Sunday, November 19, 2017

Cathedral Rock

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Located on Highway 19 north of Blue Basin
Sheep Rock Unit

Monday, November 13, 2017

Blue Basin

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Our Golden Rule when traveling:  Talk to the Locals.  This is how you learn about those offbeat places that turn out to be highlights of any trip.  When we told the receptionist at the Hotel Condon we were on our way to the Painted Hills, she said, "Make sure you go to the Blue Basin.  The hills are blue and green rather than red and yellow.  They're amazing."

These Oregon Badlands are located in the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  They are north of the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, which is another "Must See" on this particular road trip.
We decided to hike the Island in Time Trail because it follows the canyon floor.  We wanted to get a good hard look at these rugged  blue-green cliffs.  Plus, there are exhibits and fossil replicas along the way which tell the story of this fascinating landscape.  I mean . . . are you kidding . . . who wouldn't want to walk among sabertoothed nimravids, three-toed horses, mice-deer and lemur-like primates?

We had entered a Lost World.  Our imaginations were spinning.
Crocodile Rock

But watch out for snakes!

These rocks are younger than the ones found at Painted Hills.  The layered soils that make up these formations are only 24-30 million years old (!) and have provided paleontologists with fossil records of the Oligocene Epoch, which is the last epoch of the Tertiary Period.  Before the ancient Cascade eruptions, this was a beautiful time in Oregon's history.  Oaks, sycamores, hawthorns and evergreens dotted grassy meadows and animals roamed freely.  Food was in abundance.

The blue color comes from the rhyodacite ash of the volcanoes.  Each layer represents between 10,000 and 50,000 years.  As the cliffs erode, fossils are pushed to the surface, providing a gold mine for scientists.  Many of these fossils can be seen at the museum, and believe me, some of them are very very weird.  Dr. Suessian weird.

Walking among these ancient fossil beds is a thought-provoking experience.  Rapid climate change is upon us.  Species of animals are becoming extinct at an alarming rate.  Our planet has seen many such changes, but this one is man-made; this one is new.  And so I want to leave you with this quote, which can be found at the museum.  It puts things in perspective.  It humbles.  It prompts reflection.

"Human consciousness arose but a minute before midnight on the geological clock.  Yet we mayflies try to bend an ancient world to our purposes, ignorant perhaps of the messages buried in its long history.  Let us hope that we are still in the early morning of our April day."

                                                                                    Stephen Jay Gould

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Red Scar Knoll

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Helios brands earth
with his solar touch
etching hand prints
into ancient soil

Photographs taken along Red Scar Knoll Trail
Painted Hills Unit

Friday, November 10, 2017

Along the Painted Cove Trail

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Please do not leave the Painted Hills without taking this short quarter mile loop through these gorgeous red and yellow hills.  It's a chance to study these ancient soils up close as the boardwalk hugs their base.  Seen from a distance I thought the soil resembled fine colorful sand.  Not so.  Not so, at all. 

This volcanic ash has solidified over millions of years, much like petrified wood. It is hard and course, more like clumps of baked clay.   Because the ash is rich in iron, it is actually oxidizing--rusting like old metal.     

But what I loved most about this trail was the sensuous shapes of the hills.  Despite the rough soil, the layers of ash have fallen in a way to form soft hourglass figures.  These shapes verge on the erotic and remind me of Fernando Botero's gigantic nudes.

Signage along the way explains once again the origin of the different soils.  The red soils indicate a warm, wet period when swamps were common.  The yellow soils were from a cooler, drier time when the landscape was dominated by forests.  

But along this trail, there is another color:  Lavender.  A sign explained that this soil is all that remains of an oozing rhyolitic lava flow from the Clarno Volcanic eruptions.  Most of the rhyolite is buried deep underneath the Painted Hills and hidden from view.

Nature:  When science and art blend to create magic.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Painted Hills

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Two years ago when we crossed the border from California into Oregon, our first stop was the visitor's center near Klamath Falls.  We picked up a brochure entitled "The Seven Wonders of Oregon" and sat outside at a picnic table poring over it.  We knew about Crater Lake, the Columbia River Gorge and Mt. Hood, but what in the world were the Painted Hills?

Whoa and Double Whoa!

This isolated part of Oregon has turned out to be one of my favorite places in the entire state.

The Painted Hills is one of three units in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  Allow an entire day to explore here.  There are several trails which are picturesque beyond belief.  Many writers describe this place as a "journey through time" and rightly so, but this writer claims it is a "journey to Tatooine."  I had just been transported not only through time, but to an entirely different planet.
The geology is very unique.  Those colorful stripes in the hills represent millions of years of climate change.  Like the rings of a tree trunk, each of these lines record a period of time, only in this case it is not an annual change, but a ten millennium one.  It is a record of the Oligocene epoch of the Tertiary period, roughly 30 million years ago, when Earth's tropical climate began to cool and become more dry.  The red soil developed during the wetter time; the yellow during the dryer time.

These colorful ancient soils (or paleosols) are the result of ash being blown over here from the eruptions of the Clarno volcanoes.  The ash stacked up and with time, solidified into soil, creating a beautiful, sensuous range of rolling hills--the likes I have never seen before.

A Wonder of Oregon.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Clarno Palisades

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

The sign at the parking lot read:

The cliffs towering above you are a time capsule from a vastly different world.  Instead of sagebrush and juniper, imagine towering palms and exotic fruit trees like bananas growing in a lush, tropical forest.

This is why the Oregon John Day Fossil Beds hold such fascination for us geology geeks.  Catastrophic volcanic eruptions 48 million years ago completely covered this tropical landscape with layers upon layers of boiling mud, pumice and ash.  All wildlife vanished beneath the lahar (mudflow).

Jump ahead to 1862 when soldiers traveling on The Dalles Military road discovered some amazing fossils.  They contacted Thomas Condon, Oregon's first Geology Chair at the University of Oregon, and an expedition was formed.  What they found was a complete record of flora and fauna from the Age of the Mammals, one of the most incredible finds of the century.

I couldn't wait to get on the trail and see these fossils for myself.
From the parking lot there are three interconnecting trails, Geologic Time Trail, Trail of Fossils and the Arch Trail.  It's an easy three-mile hike and takes you by some amazing leaf and twig fossils.  Be sure to climb up to the arch because this is where you see an entire log poking out of a cliff. 

Fossil Log

The Clarno Palisades is just one unit found within the John Day National Monument.  My travel buddy and I spent four days here last month and were in complete awe of both the beauty of the place and of the fossil finds.

I highly recommend getting Ellen Morris Bishop's book, In Search of Ancient Oregon, before you go.  It is a beautifully written book and helped us (non-scientists) understand the geology and natural history of this amazing part of Oregon.