Journey Through Time at the John Day Fossil Beds

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Photo by Ben Herndon

written by Kathy Patten | photos by Ben Herndon


What color is time?

Is it golden, like ancient pillars cast in clay, silt and sand that soar to the sky? Does it shimmer in cool overtones of blues and greens carved into precipitous claystone cathedrals? Is it swept with brushstrokes of russet, gold, olive, buff, and black, baked in the sun and burnished by innumerable seasons of rain and snow?

At John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in eastern Central Oregon, time wears a crown bejeweled with many colors, capping mysteries of a secret world waiting to be revealed. Trails winding through strange rock formations and past vistas of incredible beauty offer an adventure that’s aesthetic, athletic and scientific all at once. But the fossil beds are more than just a photographer’s dream or a hiker’s haven, because beneath the ground, entombed in layers of colorful sediment, lie fossilized remains of ancient life, pieces to a mysterious puzzle that scientists constantly strive to assemble.

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The best place for the layman paleontologist to start on a tour of discovery is at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center on Route 19, two miles north of the junction with Route 26. There, visitors can see fossils millions of years old from the monument’s three distinctly different units: Sheep Rock, Clarno and Painted Hills.

The Journey Through Time Scenic Byway connects the units, snaking through rimrock canyons, rolling across desert landscapes and past conifer forests, and rounding mountains rising sharply like gentle giants from the valley floor. The monument and its surrounding area in the John Day River Basin is one of the most important sites in the world for studying fossil records, said Dr. Joshua Samuels, chief of paleontology at the John Day Fossil Beds and museum curator at the Paleontology Center. Only two other places in the world are comparable—one in Pakistan and the other in Argentina. This Oregon gem represents an unbroken record of nearly fifty million years, and every new discovery paints a clearer picture of what our state looked like before humans were here to observe it.

“What we have to thank for that is Oregon’s volcanic history,” said Dr. Samuels. Hundreds of millions of years ago, most of the state was under water, he explained— still a part of the Pacific Ocean. “This is really beachfront property,” he said, pointing east to the arid, sage-swept landscape.

Volcanic islands erupting in this ancient sea slowly began to form the land base of Oregon. Eventually, the North American tectonic plate was accreted to, or joined, the Pacific plate, forming even more volcanoes. Thousands of explosions sent lava flows racing across a near-tropical rainforest— much like that in modern day South America—that crawled with creatures resembling modern-day elephants, horned rodents and bear dogs, extinguishing life in their fiery wake. Over the course of millions of years, layer upon layer of sediment encased plant and animal life, creating a perfect record of what once existed. Constant freezing and thawing ate away at the layers, gradually opening them up like a time capsule.

“Erosion is always happening, exposing new things,” said Dr. Samuels. “It’s a place where things can be discovered any time.”

The Sheep Rock Unit is one of the most prolific sites in the world for finding fossil remains. The repository at the unit’s Blue Basin was discovered 150 years ago by Thomas Condon, a missionary from The Dalles, after soldiers in the area brought him their fossil findings. Soon, Condon was making world news with his work, creating a stir among paleontologists at Yale and the Smithsonian Institution.

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“He really brought this place to the attention of the scientific community,” said Dr. Samuels.

Blue Basin’s “Island in Time” trail climbs a half-mile up a canyon true to its name, surrounded by soft claystone walls formed twenty-nine million years ago during the Oligocene Period, awash in pastel shades of blue and green. Bit by bit, the modern world slips away and hikers pass through a portal to another planet, or so it seems. Time-carved badlands tower above the trail, which criss-crosses a fluorescent green stream twisting down the hill like a scene from a sci-fi movie. Along the way are interpretive displays with replicas of fossils from creatures that once roamed here, such as sabertooth cat-like carnivores called nimravids.

The claystone’s inherent softness causes it to erode quickly, noted Dr. Samuels, making conditions ideal for paleontologists, who regularly scour the area for a glimpse of something that might be brought back to the lab for further examination.

Although the removal of any rocks, plants or fossils at the monument is strictly prohibited by federal law, the taking of photos is encouraged, and the hike offers plenty of opportunities. As you near the top of the trail, GPS coordinates may as well read “Mars.” A cavernous basin opens up, and oohs and ahhs echo in the otherworldly amphitheater of the remarkable, yet fragile, tuff beds.

Just north of Blue Basin, the Foree area contains a short “Story in Stone” trail that highlights fossils of animals existing twenty-five to thirty million years ago, and more colorful rock formations to ogle.

The Clarno Unit, eighteen miles west of the town of Fossil on Route 218, contains the oldest fossils in the monument, dating back forty-four million years to the Eocene Period, when ancient mudflows, called lahars, buried the remains of a near-tropical rainforest. The rich variety of fossilized plants and animals, encased in stone as hard as quartz, makes it an especially important site in the field of paleontology. More than 175 species of nuts and fruits that no longer exist are fossilized here, including ancient relatives of banana and palm plants. Large rhinoceros-like beasts, three-toed horses and crocodiles thrived in the warm, moist climate.

“Really, Clarno could be a national monument on its own,” said Dr. Samuels. He suggested hiking the Trail of Fossils to get to the best viewing spots in the unit. Look for fossils embedded in the fallen rocks, and two large fossilized logs from deciduous trees that were caught in the lahars. The 200-foot Clarno Palisades rise above the trails in awe-inspiring spires of mud turned to stone.

The Painted Hills Unit, nine miles west of Mitchell on Burnt Ranch Road off Route 126, is an important discovery site for leaves and petrified wood, but is also a stunning example of the effects of climate change, explained Dr. Samuels. From several trails and lookouts, visitors can observe the lasting effects of the Eocene and Oligocene periods.

“You can really see the transition of a greenhouse to an icehouse world,” he said. The alternating strata of the gently rolling hills, painted in vibrant tones, reflect those changes in their colors—red portraying warmer and wetter climates and tan resulting from cooler and drier times. Each color band represents 10,000 to 30,000 years.

To truly gain an understanding of the significance of the Painted Hills Unit, visitors should walk the short Leaf Hill Trail, which encircles an important discovery by paleobotanist Ralph Chaney in the early part of the twentieth century. Delicate leaf impressions from alder, elm, beech, oak, maple, sycamore and dawn redwood (metasequoia)—Oregon’s state fossil— provide evidence of a succession of prehistoric ecosystems spanning more than thirty million years.

For those who have their hearts set on digging their own fossils, there is a legal option. A bed behind Wheeler High School in the town of Fossil is open to visitors to search for their own treasures.

On a recent brisk afternoon, four mammals from the present Holocene Epoch, also known as Greg Cannell and his three sons from Bend, were up to their knuckles in ancient soil, digging and picking for a trace leaf or other invertebrate fossils left behind long ago by deciduous trees along an ancient stream or in a nearby wetland. Canyon, 8; Sawyer, 6; and August, 2, gleefully chatted and shared their impressive knowledge of ankylosaurus, pachysaurus, carcharodontosaurus and other prehistoric creatures as they searched the hillside, which is owned by the Fossil School District. Unfortunately, you won’t find any dinosaur fossils in Oregon—their favorite creatures existed before this area had a land base on which to roam.

This was the family’s second trip to the fossil repository, and the junior paleontologists were having the time of their lives before heading to the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center to continue their research. Getting the children interested in fossil hunting wasn’t a problem, said the boys’ dad. Canyon’s been crazy for dinosaurs since age three. “How do you have more fun than getting an awesome fossil you dig on your own?” he asked as the boys recited and spelled every dinosaur name they knew.

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