John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Trip Start Mar 02, 2011
Trip End Oct 14, 2011

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Dinty's Motor Inn

Flag of United States  , Oregon
Tuesday, August 16, 2011

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I went to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument today. This park protects roughly 14,000 acres of fossil beds, which is a tiny percentage of the area of the fossil beds in eastern Oregon. The fossils in the various fossil beds within the park range in age from roughly 45 million years to around 7 million years, which includes nearly all of the period during which mammals have existed. These fossils were first explored by scientists in the 1870's but the area was not made a National Monument until 1975.

Millions of year ago this area was tropical forests.  There's a volcanic hotspot that used to be under this area.  The tectonic plate that includes the park crept west while the hotspot remained stationary.  The hotspot is now under Yellowstone National Park far to the east.  This hotspot caused large numbers of volcanoes starting around 45 million years ago.  The volcanoes blanketed this area in ash  burying plants and animals that eventually became the fossils found today.  In between the volcanoes life would slowly return only to be buried again by another volcano.  This pattern continued for millions of years.  During this period the climate in this area slowly got drier as the volcanoes to the west left this area in a rain shadow.  While you might think of Oregon is being very damp, this part of Oregon is quite dry and is mosly covered in sagebrush.  The volcanoes eventually covered this area in a series of basalt flows.  Over the last 7 million years or so rivers have carved through these layers of basalt and ash exposing the fossils.  The result is a strange landscape of striped hillsides in various colors with flat areas in between.

The park is broken up into three units. I first went to the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center and Visitor Center in the Sheep Rock Unit. The Paleontology Center includes facilities for processing and storing fossils. Many fossils that were found in the park are on display in a museum. After watching a movie about the park, touring the museum and chatting with a ranger I headed for the James Cant Ranch.

The James Cant Ranch was a sheep ranch and later a sheep-and-cattle ranch from 1916 until 1972. Irrigation from the John Day River allowed hay to be grown on the flat areas.  A portion of the ranch is now the James Cant Ranch Historic District. This portion includes the Cant Ranch House and nearby structures.  There are displays in the house and barn about ranch life in the early 20th Century.  After touring the exhibits I continued driving north.

My next stop was the Blue Basin Area where I hiked the Island in Time Trail.  I then drove to the Foree Area where I hiked the Story In Stone and Flood of Fire Trails.  The scenery along all three trails includes lots of strangely eroded cliffs.  There are displays of fossil casts near where they were located and other interpretive signs along the trails.

I had intended to go to the Painted Hills and Clarno Units, two other portions of the park.  Unfortunately, by the time I had finished touring the Sheep Rock Unit it was nearly 5:00 and the other Units are over an hour away so I just headed for Seattle.  I stopped in Wasco, OR for the night.
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