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An Undiscovered Treasure in Oregon

One of my favorite little-known units administered by our National Park Service is the extraordinary John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (JDFB), created in north-central Oregon by Act of Congress in 1975. This facility deserves to be upgraded to full “National Park” status, but regardless, it makes an ideal addition to a tour itinerary visiting Baker City, Pendleton and the Bend/Redmond area, or simply including a westbound journey toward Portland and the Oregon Coast.

JDFB is a perfect example of the treasures awaiting tour planners willing to go the extra mile to find unusual sites. Not only does the monument contain widespread fossilized evidence of some 44 million years of plant and animal life in what is now the Oregon badlands, but its magnificent scenic drives, panoramic vistas and unusual geology are sure to impress even the casual visitor. Special events are being planned for the National Park Service’s 100th Anniversary observance in 2016.

JDFB encompasses three different sites. A visit to the fascinating Sheep Rock Unit to explore its splendid geologic formations and the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center is a must. This is one of the finest such facilities in the nation, where guests can watch staff scientists through large picture windows as they process recently unearthed fossils. Nearby also are the historic Cant Ranch that serves as park headquarters and the easy but rewarding Sheep Rock Overlook, Story in Stone and Flood of Fire trails, each only half a mile round-trip, as well as longer hikes for more active travelers at Blue Basin.

About 40 miles away, travelers will find JDFB’s Painted Hills Unit along Bridge Creek. The spectacularly colored hills here are rivaled only by those in Arizona’s Painted Desert. Although there is no visitors center on-site, there is a small ranger station adjacent to the restroom facilities, plus several easy but excellent hikes — the Painted Hills Overlook, Painted Cove, Leaf Hill and Red Scar Knoll trails — all a half mile or less round-trip, as well as the more strenuous Carroll Rim Trail. As with JDFB’s other two units, motorcoach parking is available at all trailheads, so a group visit to the monument will not be complete unless guests disembark, get some exercise and do at least some exploring on foot.

The Sheep Rock and Painted Hills sites are likely to be the only ones included in most groups’ visits, simply because the Clarno Unit is even more remotely located, about 18 miles west of the town of Fossil on scenic state Route 218. However, groups with the extra time to visit Clarno are sure to enjoy exploring fossils preserved in the rocks along the Trail of Fossils here or the views from the Geologic Time Trails, both only half a mile long round-trip. Also, the community of Fossil itself is home to the exhibits of the Oregon Paleolands Institute, other local history museums and America’s sole public fossil field, where visitors paying the nominal entrance fee can collect up to three fossils each.

One of the added pleasures of visits to National Park Service units like JDFB is enjoying a delightful picnic lunch in a magnificent natural setting. All three sites at JDFB have attractive picnic areas. Coupled with the fact that restaurants with group dining facilities are few and far between in this rural part of Oregon, the wise tour planner will have made arrangements to pick up pre-ordered box lunches.