and a helpful staff.

I spent too long inside, so Darlene and Nora waited outside on a shaded bench.

Nora and I walked the half-mile Thomas Condon Overlook Trail. It ended at a view of the John Day River Valley, the historic James Cant Ranch, Sheep Rock and the visitor center.

After Nora lapped water at the restroom fountain, we motored north two miles to the unit's Blue Basin Area.

We parked three spaces from the other vehicle in the parking area. Shortly after noon, beneath a high sky, I shouldered two cameras and Nora's water bottle. We set off along the Island in Time Trail and met a man and woman leaving. The woman rubbed Nora's ears.

"I could visit here every day and never see everything," she said.

Taking each of the short side jaunts to read the exhibits, we ambled to the end of the popular trail into the basin that has yielded such a rich fossil record.

On the way out, we met a man and woman from Akron, Ohio, and the woman rubbed Nora's ears. They had visited The Painted Hills earlier and planned to stay in Frenchglen and visit the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Before leaving, we trudged 600 feet up to the Basin Overlook Trail for views across the basin and the valley.

Then, five more miles north on 19, we reached the Foree Area and parked two spaces from the one other vehicle.

Nora and I trekked up the sun-drenched, quarter-mile Flood of Fire Trail. We reached a viewpoint from a steep cliff that faced another blue-green and red-rimmed slope. Nora waited in the scant shade of a sage bush.

After that we started on the quarter-mile Story in Stone Trail that features touch exhibits with replica fossils. Alas, many of the replicas had disappeared (stolen?).

The hike that passes many colorful formations, and a 10-inch-long lizard crossed the trail. It played possum beneath a sage bush when I pushed a camera close to its face.

Back at the truck, we headed south for seven miles, passed the visitor center, and turned west on Highway 26.

We could reached the Painted Hills by 3:30 p.m. or so, when they would be brilliantly highlighted by afternoon sunshine.

Perhaps we had a plan after all.

Part 2 of this report about a trip to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument will appear here next Wednesday.

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