John Day Fossil Beds: Fossil here, fossil there, fossils everywhere!

Portland’s rainy season has been rough, so it’s important to find weekend trips away from the bad weather. If you live in Portland, this could be Bend, Sun River, or anywhere east of the Cascade Range. For us, it was Sisters. The sun shines there more often and the region is filled with interesting landscapes to explore. One of my favorite destinations is the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument including the Painted Sands, Clarno Palisades and Sheep Rock.

Welcome to the Present. There are no dinosaurs here. They died 65 million years ago. This is the Cenozoic Era – the Age of Mammals. Here [John Day Fossil Beds National Monument], there are fossils from over 40 million years of the most recent era of the earth – a time span nearly unheard of in a single locality. How did so many fossils get preserved here, over and over again? Why are they important? NPS

Saturday evening, we arrived in Sisters to stay at the Best Western Ponderosa Lodge. When we arrived, we were offered the manager’s special suite and complimentary water and snacks because of our Best Western Diamond Elite status. 😉 Some of the special features of this place are the llamas, song birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and its proximity to pine forests. Oh, I guess you could also include the hot tub and pool in the summer.

Bronco Billy’s “melt in your mouth” filet mignon was suggested to us as a casual dining spot you “shouldn’t miss” if you’re in Sisters, and that sounded perfect to us. Unfortunately, the steak was very rare despite its exceptional quality. The sides were almost inedible, especially the “pilaf”. If that was pilaf, it was not cooked. It was like eating little rocks stuck to the veggie kebab. The drinks were stiff and we both liked the wings. I loved their potato skins and the Caesar salad was very good, too. The worst part is that we were both a bit sick the next day. It was either the rare meat or maybe something else – we’re not sure.

The hotel was very nice and we felt right at home in the large suite. The decor was high-class log cabin and western theme, perfect for our trip through Eastern Oregon. The walk-in shower and two-person hot tub was a perfect way to relax before a long day of driving. We also sat out on the balcony at night and relaxed by the gas fireplace to warm the evening chill.

We took advantage of the free breakfast at the hotel, but I am sure there are several other options in town. Once we left Sisters, we saw mostly ghost towns. The old architecture was really cool, many similar to what would have been there during the wild west days. From Sisters, our first stop was the Painted Hills.

As you explore these colorful hills and protected areas, you begin to notice that they are in fact composed of tiny pebble-like clay bits of diverse material. Each color is spilled in layers onto the Earth in large piles. Some areas of this place express their expansive views from above, while other paths give you an opportunity for a close-up inspection.

We even had a moment with a young Bearded Dragon lizard. It seemed that he was more afraid of the bird overhead than us, so we were able to get pretty close for a photo opportunity.

The next stop was the John Day Fossil Beds Visitors Center, where there are some excellent fossils on display. Just outside the Visitors Center is Sheep Rock, this area is known for the pale greens and blues mixed into the cliffs. The Visitors Center staff encouraged us to go to the rural town of Fossil to dig fossils for ourselves. As we drove along the John Day River, we discovered an ancient riverbed with huge boulders of compounded river rock and silt.

We collected several large rocks along the John Day River, just outside the Visitors Center. At first, they looked a lot like concrete boulders, but the rocks in concrete don’t generally break evenly and these boulders were huge. Suddenly it occurred to me: this was an ancient riverbed unearthed by the river’s cutting powers. High up in the cliffs, you can see what’s left of giant waterfalls. Some even look like staircases.

We drove through the Clarno Palisades on our way to Fossil. Thank heavens this place was preserved. I’ve never seen anything quite so mystical. They should call this area the “rainbow cliffs.”

We were starving by the time we arrived in Fossil, so we decided on Big Timber Family Restaurant. The club sandwich on marbled rye was perfect. It could have used more turkey and ham, but it was good. I loved the onion rings and the burgers looked awesome.

After our dinner, we drove a quarter mile to Wheeler High School on Jay St., the do-it-yourself fossil-digging site. The fee is $5 per person. We stuck a ten-dollar bill in the box, grabbed some tools and knee pads, and hit the hill. Todd was first to see the fossils, I joined him, and sure thing: they were everywhere. Together we took 5 high-quality slates that are now on display in our plant window. The river rock we collected earlier will be placed around our new yard design.

I’m glad we got out of the car and explored. I would have liked to have hiked a longer route, but as usual we were limited on time.

As we traveled on, we realized we were very low on gas. Truthfully, we weren’t sure the car would make it to the nearest station and we did not see a single station all day. I believe every good journey has a little misadventure. We eventually rolled into a station and filled her up, but it was a close call.

The sun set as we arrived home. It was a long day: about 13 hours’ travel time from Sisters, through the highlights of the park, to our front door.

Interesting links:

Oregon Paleo Lands Institute

Route Map:

Dig Site:

Wheeler High School Fossil Dig SIte Map

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