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MailTribune.com
  • Prehistory speaks at the John Day Fossil Beds

    Time seems to stand still while hiking this arid landscape
  • 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.
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    • Getting there, some things you should know
      To get there: Take Highway 97 north from Bend to Redmond, turn east on Highway 126 to connect with Highway 26. Drive about 40 miles east on Highway 26 to the Painted Hills Unit turnoff. After visit...
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      Getting there, some things you should know
      To get there: Take Highway 97 north from Bend to Redmond, turn east on Highway 126 to connect with Highway 26. Drive about 40 miles east on Highway 26 to the Painted Hills Unit turnoff. After visiting that unit, retrace your steps back to 26, go about 30 miles more to the east, before turning off on Highway 19 to reach the Sheep Rock Unit.

      Places to stay: There is no camping in the monument, but there are motels in nearby towns.

      About the monument: The monument was established in 1975. Its three units encompass a total of 14,000 acres. The land and its fossils are protected by federal law.

      Hours, accessibility fees: Trails, overlooks and picnic areas are open seven days a week during daylight hours. The visitor center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round. It is closed during all federal holidays between Thanksgiving and Presidents Day. Entry into the monument is free.

      For information: Write John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, 32651 Hwy. 19, Kimberly, OR 97848, call 541-987-2333 or go to www.nps.gov/joda.

      — Steve Dieffenbacher
  • 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.
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