Itry to imagine Thomas Condon in that first moment he kneels below the multihued hillsides in 1865, studying the ground. He had been granted permission to accompany a cavalry detachment taking supplies to the Harney Basin to the southeast.

Itry to imagine Thomas Condon in that first moment he kneels below the multihued hillsides in 1865, studying the ground. He had been granted permission to accompany a cavalry detachment taking supplies to the Harney Basin to the southeast.

They returned through the John Day Basin whose eroded columns, domes and bands of red, green, yellow and rust immediately drew Condon's attention. Already he could see that this land, with its strikingly colored rock layers would be rich with fossils.

Around him, the cavalry troopers waited, curious perhaps or just glad for the break, as this strange pastor examined the earth before him. Many of them already were familiar with the missionary from The Dalles Congregational Church. Assigned to the area to protect against Indians, the soldiers often had been caught up in his enthusiasm for geology to scour the hills above the Columbia River town in search of rock samples.

No one who visits the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Central Oregon for the first time can escape some resonance of this initial excitement — because there is no place else like it in our state. Its Painted Hills — with their rounded, arid slopes that rise smooth and high from a distance seem like the red burial mounds of legendary giants. Yet close up, their sides are hard and textured, as if covered with a skin of huge, coarse sandpaper.

Haunting as these hills are, they are no more so than the rough-tiered uplands elsewhere in the monument whose equally strange past emerges the longer one lingers in this laboratory of ancient Earth biology made up of three separated units — Sheep Rock, the Painted Hills and Clarno to the north.

All too many visitors stop only briefly at the Sheep Rock Unit to browse through the Thomas Condon Paleontology Visitor Center where displays trace the area's 40 million continuous years of fossil records — a rarity in geology.

Others come strictly to visit the Painted Hills, stand in awe for a few minutes, take a few pictures and quickly head back to the highway.

Yet the best way to experience the monument's arid present and its wetter past, where early mammals evolved and thrived, is to hike its trails and spend time surrounded by its layers of rock.

Soon they may speak with a silent eloquence not just of a subtropical world inhabited by extinct grazers such as brontotheres and scavengers called hyaenadonts, but of later deciduous forests populated with forerunners of horses, camels, deer, bears, dogs and cats. In the monument's newest formations, a landscape of drier grasslands much like today's Great Plains dominates, with some creatures that would seem familiar to us today.

With some notable exceptions, all of the monument's hikes are short and easy — no more than 1.5 miles long — well within the range of inexperienced hikers. Although there are three excellent trails in the Clarno Unit, with its dramatic, columnar palisades, I covered them in a 2008 column, so will concentrate here only on some of the best in the Sheep Rock and Painted Hills units.

Thomas Condon Overlook Trail: This easy, half-mile walk begins at the south end of the visitor center parking lot and ends with a striking panorama of Sheep Rock and a portion of the John Day River below.

Flood of Fire and Story in Stone trails: These two trails are accessed from the same parking lot. The quarter-mile Flood of Fire Trail crosses a ridge to a viewpoint overlooking the John Day Valley. The quarter-mile Story in Stone Trail skirts a basin of blue-green claystone of the John Day Formation, spanning a time 39 to 18 million years ago. This trail is wheelchair-accessible, but "with moderate difficulty," according to the monument's trail guide.

Island in Time Trail: This one-mile self-guided nature trail leads to a natural amphitheater carved out of the blue-green John Day Formation.

Blue Basin Overlook Trail: One of the monument's most-challenging trails, this three-mile route has a 600-foot elevation gain, but the effort is more than worth it. It boasts a spectacular vista of the John Day River Valley and Blue Basin.

Painted Hills Overlook Trail: The half-mile walk offers glimpses of the stunning Painted Hills from above at several angles, with benches at key spots.

Painted Cove Trail: The quarter-mile route is mostly on a boardwalk that allows you to walk among the red and gold claystone hills and to see them up close. It is wheelchair-accessible.

Carroll Rim Trail: The most difficult trail in the Painted Hills, this 1.5-mile round-trip path rises several hundred feet to offer a bird's-eye view of the hills. You'll also see slopes with lush bunchgrass along the way.

After a day, or better yet, two or three days, among the monument's formations, one's sense of time will change. As in most of the state's dry side, time and space impose a slower pace. Moments seem to stretch; schedules and artificial urgencies fall away.

After his first visit to these dry expanses, Thomas Condon came back filled with a fierce longing, the fossil beds echoing in his mind with their untold stories of another time. In 1869, he wrote, "I am hungry for a sight of that hill again, when no fear of prowling Indians shall compel me to hold a rifle in one hand and my pick in the other." His finds soon drew the attention of scientists, who became fascinated, too, and flocked to the area to unearth its rich past.

Condon himself returned many times, his reputation growing until he became a lecturer in geology at the University of Oregon, and later Oregon's first state geologist. His book about his work in the fossil beds, called "The Two Islands," was published in 1902, and is recognized today as an Oregon classic.

On certain days, as shadows move across the stratified cliffs and among the Painted Hills, his spirit seems to walk there still. In his footsteps, over the monument's trails, time seems to move alongside before drifting off into an inscrutable distance. With an active imagination, you may hear a call on that horizon, the sound of a small horse unlike any seen today, warning its companions of an approaching predator before galloping away across a long-lost, grassy plain.

Steve Dieffenbacher is a Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. You can reach him at 541-776-4498 or