Sunday, July 8, 2012

John Day Fossil Beds and Painted Hills

This past weekend Emily and I joined Kevin and Alexa for a trip to the Painted Hills and the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Eastern Oregon.  Watershed moved the day off for the 4th of July holiday to Friday so people could have a three day weekend.  Unfortunately, Emily had to work friday so we had to leave in the afternoon while Kevin and Alexa got an early start that morning.  This worked out well though, as they were able to secure a pretty sweet camp spot for us off Highway 26 near John Day.

After about a 4 hour drive over the Cascades and east along Highway 26 we arrived at the campsite around 9pm just as the sun was setting beautifully to the west.  We unpacked and had a few beers around a camp lantern they had brought before heading to bed. 

On Saturday morning we woke up fairly early and headed to a the Thomas Candon Paleontology Visitor Center in the park to check out the exhibits.  This area of Eastern Oregon is loaded with fossils and over many millions of years the landscape changed from swamps to the dry desert we have today.  The short story without getting to deep into the geology is that through volcanism and the changing landscape over time different layers were established in the geology of the area from each type of ecosystem.  Later uplift and erosion have both exposed the many colorful layers over time as well as myriad fossils from the different plants and animals of each time period making the area a hot bed for paleontology and archeologists.  We stayed at the visitor center long enough to snap some photos of the exhibits and the outside surroundings as well as listen to a short presentation by a park ranger about the fossils in the area before moving on to our hikes for the day.

Our first hike was a three mile loop called the Blue Basin Overlook Trail.  It first started alongside a field whose crops were being watered so the bright green really stood out against the drab colors of the surrounding rocks.  We then found ourselves climbing about 500 feet up along a ridge until we were looking down into some magnificent blue rock.  We then saw a bunch of birds called Chukar fly/run themselves up the face of the rock as we approached.  They were funny looking birds that resembled grouse.

The blue rock was definitely vastly different than the surrounding area and through time and erosion had formed very cool features that looked like fins running down the hillsides.  In the distance there was a hillside of exposed red rock that really contrasted the blue.  For a geologist, this area was pretty darn beautiful.  I took the time to snap a few good photos of Emily in front of all the beautiful rock layers.

Unfortunately for Dromi, she was a black dog and not a geologist.  A black dog without sneakers on.... It soon became apparent that the hot sand was of the late morning was hurting her as she insisted on stopping in any shady area for a bit before continuing on.  Eventually, Kevin and I took turns carrying her over sections and she didn’t resist at all.  We gave her water continually, but the rocks were just too hot for her.  When we got back down to the car we ate some lunch and watched a mule deer run across the opposite slope before moving on to our next hikes.

We drove north on Highway 19 to the Story in Stone and Flood of Fire paths.  These were very short quarter-mile paths that took us to a couple overlooks over more colored rock.  Alexa and Emily both shared the task of staying in the shade with Dromi at a picnic table while we checked out the trails.  They weren’t anything to write home about but the Flood of Fire trail had a pretty good overlook at a wall of rock with colors ranging from red and orange at the top to a turquoise bue at the base.  

By this point in the day we were really hot in the nearly 100 degree desert heat so I spotted us a good swimming hole in the John Day River along Highway 19 for us to take a break in.  We spent a good half hour or more swimming in the shallow river and to our shock and amazement, Dromi jumped into the river on her own accord.  This is unheard of because the dog seems to despise stepping in any water but perhaps the heat simply got to her and instinct took over.  She swam all around but because it is so new to her when we scooped her up out of the water her tiny little paws kept paddling away anyway.  The dip definitely cooled her off and she instantly seemed like a happier dog.

We then drove into Dayville through Picture Canyon to grab some more ice, drinks, and ice cream at the very beautiful Dayville Mercantile general store.  This town was so small that if you blinked you would miss it.  There was a gang of bikers across the street taking a break before continuing on their ride and I felt bad for them all because immediately as they began to leave the sky opened up in a drenching thunderstorm.  We simply waited on the porch of the store until the showers were over before heading back to our campsite.  

On the way back we attempted to find a lake deep in the woods but the road was too rough and too far for the Prius with no guarantee there was any water in the lake anyway so we bailed on the plan. Instead, we found a sunny area with some logs to sit on and drank in the sun along the road for a bit before heading back to our campsite for dinner and more tasty drinks.  

That night was fun as we felt safe starting a small fire after the rain during the day and we had plenty of good drinks and food to eat.  Dromi was absolutely exhausted except for perking up briefly when a mule deer made its way through our campsite.   It was nice to spend one last night camping with our housemates as this may be the last time for a while after we move to Washington.  

Not sure what time we went to bed but I had a truly terrible night with stomach pains and some of the worst heartburn I’ve ever had which forced me to puke (loudly) a short distance from camp.  Embarrassing because there were a few other couples in the campsite area as well that may have heard me at 3am.   Not sure why I get heartburn so randomly and so severely... it sucks.

On Sunday we made our way to the Painted Hills Unit of the National Monument for a few more short hikes.  This area was truly the most beautiful of the whole weekend.  When we first entered the area we took the Painted Hills Overlook Trail for some amazing views of the yellow-red banded hillsides all around us.  Signs everywhere said to stay off the hillsides but apparently the deer don’t pay attention to them because there were hoof prints over all of them.  All the trails in the area were really short so Dromi was able to come on them with us.  

After the overlook trail we traveled deeper into the hills for the Painted Cove Trail which was an interpretive sign trail over a boardwalk through a brightly colored landscape.  The clay of the hills is so compact that no life can grow on it and the hills dynamically change color throughout the year as cracks open up in the clay in the dry season introducing shadows and contrast which give them a deeper color while in the wet season they close up giving the hills a more pastel color.  It was pretty interesting to read about as we walked around the area.  In the distance we could see a large body of water calling to us but unfortunately it was private land and we couldn’t gain access to it.

Our last two hikes in the area were on the short Leaf Hill Trail and the Red Hill trail.  The Leaf Hill Trail was apparently a very popular place for fossil hunting in the 90’s as thousands of plant fossils were discovered there.  The hillside was littered with loose rock fragments.  I couldn’t tell if this was left over from the paleontologists or just rocks that became exposed through erosion.  I was hoping on the trip to see more mammal fossils and we saw a few signs with plastic molds of fossils strapped to them but we not much more than that.  Red Hill was a very short trail that I literally jogged to get a better view of the colorful backside of the very red triangle-shaped hill.  

Looking at the map we realized that we had literally walked all the short trails of the National Monument so we decided to head home rather than stay in the hot desert heat.  We happily stopped at the Ochocco Reservoir for a picnic lunch and a dip with Dromi who refused this time to go for a swim.  Apparently, she was a good temperature but watching her whine and yip at our encouragements was funny.  From there it was about a three hour drive back over the Cascades to Corvallis for a relaxing night at home before I had to drive back up to Salmon Creek for my first full week at the PDX office.

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