Saturday, August 28, 2010

where the fossils sleep

7/30 and 7/31 John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Travel fatigue, hot weather, and the feeling that we were running out of time and money kept us from taking time to linger in the places we saw after Jefferson City, MO. Still, we managed to scope out several places where we would like to return on future trips. These places are closer to our end of the continent a more leisurely return trip won't be too difficult, and maybe by then we'll have our Transit Connect to make camping out a more simple proposition. One of the spots on the map that I really wanted to check out for future reference was the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. There are three parts of this monument with short hiking trails and a visitor center but the area of the fossil beds them selves is enormous covering much of northern central Oregon and then some. The area has a long history of sedimentary geology interspersed with volcanic activity including basaltic lava flows and layers of ash fall. All this history and the erosion action of the John Day River (and a mess of tributaries) has created one of the richest and most continuous fossil records in the world. It presents a library of fossilised critters, plants, insects, and more spanning from 6 million to 54 million years ago. That makes it a nearly complete record of the Tertiary Period.
The visitor center is a must see for any aspiring fossilised bone sleuth. The displays will keep 'em busy for hours. The fine grain of the stone resulting from the ancient ash falls in the area has preserved some astonishing things, and the samples of leaves, seeds, and other plant materials preserved in a layer known as "the nut beds" (I just love that title) all look like they fell off the trees yesterday. The sound track playing inside the museum area is a little nutty. It is intended to offer the background noises of an ancient forest that once stood here. I was delighted, but the quantity of grunting and rustling of bushes makes the place sound like all 50 million years of critters had been herded into one little clearing in the forest.
The folks at the visitor center had a small map of campgrounds in the area so we decided to give it a go. I can't quite recommend any of the sites we visited, but they will do in a pinch. Unfortunately many of the camping facilities this part of Oregon to the north of the visitor center are not getting the maintenance they need. There were sites right along the river and some were popular and quite full even if they seemed barren. One of the pit toilet shacks we saw had the standard bullet holes in it. We did not visit it but the area to the south the John Day River might be a better bet. We did at last find one camp ground that was neither deserted nor full to over flowing. The tent sites were a bit too sloped and weedy but we were ready to take what we could get. The camp host visited in the morning and he was nice enough but the place is in need of some animal proof trash receptacles and even more in need of some pit toilet repair.

After an OK night (including an hour in the car while some thunder rolled through) and some hot chocolate in the morning, it was off to see the other parts of the fossil beds. On the way we couldn't help stop at a small hill top cemetery just outside the town of Fossil on highway 218.
Had to do some jumping.
The second part of the Fossil Beds Monument had more of the spectacular weathered rocks and some short hiking trails into the hills.
Exploring more of this layer cake of mineralized bones will have to wait for another trip with more time and another season when the days allow for some longer hikes. With a long way to go down the Columbia Gorge by the evening, it was time to head north into the wide wheat fields south of The Dalles. So long nut beds.


  1. I might have said this before but repeating cannot hurt... You really should have been a teacher. They would have made movies about you. This would be my ideal spot. I was such a dinosaur geek when I was little some of my mum's friends call me "Ross." Be safe.

  2. So interesting came back a second time. It is so hard for me to wrap my mind around 54 million years ago... amazing! Be safe.



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