The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is located in a region of central Oregon that is surrounded by deep National Forests, yet this colorful landscape is far removed from the sea of green. Interstate Highway 26 runs close by and State Road 19 runs through the entire length of this park, which is composed of three separate districts and a paleontology center. The main touring route parallels the John Day River, which is a world class fly fishing destination of its own. Because there is so much ground to cover in this park, doing some camping, wild berry picking and fishing while exploring the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a traditional way to go. The neighboring Malheur National Forest offers plenty of good basecamp options, while the town of John Day is nearby and stocking up is easy to do.
The name John Day appears on nearly everything in central Oregon and the more often you see this moniker, the closer you will likely be to the National Monument. John Day was a hired hunter working for the Pacific Fur Company back in the early 1800s and he had nothing to do with the fossil bed discoveries, which occurred at a much later date. John Day really must have been a monumental mountain man character, because nearly every geographical feature in this region bears his name. The old stories surrounding John Day are sketchy and his actual death is loaded with dubious tales, which add to the bigger than life itself reputation.
The fossil beds were fairly well known on a local level back in the early 1860s and the worth of ancient artifacts was not yet at peak or this unprotected area likely would have been plundered. Fortunately an entrepreneurial scientist back east named Thomas Condon got word of this rich Oregon fossil bed area and shortly after arrival established the first digs. Thomas Condon basically turned the barren hills into an official paleontology site during a period in history when unauthorized fossil excavations were just starting to become rampant, due to sheer demand for fossils by museums and aristocrats worldwide. Many of the first fossils unearthed at John Day are on display at the Smithsonian Museum, which is a society that Thomas Condon became closely associated with.
The John Day Fossils Beds drew the attention of many prominent natural history scholars and a professor named Merriam finally convinced the State Of Oregon to purchase the land in this region as a means of protection in the 1890s. Deeds were settled in the mid 1900s and finally the John Day Fossil Beds became a National Monument in 1975. Included were the three districts along the John Day River, which are unique geological areas that are well worth experiencing.
The Sheep Rock Unit is where the historic Cant Ranch, Thomas Condon Paleontology Center and the visitor center are located, so this is a good place to start a venture. There are several fossil trails in the Sheep Rock Unit, so an entire day can be spent exploring this section. The Clarno Unit features a fossil rich ancient volcanic ash and mud strata, from a time in history when this region was a lush green swamp jungle full of life. The Painted Hills Unit is by far the most famous destination in this park and all it takes is one look to see why. Eons of erosive forces have exposed the multi color layers of sedimentary rock strata and the colors are bright enough to play tricks on the eyes. The Painted Hills Unit looks more like a surreal vision than reality, so be prepared for the jaw to drop in awe!
The Picture Gorge Indian Paintings, Blue Basin and the Bull Canyon Ranch are a few more interesting places to experience when touring the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, so when it is all added up, it is easy to see that one day will not be enough time to take it all in. Landscape artists can spend an entire week composing a masterpiece at the Painted Hills alone, so setting up a campsite in the neighboring National Forests is the best way to go. The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is guaranteed to be an experience of a lifetime for visitors of all ages, so be sure to chalk this famous Oregon destination high on the list!
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