By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Oregon's ancient wonders

If, on a rainy, dreary Yamhill County day, boredom sets in, start planning next summer’s travels.

If you have not yet explored Oregon’s John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, put this 20,000-square-mile spread, established in 1974, at the top of your list. Geologists tout these as the richest fossil beds in the world. In a sense, they also are catacombs of the world — not as a repository for human bones, but for the evolutionary evidence of plants and animals from millions of years past.

This National Monument, one of four in Oregon, consists of three units: Sheep Rock, Clarno and Painted Hills, some 70 miles apart. Visiting them all in one day is a challenge, but a good place to start is the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center on Highway 19 between Kimberly and Dayville in Grant County.

If you, your kids or your grandkids think fossils are boring and blah, this visitor center and museum — a “green building” powered by solar panels and windmill generators — may change this thinking. On a walk through the Age of Mammals, eight large murals bring to life the plants and animals found fossilized here. Through the picture windows in the lobby, you view the working laboratory and collection rooms housing 45,000 specimens.

If your kids like dinosaurs, they’ll be wowed by the scary animals that once lived here: bear-dogs the size of a wolf, huge rhino-like animals called brontotheres, saber-tooth catlike animals called nimravids, entelodonts that resembled warthogs but were as tall as bison. Camels, elephants, ground sloths, three-toed-horses, mouse deer and tapirs lived here. Fossils have been found of true cats that crossed over from Asia.

Whereas junipers and sagebrush are today prominent on Central and Eastern Oregon landscapes, parts of the National Monument area once were a wet, lush semitropical forest with vines and creepers resembling Panama’s jungles today. Some of this terrain had annual rainfall of nearly 10 feet.

Fossilized remnants of 300 plant species have been found here, such as palm, early magnolia, banana, moonseeds, chestnuts and walnuts.

Located near the Paleontology Center on Highway 19 is the James Cant Ranch Historic District. In 1900, James and Elizabeth Cant came from Scotland and ranched here until the National Park Service purchased their ranch in the l970s. The Cant home is one of my favorite spots in the park. When I worked at the county agent’s office in Canyon City, a co-worker was Christina Cant, the Cants’ daughter. Often on holidays or weekends, I rode with Christina as far as her parents’ house, and my parents met me there to take me home. I remember well visiting with the Cants and what gracious people they were.

This renovated 1917 Cant ranch now houses the park headquarters and a museum depicting the lifestyle there from the Native Americans to sheep and cattle ranchers. You can tour the original ranch buildings and check out ranching equipment of yesteryear.

In a sense, the John Day Fossil Beds Park — named for the John Day River— is like a three-ring circus. Each of the park’s units has different scenery and attractions. These wild landscapes were largely fashioned by ash-laden mudflows and molten lava from nearby erupting volcanos.

The Paleontology Visitor Center in the Sheep Rock Unit has picnic areas, interpretive exhibits and restrooms. Goose Rock, also in this unit, was formed by river-carried materials settling on the ocean bottom l00 million years ago. The panoramic view from Mascall Formation Overlook takes in the upper John Day Valley, Picture Gorge and the Strawberry Mountains range.

Bring hiking boots. Trails are available in all units, such as the Sheep Rock Flood of Fire Trail, the Story in Stone Trail, Blue Basin Overlook Trail. The Sheep Rock three-mile Overlook Trail rewards with panoramic vistas.

My favorite is the Blue Basin Island in Time Trail — an easy one-miler through colorful badlands — banded layers deposited 29 million years ago. The varied shades of blue — pale to sky blue to cobalt — remind one of colorful Bryce Canyon, although of different colors. It’s best to not bring your dog on this trail. Its 13 short bridges are surfaced with rough metal grating uncomfortable for dogs to walk on. You’d probably need to carry your dog across.

The Clarno Unit, 10 miles west of Fossil off state highway 218, has a picnic area, restrooms and the Hancock Field Station operated by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. It can be visited only by appointment. Two trails in this unit include interpretive displays and offer exploration of the towering 150-foot high Palisades. On the Trail of the Fossils, you see actual fossils embedded in the rock and the Clarno Arch Trail leads to a natural bridge arch.

If you haven’t seen Oregon’s Painted Hills, they are a must: 10 miles west of Mitchell off US 26, picnic tables, exhibits, restrooms. Don’t settle for views from your car; take to the trails such as Painted Cove, a short hike through crimson, popcorn textured claystone. Hike Painted Hills Overlook at sunset for views of spectacular color-splashed hummocks and hills. The 1.5-mile Carroll Rim Trail, likewise, provides outstanding sights.

Geologist Dr. Ralph W. Chaney noted, “No region in the world shows us a more complete sequence of Tertiary land population, both plant and animal, than the John Day Basin.”

This National Monument presents an entire chapter of Earth’s history and tells the story of that changing life and landscape.

It behooves us to visit these fossil beds. We are told they may provide a glimpse of what our future could hold.

A word of caution: Start planning your visit now. Gas, lodging, restaurants aren’t around every bend in the park. Camping is not permitted. For information, you could start by contacting the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument at 32651 Highway 19, Kimberly, OR 97848; 541-987-2333; or

Elaine Rohse can be reached at


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