Posted by: bkivey | 18 August 2016

John Day Fossil Beds Day Two

Up early to get some breakfast and start the eastward drive to John Day. I filled the tank on the edge of town. I’ve driven through enough sparsely populated areas to understand that fuel management is critical. I figured there’d be a gas station somewhere around a National Monument, but I also figured that few, if any of the hamlets scattered about the landscape would have gas.

The plan was to drive north and east on Powell Butte road until it intercepted US 126 about halfway between Redmond and Prineville, then east until US 26 at Prineville.

Prineville sits in the Crooked River valley, and it’s the eastern outpost of civilization in this part of central Oregon. There’s an overlook before you descend.

Prineville view from the overlook

In recent years Google and Facebook have built data centers in Prineville. This seems counter-intuitive, as the servers must be kept cool and this is the middle of the high desert.

Prineville new data center

I’d never driven east of Prineville, so everything from here on was going to be new.

Up into the Ochoco National Forest on US 26:

Prineville east of town into the mountains

I believe there are three passes along the route. It’s a very scenic drive. It’s also an isolated drive. About an hour east of Prineville cell service ends. This part of Oregon is very much in the white area you see on phone company coverage maps. Phone service is generally by land line, although some small towns offer patchy cell service.

Late morning found me at the Junction of US 26 and OR 19, and the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

The Monument actually consists of three dispersed sites: Sheep Rock (where I was), Clarno, and Painted Hills. These sites are situated in a box roughly 40 miles x 30 miles. It’s possible to visit all three in one day, but it takes planning and the willingness to see a lot of desert.

The museum and visitor center at the park entrance. It was warm, but not hot.

John Day museum

There is some scenery:

John Day panorama near entrance

The museum interior:

John Day museum interior

The fossil record here is from about 44 million years ago (mya) to 7 mya. The terrible lizards are long gone: this is the age of mammals. Most of the animals from the period look pretty much like what we have today. There are numerous displays of plant and animal fossils; many integrated into dioramas. There are also a number of drawers on the fronts of displays. Despite years of training not to touch anything in museums, visitors are encouraged to open the drawers to see more fossils.

The displays ask some intriguing questions. One species displayed lasted 30 million years before going extinct. Humans have been around about 3 million. Would you say that was a successful species?

While the museum is nice, I was a little disappointed. I was expecting fossils in the ground, similar to Dinosaur National Monument. It is possible to see exactly that at the Clarno unit, but I wasn’t going there.

There are several points of interest as you drive through the park, including a sheep ranch, or maybe it should be a sheep station, given the environment. The ranch is long closed, but there is active agriculture in the area. I asked a ranger where people bought supplies, and they said while Dayville was the closest town, people thought the grocery store charged too much, so most folks drove in to Prineville. That’s a five-hour round trip for groceries.

North along the John Day river.

Goose Rock:

John Day Goose Rock

Cathedral Rock:

John Day Cathedral Rock

The river nearly bends back on itself here.

I’d noticed some blue cliffs alongside the road, and there’s a trail (The Island in Time trail) that goes up to them. The 1-mile trail starts from a picnic area equipped with facilities. The trail itself is easy enough, but there are a number of  bridges with metal grate decking. Not a problem for humans, most dogs do not like that surface, and signs warn that you may have to carry your dog across the bridges.

Along the trail:

These are the cliffs you see from the road:

John Day Island in Time trail blue rock 1

That’s not actually rock. Northwest geography is defined by volcanic activity, and these cliffs are ash deposits, as this close-up reveals:

John Day cloe up of hill texture

Looking down the trail:

John Day Island in Time trail looking down trail 1

John Day Island in Time looking down trail 2

There’s very little shade, and the trail signs note that there isn’t any the last half of the trail. There’s a trail that climbs to the top of the canyon, but at three miles was more walking than I cared for.

Interesting silt deposits in the creek:

John Day multicolored silt deposits

John Day green mud in streambed

A welcome sign:

John Day Island in Time trail end

Don’t need to tell me twice. The scenery here doesn’t look real. If you’ve got a sci-fi screenplay, here’s your location:

John Day Island in Time end of trail panorama

A short drive south from the park through the scenic Picture Gorge leads to the Mascal Formation Overlook.

John Day Mascal Formation overlook panorama

The top layer of rock was formed by volcanic activity 7 mya. Even in the desert, erosion can do a lot in that time.

By this time it was mid-afternoon, and I was getting hungry. The town of Dayville offers repast, but it was further east, and I wanted to start heading home. Mitchell just east of the US 26/OR 207 junction is just big enough to have a restaurant, and it’s on the way to the Painted Hills.

