After 2 years and 2 months of everything shutting down due to covid, we thought it was time to start exploring again. After some discussion, we agreed on visiting the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Eastern Oregon. The fossil beds are perhaps the world’s best and most continuous records of the Tertiary, the time from about 50 million to 5 million years ago that is generally regarded as the Age of Mammals. The fossil beds cover a vast area of eastern Oregon and was created by volcanic activity. The John Day National Monument consist of three units: The Painted Hills Unit, Sheep Rock Unit, and Clarno Unit. The fossils found in the National Monument’s three units helped define the evolution of horses, cameloids, felines, canids, and other important mammal lineages.
We decided to have our base in Mitchell and do day trips from there to explore the area. Mitchell was founded in 1873 and was named after Senator John Hipple Mitchell. According to the 2010 census the population is 130 people. We stayed at the Oregon Hotel; A historic hotel established in the late 1800. It was rebuilt twice, and the current structure is from 1938. Mitchell, located at the junction of the roads to Prineville and Fossil, experienced a boom with the lumber industry in the early 1900, but as lumber mills consolidated, and farming became mechanized, the population dwindled. In 2014, with 7 wonders of Oregon campaign, Mitchell became known as the gateway to the painted hills and a tourism boom followed. When we visited it was clear that the COVID pandemic and loss in tourism hit the community hard.
Mitchell is about 4 hours drive east on highway 26 from Portland. The forecast predicted rain and when we came to Government Camp on Mt. Hood it started to snow. Luckily as we descended towards Warm Springs the snow stopped and we even saw some blue sky. Since the weather was not promising the next day and more snow was in the forecast, we decided to stop at the Painted Hills Unit as we drove in. We arrived just in time to enjoy the beauty and hike to the overlook before the sun disappeared.
The snow and rainstorms were a perfect illustration on how erosion and climate have shaped and changed the landscape over time. The rainstorms also provided a beautiful sky with the dramatic clouds which are so great for photography. At the Painted Hills, the red layers were formed during a warmer and wetter climate. The yellow/ tan was formed in drier climate. The black spots are caused by manganese concentration.
In addition to the sheer beauty, a sign also provided a sobering reflection: Climate change does not happen overnight, nor is it a smooth process. The Painted Hills contain a record of long-term climate changes as well as the fluctuations that occurred along the way. The changes are all recorded in the stripes of the hills.
The Sheep Rock Unit was about 45 minutes drive from Mitchell and by the Visitor Center.
As it was snowing on this day, we took advantage of spending the time indoors to see the free exhibition and video. We found the video at the Visitor Center super informative and provided good visuals.
It’s about 21 minutes long. If you want to see the section explaining the red and yellow soil, go to 9:25.
Fortunately, the remaining days, the forecast was cloudy and light rain. We enjoyed the clouds as we hiked the Blue Basin trail near the Sheep Rock Unit as it had very little shade. It took us 3 hours and 15 minutes to do the 3.25 mile loop. The view was incredible!
We found the perfect explanation on the sign. Foree contains records of ancient explosive volcanic past. The lightly colored rocky ledges are tuff, or rock layers composed of compacted volcanic ash. Just like they sound, tuffs are tough. When it rains or snows, the hard tuffs remain, while the soft blue-green claystone erodes, allowing the graceful pillars to form. This process repeats and the fleeting terrain continually changes. What will this place look like in million years?
On our last day, we made a brief stop in Fossil another small town with a population of 473 before arriving at the third unit of the John Day Fossil Beds, Clarno.
The Clarno Unit was formed 48 million years ago in a series of volcanic eruptions that changed the landscape and created perhaps the largest collection of Cenozoic fossils in North America.
As we drove north on highway 97, on our way back to Portland, we had beautiful views of Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood. Although volcanic activity has been ongoing for the last 30+ million years in the Cascade arc, these comparatively young volcanoes, 2 million years or so, with their snow-clad peaks towering high will one day erupt. What new fossil beds will they create and whom will be around to discover them?
In case you’re curious of why the Fossil Beds are called John Day. The explanation can be found in the picture below.
Hope you enjoyed our mini-vacation as much as we enjoyed it.