This is the last post in a series on the Painted Hills and John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon. Be sure to check out the last two, which have tips for visiting the Painted Hills and Sheep Rock Units of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. It’s at Sheep Rock where we pick up the big counter-clockwise loop.
Just north of Cant Ranch on Hwy. 19 is a great hike. Blue Basin is a fantastic section of blue-green sedimentary rock that rivals the Painted Hills. It is the Turtle Cove member of the John Day Formation, some 30 million years old. The blue-green color results from weathering of the volcanic ash in the rock to oxygen-poor iron oxide (green) and the clay celadonite (blue).
You can do a short in and out hike with interpretive panels, or a longer hike that takes you up and over the formations on a 3+ mile loop. Make sure and take plenty of water, especially if it’s summer when this area can get very hot and dry.
Continuing north of Blue Basin, you’ll come upon an interesting geology stop. A large lens of conglomerate is bisected by the road at Goose Rock. The cobbles within the rock are perfect, like they had been plucked from a rocky stream. But that stream flowed millions of years ago. Continuing north you come to Cathedral Rock, which in the right light offers great photos with the John Day River as leading line. Continue to the town of Kimberly, then follow the highway west along the John Day River to Service Creek, where lodging and camping is available.
Service Creek is a popular place for rafters and canoeists to put in for a float down the John Day. In late spring, the river is perfect for this. Rapids get up to class 3 but in general the river is quite mellow. If you can handle a canoe through moving water, I recommend this over rafting, though both are a great idea. It is an easy 2-night, 3-day float to the bridge crossing at Clarno.
Keep on Hwy. 19 north through pine forests to the town of Fossil. On the way, a detour can be made to the ghost town of Kinzua. Two small forest service campgrounds are found along the route; they’re in pine trees not far south of Fossil. Near these is Pioneer Park, which is perfect for a picnic. A cold spring is one of its features, great for filling up with fresh clean water. The creek running through is perfect for hunting crawfish. If you have kids with you, this is a must stop for burning off some of that excess energy.
In the town of Fossil are two spots I recommend visiting. One is the General Store, a very authentic old place that turns the pages back to a simpler time in America. The other is the High School. Why the High School? Well, the hill next to it is one of the easiest places to find fossils I know of. It’s an ancient lake bed that some 30 million years ago filled with sediments rich in volcanic ash. Now perfectly preserved leaf fossils are revealed on dinner-plate rock surfaces. The best part about it is you can dig your own fossils, and for a very small fee keep your favorites. Recently established, the Oregon Paleo Lands Center here has a very helpful staff who will get you started and make sure your dig is successful.
From Fossil, take Hwy. 218 west toward Clarno. Along the way an old homestead on the right makes a great photo stop. When you begin to see tall cliffs on the right, you have arrived at the Clarno Unit of the National Monument. There are a couple hikes here worth taking. One, which takes off from a parking lot with bathroom, follows Indian Creek up to a shallow cave with pictographs. This gives you a great feel for central Oregon’s ranching country. Beautiful flowers bloom in April.
Another short hike takes off from the same parking lot, heading along the highway a short way before following a couple steep switchbacks up to the base of the cliffs. You may see birds of prey hunting here. The spectacular cliffs, called the Palisades, are made up of the Clarno Formation. The Clarno, Eocene in age, is the oldest major formation in the Monument. It is most famous for its fossils of huge mammals, along with one of the world’s premier fossil nut beds. Very near here is an exposure of rocks where perfectly preserved nut fossils weather out like marbles. It’s amazing: some look as if you just reached into a bowl of walnuts – except they are heavier and made of stone.
If you want to visit the nut beds you can keep going on the trail up Indian Creek, but ask a ranger (back at Sheep Rock) for detailed directions. There is also a fossil tree along the way that is upright and even includes traces of the roots! But be aware that this area is shared by a science school. In season (April – October) there are sessions taking place, with schoolkids getting a great field-based science education. It’s best to give groups of kids and instructors their space and not attempt to hang out with them.
Following 218 west you cross the John Day River and climb over a pass to the tiny town of Antelope. This was the base for a bizarre chapter in Oregon history. In the 1980s a man from India, the Baghwan Shree Rashneesh, bought a ranch near here. Having started his own religion, he brought a large group of followers and moved in. The quiet ranching atmosphere was changed overnight, caravans of luxury cars and strangers running around.
It soon became clear that this was a cult. The followers turned into a problem after several strange incidents and standoffs with local and state government officials. It came to a head when they were caught poisoning the salad bar in a restaurant in the nearby town of The Dalles. The Baghwan had also been dodging taxes. The cult soon collapsed and broke up, and the Baghwan deported. The ranch remains; I have toured the place and it is creepy-fascinating. There is an old crematorium tilted over and rusting away in the sagebrush. The followers included many talented engineers and other skilled people. And they had not been idle.
Turning north at Antelope and staying on Hwy. 218 through a series of tight curves takes you up onto the plateau, to a ghost town named Shaniko. Though a few people live here (which to me means it isn’t a ghost town), it is a shadow of once it once was. You can get some good pictures wandering this little town.
From Shaniko, if you follow Bakeoven Road, you come to the little community of Maupin, straddling the beautiful Deschutes River. You can go white-water rafting or kayaking. Continue west on Hwy. 216 back up out of the sagebrush and into the forests near Mount Hood. You’ll hit Hwy. 26. This is the fastest (and most scenic) way back to Portland.
I hope you enjoyed this little tour of central Oregon. You may have heard that Bend is central Oregon, but it’s really not. This large region, the John Day Basin, is both the geographic and cultural heart of central Oregon. It is much more than the Painted Hills. If you want to explore a fascinating and non-touristy part of the west, a region with great photo opportunities and interesting human and geologic history, you can’t do much better.