Road Trip 2022: John Day Fossil Beds

 

In July, we took a road trip from Los Angeles to Anacortes, WA. Taking the inland US-395 route, our first day took us to Reno, NV, and our second to John Day, OR.

John Day is a nice small town in eastern Oregon, just over halfway through the state, going north on US-395. John Day and the John Day River are named for a hunter from the backwoods of Virginia who was attacked by Indians near the mouth of the Mau Mau river in 1812. He survived the attack and people started calling the river the “John Day River.” It is interesting to note that he spent no time near where the town of John Day is today.

We arrived in late afternoon, checked into the Best Western John Day Inn, and started to think about dinner. We were lucky, the Outpost Pizza Pub & Grill was just a couple of blocks away. I had an interesting chicken dish they call Alice Chicken. It was grilled chicken topped with bacon, mushrooms, cheese, and a sauce. It was pretty good.

We were up early the next morning. After the hotel-provided breakfast, we headed east out of town on US-26. US-395 turned north in Mt. Vernon and we left it behind. Our destination for the day was Bellevue, WA, but on our route is the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The national monument has three fairly widespread units in central Oregon. Our route would take us by the Sheep Rock Unit.

We turned off of US-26 onto Oregon 19, about five miles east of Dayville. We had a nice 20-minute stop while the highway repair crews ferried us through a very long stretch of one-lane road as they were repaving. Oregon 19 follows the John Day River through a very pretty canyon. After a few miles, we came to the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, one of the major facilities in the national monument.

Unfortunately for us, the center is closed on Mondays. We continued our drive north and stopped at the Foree Picnic Area. There are two short and easy trails here, the Flood of Fire trail and the Story in Stone trail. These trails, both less than a half mile (one kilometer) round trip, take you up the hillside into some interesting rock formations.

The hills above the John Day River Valley are impressive. They are capped with a layer of lava that was laid down in a large eruption near Burns, OR, 7 million years ago. This layer is known as the Rattlesnake Formation. Click on any picture to see a full-sized image.

The steep hillside above Foree Picnic area in John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

The path is paved and not particularly steep.

An easy trail amongst the rock formations

Looking across the valley to the west, you can see blue-green claystone formations in what they call the Turtle Cove assemblage. The claystone was formed from superheated gases, ash, and pulverized rock that came from volcanoes to the west. This fine-grained sedimentary rock is a source for many fossils. We stayed on the path.

Looking across the green claystone formations toward the John Day River.

The weathering formations are quite interesting.

A large outcropping of blue-green claystone

At the end of the trail, there is a large eroded area that is quite pretty below the lava-capped side of the valley.

Looking south across the eroded soil as a plane flies overhead

They make sure you know you have reached the end of the trail.

In case you were lost, they let you know you’ve reached the end of the trail.

The view from the top of the trail is quite nice.

A panorama shot looking west from the top of the trail

After our little hike, we continued north on Oregon 19. It is a very pretty drive, first along the John Day River, then turning north through a forested area before emerging on the basaltic plateau of north-central Oregon. We only saw other cars about every 15-20 minutes — that is my kind of drive. From the plateau, you can see the massive volcanoes of the Cascade Range.

After turning west in Condon onto Oregon 206, we had great views of four volcanoes. But which was which? We then came across the Mountain Identifier. This round concrete slab has plaques on it identifying the mountains.

A handy guide for identifying mountains

The plaques in the cement identify the mountains and provide their height.  For Mt. St. Helens, it provided its height both before and after its huge eruption in 1980.

Details of the mountain identifier

The parade of volcanoes: Mt. JeffersonMt. HoodMt. St. HelensMt. Adams, and Mt. Rainier. Definitely click on this picture to see it full-sized.

From left to right, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Rainier

From there we went north, picking up US-97 in Wasco. We crossed the Columbia River at Biggs Junction, met up with Interstate-82 in Yakima. We merged onto Interstate 90 in Ellensburg and reached Bellevue by mid-afternoon.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    We haven’t taken an honest-to-God road trip in many years, and reading this post is a great exercise in armchair travel! Thanks, Clavius. 

    • #1
  2. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Interesting geology. I wonder what the blue-green stuff is.

    • #2
  3. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Percival (View Comment):

    Interesting geology. I wonder what the blue-green stuff is.

    It is claystone:

    Claystone: A fine-grained sedimentary rock. Claystone at John Day Fossil Beds was formed through weathering of volcanic ash that was incorporated into ancient soils.

    See also: https://www.nps.gov/joda/learn/nature/geologicformations.htm

     

    • #3
  4. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    We haven’t taken an honest-to-God road trip in many years, and reading this post is a great exercise in armchair travel! Thanks, Clavius.

    Happy to oblige…

    • #4
  5. Chuck Thatcher
    Chuck
    @Chuckles

    You had me at fossil beds:  Last time we visited the dinosaur footprints near Glen Rose, Texas we tented – in a cemetery.

    • #5
  6. The Great Adventure Coolidge
    The Great Adventure
    @TGA

    Not as interesting as the road trip, but I’ve flown into Portland several hundred times over the past 25 years.  The approach from the East on a clear day never fails to impress.  If you look out the window on the right side of the plane you will see the Washington Cascades,  Mt Adams, Mt St Helens, Mt Rainier, and Mt Baker.  Out the left side you’ll see Mt Hood (and often feel like you can reach out and touch it), Mt Jefferson,  Three Fingered Jack, The Three Sisters, and on a super clear day perhaps even Mt Shasta down in California.  The mischievous side of me loves to point out to newbies on that approach that every last one of them is a volcano.

