My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Trip Back in Time to the John Day Fossil Beds. Part I - The Sheep Rock Unit

My philosophy about trips is that the journey is more important than the destination.  But I took my own edict to extremes on this Fourth of July vacation trip. First of all, I believed my GPS unit knew something I didn't, so didn't take the mapped route up a major paved road, but instead went up into the dirt roads of Malheur National Forest. There I found lots of wildflowers, including beautiful rocky fields of them.

I found little mountain lakes and beautiful views. But I didn't find the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center until late in the afternoon, after it was already closed. (When I left early in the morning, it was less than two hours away.)  I figured out the closest place to find gas  was Dayville. Then I decided to take my chances on finding a free camp site. Only a few minutes out of Dayville, I found a BLM hunters site along a big creek or little river and quickly set up camp.  I had supper and was in bed long before it got dark.

Early the next morning - that means around 4:30 AM here - I quickly packed up my tent, then went exploring.  There were lots of wildflowers here, including the first milkweed I've seen in Oregon.

Milkweed growing in the dry gravel by the creek

A camp site already taken about a mile from mine - but more scenic

The John Day River near Picture Gorge

A close-up of part of Sheep Rock
Hay field along the John Day River

The Paleontology Center didn't open until 9:00 AM, so I decided to go hiking in the Sheep Rock Unit. I didn't want to do the three mile hike - which I thought actually meant six miles - so started walking the more level hike into the unit. But I soon crossed the overlook hike, just where I wished I could be higher so I could see the wildly beautiful blue green formations.  So up I went, stopping often to shoot the trail below and the fantastic and gorgeous formations.

View within the Blue Basin
Another View
Death of a pollinator at the claws of a crab spider
Outcropping above the Overlook Trail
The informational part of the trail was the Island in Time Trail, so eventually, I retraced my steps and went to the end of it. In several places, there are casts of fossils, inside plastic domes with information signs near them.

Along the Island in Time Trail

A close-up view of the blue rock formations
 By the time I got back to the trail head, I was hungry, so had a can of cold soup with crackers at the table under a shade shelter. Then I back-tracked a couple of miles to visit the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, where, in about an hour, I was able to walk through 40 million years of the Age of Mammals. It was a mind blowing experience.  Besides, fossils of mammals, there are lots of fossils of plants.

Two highlights were a display showing the evolution of all the horse species and an exhibit about the Metasequoia, or dawn redwood.  The pictures of the dawn redwood look very much like bald cypress, to which it is related. But the most interesting fact about it is that long after it was discovered in the fossil records,  a living population was discovered in China.  Seeds were sent to the United States, and we now have some living specimens growing here again. . The display on the evolution of the modern horse showed that the species of horse the went extinct in America about 12,000 years ago was Equus lambei.  The modern horse, that developed in Eurasia. is Equus caballus.

A 45 million year old fossilized tree piece
A display of fossils against a backdrop of what life was like when they were living
The ancestral tree of the modern horse
A view into the lab where scientists work on new fossils
The entire museum was extremely interesting. The fossils are grouped by species that would have been living together. They were backed by paintings as the animals and plants might have appeared when all of them were living. And seeing fossils of  many of the trees that we know today, was also interesting. Even though the fossils are really old, this is a dynamic place with new discoveries all the time. There was a story of a young girl who discovered a fossil of a cat-like creature very near to the Paleontology Center and entirely new species are also being discovered.

By mid afternoon I was tired from trying to take in 45 million years of artifacts and information and was ready for a break. I wanted to be close to the Painted Hills Unit because it is touted as totally spectacular so I started off  towards it.  I saw the exit for it and went in to  take a quick look around. I was immediately sure I wanted to be back there by evening. I went a little more west on Highway 26 and found Ochoco Campground just past Ochoco Divide. This is a forest service camp and I think I had to pay $5.00 which is half price - you just need a senior pass to get these prices. I had time to set up my camp and eat an early supper before going back to Painted Hills.

To be continued.