We have been in Joseph, Oregon, at the Wallowa Lake State Park for several days now. No internet to speak of, even with five bars on the Verizon MiFi. Guess I am in an extended network. Probably won’t get anything updated for the next several days, but wanted to at least keep track of where we are for family and friends.
September 7 Fossil Oregon Sunny day in the mid 80’s F
Don’t you just love shortcuts? Especially the ones you try to navigate sight unseen because the maps look good. Never mind any kind of GPS navigator, I am sure that wouldn’t work out here in the fossil no man’s land. Phones don’t work, why would garmin girl have a clue?!
I perused the paper maps a lot, including our Oregon Gazetteer before trying to take a short cut down to the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds in the Tracker. After our little conversation with a local rancher the other day, I knew that roads on the map may not really be there, but he did say that the road south went through to the unit so we decided to give Cottonwood Creek a try.
Nope. After driving a considerable distance on the gravel road, we found to our dismay that the road south was gated and signed as PRIVATE. It didn’t look that great either, so we rerouted back to Highway 19 and started south again on another “short-cut” via the narrow, unlined, but thankfully paved Rowe Creek Road.
The short cut really was a good way to get down south, with only 38 miles from the turn to the park, but the curvy dirt road that went west from the little burg of Twickenham, on the John Day River, to connect with the graveled Bridge Creek Road was a hair raiser. Even in the Tracker! Big ranch trucks barreling around the corners seemed to think it was a one way road and a couple of times I thought we were going to get bumped right off into the canyon.
Once we arrived at the park, though, it was all worth it, and the beautiful soft green grass and shady picnic tables were a nice place to rest in the warm sunshine before we tackled the roads and trails in the Painted Hills Unit.
There are four trails in the area that are listed, and one more short trail that is yet to get published on the park maps. Each one is only 1/4 mile except for the Carrol Rim Trail which is a short, steep 1.5 mile round trip. We took our time visiting each little trail, trying to make it all last until the late afternoon light would give us photos that wouldn’t be completely washed out in the bright daylight.
The Leaf Hill trail is less than spectacular, but the story of Leaf Hill is incredible. The first major fossil find in the area was here, with a paleontologist gleaning more than 20,000 different fossils from just 93 cubic yards of excavated shale.
About a mile back on the gravel road, was a turn off to another tiny trail around the Painted Cove. There a boardwalk has been constructed to allow access to the brilliant clay hills without damaging them. I really appreciated the great signage explaining the geology of the area.
Another mile back and we returned again to the Overlook Trail, which still appeared much too bright and flat to make the 1/2 mile walk worth it. Instead, across the way was the trailhead for the Carrol Rim Trail.
Hot and bright or not, it was time to climb. We figured we could hang around on the rim and take our time until the sun slanted a bit more so that I could get some photos of the amazing colors of the painted hills.
Don’t laugh at my hiking gear. I forgot to put my hiking Keen sandals in the Tracker this morning, so while I had my good walking sticks, my hiking for the day was accomplished in these rather amazing Oofos. No slipping and sliding at all. They worked great. Mo and I always laugh at the teenagers we see hiking in flip flops. So now I appear to be just as smart as those teenagers!
The hike was hot, but once around the rim the winds picked up and the breezes cooled us off. We had the trail and summit completely to ourselves. It was gorgeous. We sat around on the lovely juniper benches, a great amenity at most of the trails in the park, and watched the light change. Just a little, but it was changing.
By the time we got back down to the first overlook bench on the trail, it was nearly 6pm, and still the light was high and bright. I guess I just wasn’t committed enough to wait until sunset. That would have meant we got home after dark, and nope. Not worth it this time.
What I did discover, however, is that the view from the Carrol Rim Trail is much more interesting at this time of year than the view from the more popular Overlook Trail. On the Rim, we were at the right angle to at least get a bit of light and shadow on the beautifully eroded soft clay hills, but from the Overlook trail you couldn’t even see any ridges at all as the light was directly on the hills and visually flattened out the ridges completely.
I loved our travels through John Day Fossil Beds, I loved learning the formations, and trying to identify them as we crossed the landscape, I loved the light, the color, all of it. I loved the little town of Fossil, and the folks in the Café that actually let me enjoy a bit of an internet connection for the cost of a cup of coffee. In times past, as I have traveled along Highway 26 I always wanted to understand this area more deeply, and now I do.
Tomorrow: To Clyde Holiday State Park, and who was John Day anyway?
September 6 Fossil, Oregon Overcast and in the 70’s
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is an amazing treasure in Oregon. It is made up of 3 different units that are located along sections of Highway 26, and Highway 19 west of the town of John Day. We traveled through John Day back in 2008 via Highway 26. Not far from town is the lovely Clyde Holiday State Park, touted as a jumping off point for visiting the Fossil Beds, as is the town of John Day itself.
Instead, I picked Fossil as our home base for exploring the area, with thoughts of possibly staying at the Spray wayside, or even in John Day for the latter part of the stay. No matter how we planned various unit explorations, we still had to do several backtracks, and some repeat drives. Maybe the map will help explain it. As closely as I can estimate, we drove more than 375 miles to see all three sections of the park from our site in Fossil. I don’t think we could have managed it with any fewer miles from any other location. The green lined blocks on the map are the different units of the John Day Fossil Beds. Most folks traveling along Highway 26 will take a short trip up to the visitor center and the Sheeprock Unit, but it takes a bit of effort to get to the other sections.