There was road construction at the junction for Painted Hills (they hadn’t gotten started when I passed earlier), so a half-hour delay. It’s a pretty drive up the canyon to the Monument.

Near the entrance you can see where the Monument got its name:

Painted Hills panorama near entrance 1

The hills are mostly made of sediments laid down when there was considerably more water in the area. Some hills are volcanic ash that has formed a clay. The colors are caused by the leaching of various minerals and salts. The composition of the hills will not generally support vegetation. It’s a testament to the dryness of the climate that formations made of mud have lasted millions of years.

All of the roads inside the unit are dirt and gravel, but nothing the average car can’t handle. Your paint may get dinged, though.

The Painted Hills are one of Oregon’s natural wonders, and a must-see. They are a ways off the beaten track, so even in the middle of vacation season the area isn’t overcrowded. This is one of those places you have to want to go to: you won’t casually happen upon it on the way to somewhere else.

There’s a visitors center near the entrance with information on the area. There are several trails, and with the exception of the Carroll Rim trail, are quite short. I decided to drive to the west end of the unit and work back.

Red Hill is at the west end:

Painted Hills Red Hill Trail Red Hill 2

A trial leads to the back side.

A flower along the trail:

Painted Hills Red Hill Trail flower

An ash deposit:

Painted Hills white ash deposit 2

The next trail working east is Leaf Hill. This is the site of a dig, and signs inform that thousands of fossils have been found here. It’s not really that spectacular to look at. There is some water in this country:

Painted HIlls water 1

The next attraction is Painted Cove:

Painted HIlls Painted Cove entrance

There’s a short boardwalk trail that winds among the hills. It’s along this trail that you’ll find the iconic Painted Hills scene:

Painted HIlls Painted Cove boardwalk

The nature of the hills is clearly visible.

There’s also what the Park Service is pleased to call a sinkhole:

Painted Hills Painted Cove Trail sinkhole

I’ve lived in Florida. That ‘sinkhole’ has work to do.

Views from the Painted Hills overlook. There’s a trail that ascends the hill on the left. I didn’t take it.

Painted Hills from overlook 1

Painted Hills near overlook panorama 1

By this time it was edging toward evening, and there was still an hour and a half drive to Prineville, and another hour after that to Bend. It was after 5, so I figured the road crew was done for the day, and they were.

I was concerned about fuel, because the gauge was near the 3/8th mark, and I still had several passes to climb. I’d figured by dead reckoning I had enough gas to get to Prineville, but I wasn’t overly confident. I already knew there were zero gas stations along the way. Ochoco reservoir is about ten miles east of Prineville and a popular recreation spot, but I hadn’t seen any service stations there, either.

I pulled into the first gas station I saw on the outskirts of town, and found out that when I’d had the fuel pump replaced the week prior, my car’s fuel mileage had increased significantly. I’ve had the car a couple of years, and it’s given an honest 25 mpg on the highway. When I refueled, I discovered I’d been getting 31+ mpg. That’s driving across mountains with the A/C running. Wow. What a nice surprise.

With that knowledge, the drive to Bend was more relaxing. Of note on the western side of Prineville are some low hills, the remnants of mountains and volcanoes that once rivaled the Rockies. It was this area that supplied much of the landscape material to the west.

Back to Bend, and I had to spend some time doing admin work for the business. I walked in to the hotel room, flipped on the light, and nothing happened. Turns out the whole hotel, and only the hotel, was without power. I talk to the manager, but I’m not overly upset: it’s obvious he’s doing everything he can to get the power company on the ball. I figured I’d walk to the bar across the street and use their wi-fi while I got dinner. But their wi-fi was unsecured, so I couldn’t use any of my stored passwords. Well that’s just great.

By the time I get this figured out, the hotel power has been restored, so I can work from my room. Eventually did get dinner at the bar.

A very long, but highly rewarding day.


  1. Blair–great stuff! I’ll be in the Portland area in October and my G-daughter (14 yrs) wants to see these fossil beds! And I must admit… so do I! (Busily reconfiguring my itinerary & expanding my range from Portland.)
    Ever consider repurposing these Posts, and selling them to the local Chamber of Commerce rag and assorted other “vacation guides?”

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Wayne.

    The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is quite spectacular, and also quite far away from the Portland area: about 350 miles. I would plan on a solid three days, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time for sightseeing. If you have the time, you won’t regret the trip.

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