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John Day Fossil Beds

Weird beasts? Tropical forests? Volcanoes? Eastern Oregon can tell you some tall tales.

Painted Hills at John Day Fossil Beds
Photo caption
The blazing colors in the Painted Hills come from volcanic ash rich in iron and manganese.

Like many a parent of a 6-year-old boy, I know more than I ever expected to about prehistoric animals such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops, from the shape of their teeth to what they enjoyed for breakfast. But standing on a hillside in eastern Oregon, surrounded by a crenellated, khaki-colored landscape usually associated with Arizona, I realize that I know nothing whatsoever about the unfathomably strange creatures that came after the dinosaurs. So-called terminator pigs the size of bison with enormous, meat-shearing teeth. Toy saber-toothed nimravids, as big as a bobcat. Tiny three-toed ponies, and beasts that resembled horses—but with claws. Between the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago and the arrival of upright protohumans 3 million years ago—the era known as the Age of Mammals—hundreds of species emerged, flourished, then vanished or evolved.

And there are few better places to learn about them than Oregon’s sparsely populated John Day Basin, some 100 miles northeast of Bend along Highway 26, where the brontothere, distant cousin of the rhino, and the sheeplike oreodont left immaculately preserved fossils in the volcanic stone. In 1975, the federal government established the 14,000-acre John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, which is composed of three separate spreads a few hours’ drive apart. You can visit all of these units in a single, ambitious day—or stretch a trip into a week of fossil gazing, hiking, rafting, and poking around the region’s rugged towns.

The essential first stop for any visit is the excellent Thomas Condon Paleontology Center at the Sheep Rock Unit just north of Dayville. This richly informative museum explains the region’s ancient wealth with exhibits including touch-screen TVs, computers, and kids’ art projects. "What John Day has that is really unique over any place on Earth is the amount of time that’s represented in the rocks," says paleobotanist Regan Dunn. "It’s an almost completely continuous 40-million-year period, so you can see the animals and plants changing through time."

For millennia, what is now eastern Oregon was perched on the geologically volatile edge of the still-forming continent of North America, and volcanoes regularly spewed silica-rich ash—ideal for fossil formation—over the local flora and fauna. Since the 1860s, paleontologists at John Day have been piecing together a dramatic tale of climate change, evolution, and extinction. Dunn spends time in the center’s lab, which visitors can observe through a window. "Once the rock is taken off a petrified skull, that’s the first time anyone has seen it," Dunn says. "People have a sense of discovery watching the process."

They can also see the bounty of the paleontologists’ labor in this museum, with its 50,000 skull, femur, nut, and leaf fossils. Many of these are displayed against eerie paintings of what the area might have looked like, say, 40 million years ago: densely forested and teeming with creatures seemingly from a fantasy novel.

Outside the museum, you have to use your imagination. Along the nearby Island of Time Trail, you can view replicas of fossils, from the carnivorous, catlike nimravid to the delicate, grazing miohippus. But to see real fossils in the field, head to the monument’s Clarno Unit, an hour’s drive north. Dominated by cliffs carved by volcanic mudflows, the Clarno has juniper and hackberry that look as if they’ve been growing here forever. The stones tell a different story. An easy quarter-mile interpretive walk winds past imprints of tropical plants like palms; paleo-botanists have also found the fossilized seeds of tiny bananas here. What happened to Oregon’s palms and bananas? Scientists believe that roughly 34 million years ago, as sea currents shifted, temperatures cooled across the globe, and rainfall decreased, the wildlife of eastern Oregon began to look more and more like it does today.

Probably the most arresting portion of the monument is the beautiful Painted Hills Unit, nine miles northwest of the town of Mitchell. Along the Leaf Hill Trail, thousands of leaf fossils have been unearthed—revealing much of what we know about Oregon’s ancient forests. But the real draw here is the scenery: soft, roast beef–colored hummocks and striated hills that are vividly streaked by iron and manganese in ribbons of gold, taupe, and burgundy.

The nearby small towns offer their own brand of local color. Fossil (pop. 460) has one of the few public fossil-hunting sites in the United States, where, from April to October, for just $3, you can dig in the shale behind the high school football field; almost everyone leaves with a fossil of metasequoia needles or fish bones. At the 1883 general store, look for handmade quilts and sandwich fixings. The 1896 Mercantile in Dayville is another place to stock up on picnic supplies.

Mostly what you want to do here is be outside in the mountainous high desert landscape. Roads thread through craggy canyons such as Picture Gorge, past ramshackle barns, grazing cattle, rivers, and creeks. At the lovely Cant Ranch house, built in 1917 by Scottish farmer James Cant, you can have lunch alongside the wide, serpentine John Day River. Cant once hosted "skip to my Lou" parties in the big white house, which was recently converted into a museum packed with various artifacts: Mother Cant’s recipe for macaroon cake, a beaver trap, a sack of oily sheep’s wool. An old haystacker hulks in the orchard, surrounded by heirloom fruit trees, like black gilliflower apple. In the hills and flatlands where catlike nimravids and terminator pigs once stalked their prey, you can wander the Cant Ranch and explore the rest of the John Day Basin in search of a glimpse of the past and a restful escape.

Photography by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel

This article was first published in September 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.