    Portland has become a well publicized cesspool.  The tragedy is that the state itself is breathtakingly beautiful.  I’d put her up against any of the other 49.

    • #6
  7. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    The Great Adventure (View Comment):

    Not as interesting as the road trip, but I’ve flown into Portland several hundred times over the past 25 years. The approach from the East on a clear day never fails to impress. If you look out the window on the right side of the plane you will see the Washington Cascades, Mt Adams, Mt St Helens, Mt Rainier, and Mt Baker. Out the left side you’ll see Mt Hood (and often feel like you can reach out and touch it), Mt Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, The Three Sisters, and on a super clear day perhaps even Mt Shasta down in California. The mischievous side of me loves to point out to newbies on that approach that every last one of them is a volcano.

    Portland has become a well publicized cesspool. The tragedy is that the state itself is breathtakingly beautiful. I’d put her up against any of the other 49.

    It really is a beautiful area.

    • #7
  8. Gary Robbins Member
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    I’d like to remark on the first part of your trip on U.S. 395.  It starts in the desert, and very, very slowly climbs in elevation.  It transitions from desert to grasslands, to an occasional tree, to more frequent pine trees, and all of a sudden you are in a pine forest.  What a lovely drive.

    • #8
  9. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    I’d like to remark on the first part of your trip on U.S. 395. It starts in the desert, and very, very slowly climbs in elevation. It transitions from desert to grasslands, to an occasional tree, to more frequent pine trees, and all of a sudden you are in a pine forest. What a lovely drive.

    I could not agree more.  With family in Anacortes, us-395 is our preferred route when drive up there.  The Owens Valley with the Sierras shooting up to the west is just beautiful.

    • #9
  10. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Great post.

     

    • #10
  11. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    I’ve hunted in the John Day area and in the Oregon coast area. I don’t hunt anymore because it’s difficult to find a reliable partner(s) to hunt with. I used a scoped rifle in the John Day area and a Winchester lever action 30/30 with iron sights in the Coast range. A scoped rifle in the Coast Range is useless in the thick undergrowth and trees of the Coast Range.

    I can be on the Oregon Coast in less than an hour, in Oregon wine country in less than 30 minutes, and in the beautiful Big Nowhere of Eastern and Central Oregon in a little over two hours.

    I’ve seen many beautiful areas in the US. From Arizona, Nevada, California, Texas, Idaho, Utah, Montana, and California. Oregon without a doubt is one of the most beautiful states in the Union, and in the world for that matter.

    • #11
  12. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    I’d like to remark on the first part of your trip on U.S. 395. It starts in the desert, and very, very slowly climbs in elevation. It transitions from desert to grasslands, to an occasional tree, to more frequent pine trees, and all of a sudden you are in a pine forest. What a lovely drive.

    When you drive north on 395 you have the desert on the passenger side and the wall of the Sierra Nevada mountains on the driver side. It’s impressive and humbling.

    • #12
  13. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Beautiful photos, Clavius. Our country offers so many different and colorful landscapes. Thanks!

    • #13
  14. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Beautiful photos, Clavius. Our country offers so many different and colorful landscapes. Thanks!

    Thank you Susan!

    • #14
  15. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    I’ve hunted in the John Day area and in the Oregon coast area. I don’t hunt anymore because it’s difficult to find a reliable partner(s) to hunt with. I used a scoped rifle in the John Day area and a Winchester lever action 30/30 with iron sights in the Coast range. A scoped rifle in the Coast Range is useless in the thick undergrowth and trees of the Coast Range.

    I can be on the Oregon Coast in less than an hour, in Oregon wine country in less than 30 minutes, and in the beautiful Big Nowhere of Eastern and Central Oregon in a little over two hours.

    I’ve seen many beautiful areas in the US. From Arizona, Nevada, California, Texas, Idaho, Utah, Montana, and California. Oregon without a doubt is one of the most beautiful states in the Union, and in the world for that matter.

    Now if the Oregonians can just elect a governor like DeSantis it would be a paradise. 

    • #15
  16. The Great Adventure Coolidge
    The Great Adventure
    @TGA

    DaveSchmidt (View Comment):

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    I’ve hunted in the John Day area and in the Oregon coast area. I don’t hunt anymore because it’s difficult to find a reliable partner(s) to hunt with. I used a scoped rifle in the John Day area and a Winchester lever action 30/30 with iron sights in the Coast range. A scoped rifle in the Coast Range is useless in the thick undergrowth and trees of the Coast Range.

    I can be on the Oregon Coast in less than an hour, in Oregon wine country in less than 30 minutes, and in the beautiful Big Nowhere of Eastern and Central Oregon in a little over two hours.

    I’ve seen many beautiful areas in the US. From Arizona, Nevada, California, Texas, Idaho, Utah, Montana, and California. Oregon without a doubt is one of the most beautiful states in the Union, and in the world for that matter.

    Now if the Oregonians can just elect a governor like DeSantis it would be a paradise.

    Shhh!!!  Drazan has a chance.  Don’t jinx it!  Not that she’s a DeSantis, and not that she would have a Republican legislature if elected, but baby steps.  

    • #16
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