John Day Fossil Beds Part I – Blue Basin Dreams
“No region in the world shows a more complete sequence of Tertiary land populations, both plant and animal than the John Day Basin”
We’re finally back online after several days in the boonies and I have LOTS to share. You see the truth is I’ve been hiding stuff from you. BIG stuff. The real reason we came to this northeastern edge of Oregon was not for the John Day River or Chinese museums, it was for something entirely different. It’s a spot I’ve been dreaming about ever since I saw someone take a pic here years ago. A spot I put on the “list” and vowed I would make it to someday. A spot that I knew would blow me away even more than I imagined. All this other business…oh, it’s just gravy baby.
The juicy stuff I’ve been hiding is the John Day Fossil Bed National Monument. This amazing slice of Oregon is a window into the ancient history of the Cenozoic age. Forget dinosaurs, that age is gone. What this shows is the prolific period of evolution that followed, from the time Oregon was a teeming swampy, hot, tropical forest 44 millions years ago through the temperate forests of 33 million years ago, intense volcanic activity 29 million years ago, massive basalt flows 16 millions years ago to the cooling earth and dry land it is today. There is nowhere (in the world) that has the richness of both physical and fossil records from this long a period than right here. Every slice of time is captured somewhere in this 13,944 acres (5,643 ha) acre Monument…and yes, it is absolutely gobsmacking.
If you’re visiting the first thing to understand about this area is that it is very widely spread out-> there are 3 sections to the John Day Monument spotted around a loop of ~100 miles. Doing everything in one day really isn’t feasible especially if you want to do any of the hikes (which I really, really recommend).
Our plan was to take a week and two stops to cover the two main areas along scenic Hwy 26 -> Sheep Rock Unit and The Painted Hills. Clyde Holliday State Park* is only ~40 mins from the first of these and was the perfect base to wait out the weather and grab a clear opening. We dedicated a few rum & cokes to the Sun Gods, danced ceremoniously around our Weatherbug app and waited…and waited…until it finally happened. We woke up to sweet rays of light and the promise of a fine 70-degree day. Oh yes baby…this was it!
Now, it’s hard to describe how darn excited I was to be going to the Blue Basin. Take your average 2-year old child, feed it a few pounds of sweets, add-in a puppy and you’ve just about got the visual of what I looked like driving through the gorge to our hike. Poor hubby was forced to suffer my excess of inane espresso-fueled chatter the entire way:
Did you know the hills are blue…I mean really blue…actually blue-green…I mean far out blue..29 million years old blue…did you??!!
Thankfully the rather stunning scenery distracted his attention -> lovely curves of the John Day river, an unexpected gorge right before you enter the monument and then arriving finally at our hike. There are two main hikes around the 29-million year old blue-green claystone formation that gives this area it’s name. The ~3 mile Blue Basin Overlook (or rim) trail and the ~1 mile Island In Time trail into the center of the beast, all of which are dog friendly**. Our goal was to do both (which I highly recommend) so we gathered our backpacks and started the climb up the hill.
Me oh my how can I describe the visual impact? The first time you see this strange blue formation is really something else. Formed by spewing layers of volcanic ash-turned-stone it’s like a 600-foot layer-upon-layer mountain of whipped cream topping in brilliant blue-green…and it’s so intense it almost seems like a mirage.
“Holy moly” declared Paul “it really is blue”
A steep climb along a lovely trail leads to a panoramic view right into the center of the basin and I tell you, it takes your breath away. As you walk around the rim you keep getting shifting views of the blue-green in hues that move with the sun***, and when you finally hit the Island in Time trail and walk into the center it’s like you’ve wandered into a different world. Oh, did I mention the cool fossils on the latter trail?
We followed our hike with a drive to Cathedral Rock and a stop at the most excellent Visitor Center. In the latter you’ll read about the entire history of the region, as well as get the chance to touch specimens of ancient history and drool over actual paleontologists working on fossils in the windowed lab (yes, it is drool-worthy stuff). It’s one of the best visitor centers I’ve been to in a long time and I definitely recommend it.
Filled with visions of blue we made our way home to dedicate yet another rum & coke, this time in thanks to the RV Travel Gods (we make sure to cover our bases in the beast). My first dream fulfilled I started to ponder the next portion of my visual escapade a few days away. You see despite my abundant excitement at this spot, blue-eyed Sinatra said it most fittingly when he crooned “the best is yet to come“. Prepare yourself for the artistic madness of the Painted Hills….
* CAMPING -> Clyde Holliday State Park is ~40 mins East of Sheep Rock Unit and a very pleasant spot to stay. If you want to be closer and have full hookups The Fish House Inn & RV Park is in Dayville and only a skip and a jump from the Sheep Rock Unit.
** DOGS IN THE PARK -> Dogs are permitted on leash throughout the entire monument & on all the Basin Trails. The 3-mile Overlook trail is great, but the 1-mile Island in Time trail that leads into the center of the basin has 13 sharply grated metal bridges which are not great for paws. If you want to bring doggie on this latter trail I recommend paw covers (or you’ll have to carry them over the bridges). Trail information HERE.
*** PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS -> For the photography buffs amongst you, the best time to get lit pics of the Blue Basin is between 10AM and 2PM. Before/after this time the sun starts to cast shadows in the basin (still great for pics, but just a different mood). Midday the blues are rather washed out while late afternoon the blue-greens are deeper.