The trip today to the Sheeprock Unit took us through Spray, where we checked out the possible camping choice and came up with a resounding NO! The river is very low, the campground is open and has no hookups, and for $12 doesn’t offer much in the way of amenities. I think it would be a good spot to get on the river if there happened to be water there, but at the moment not so much.
There are only two hikes in Foree, both of them only 1/4 mile long, but they are well signed, and one of them is even wheelchair accessible. we looked into our first example of the Turtle Cove formation, somewhat subdued by the gray light, and still found it amazing. One of the more delightful aspects of hiking in the John Day Fossil Beds is that we can take Abby on all the trails. It is a dog friendly place, hard to find in any kind of national park or monument.
A few miles south along the river we came to the Blue Basin Area of the Sheeprock Unit, where the rain clouds didn’t have any downpours planned for us and decided that the 3 1/2 mile Overlook trail would be much more fun than just walking into the short Island in Time trail.
The first part of the trail is not too steep, and there was fresh elk scat still steaming. Never did see the elk, but we did see lots of evidence of many different kinds of critters in the area. Looking back along the trail, I was surprised to see just how much elevation we had gained. The trail was steep and narrow, but not incredibly difficult. The newly constructed boardwalk across some of the more unstable portions of the trail was great.
Once at the summit overlook the skies lightened just enough to make things interesting. The view below was magnificent, and the trail continued along the contours for another mile or so before making a very steep descent via switchbacks to the valley below.
Continuing south along the John Day River, we arrived at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center which also serves as the information center for the park. I loved it! There is a large lab with a window that gives you the chance to see the grad students at work painstakingly cleaning fossils. There is extensive information on the process of fossil collection and documentation, and of course there are incredible exhibits.
The fossils at the John Day Fossil Beds encompass the entire range of existence of mammals, 40 to 50 million years, with more than 2,000 species found in the park. I was enthralled with the magnificent murals depicting theories of life during the different ages. Looking at the tiny pieces of bone, I couldn’t help but wonder at the science of paleontology. How in the world do they figure that stuff out?!?! Soil science is a piece of cake compared to that kind of detective work.
There isn’t a lot of fuel around the area, and after visiting the Center, we drove a few more miles through Picture Gorge toward the little town of Dayville and its one lonely gas pump for Tracker fuel at $4.19 per gallon. I think there was another pump in Spray, but it looked pretty old and who knows how much gas was there. Later we discovered that there was indeed another pump in Fossil, but when we left the Center, we weren’t too sure about that one and decided to not take a chance.
It never rained on us all day long, and the sun even came out for our drive back home along the river. As the temperatures started to rise, I found myself really grateful that we didn’t have to hike in the hot sun. I guess it is a trade-off, because with the clearing skies, I hoped for a bit more light to capture the amazing colors in the Painted Hills unit tomorrow.
On the drive home near Cathedral Rock, I found this blue heron sitting high above the river. Seemed so funny to see a heron in such a desert situation.
Fossil, Oregon: Rain and 56 degrees F
We had big plans for today, following winding roads slipping through John Day Country, seeking out one of the more distant units of the John Day Fossil Beds. Instead, this morning it is raining, and we are listening to….cowboy rap….bluegrass…blues…with a bit of jazz thrown in for good measure. This is why people should travel, it broadens your horizons. Not just those big city travel destination kind of horizons, but the small, not so backward farm town kind of horizons.
Where else could you eat your breakfast listening to someone sing about the joys of “Home Grown Tomatoes”, and then a gravelly crazy guy playing an incredible acoustic guitar while he talks about his therapist telling him “there’s something damaged and something missing” and his brain is stuck in the on position and he is stuck in his brain behind his face?? Then comes along a cowboy singing about his mother reading him the Bible.
We could be home watching the news and doing a normal life, but instead we are in the Wheeler County Fairgrounds in the tiny town of Fossil, with only one available radio station, no TV, no internet, no phone even. Instead, we get this great DJ with a great sense of humor, and a few home grown ads thrown in for KFSL radio, and Fossil Mercantile, locally owned and operated. Where in the world does he find music like this?
It is raining and gray today. The road to Fossil yesterday, along another Oregon Scenic Byway, Journey Through Time, however, was bright and clear once we left the Cascades behind us. There are a couple of ways to get to the John Day Fossil Beds, and when planning this trip, I discovered that no matter where we stayed, no matter how we navigated our visit, there would be lots of backtracking.
It seemed that Fossil, and the Wheeler County Fairgrounds would be a good starting point, so we routed up Highway 97 17 miles beyond Madras, to turn east toward Fossil on a less traveled road than the easier Highway 26 route to John Day. The road was fine, narrow, winding, with lots of ups and downs and more than a few drop offs that always make this passenger a bit testy.
Mo is a great driver, and in my head I know things are fine, but that doesn’t stop the adrenaline from running and the body from tensing up as I look at the no shoulder cliffs right below me in the passenger seat. I would rather drive than ride on these kinds of roads, but it was a Mo driving Day.
Last night we had wild thunderstorms to accompany our return drive to the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds. We passed by earlier in the day, deciding that we would return the 20 miles or so to hike after we settled into the fairgrounds. I was hoping for that great sunset light that makes for non-ordinary photos.
The Wheeler County Fairgrounds are up on a hill above the tiny town, and we have a view of the surrounding hills, two beautiful white church steeples out the windows and an American flag flying high above the field below us. There is an empty trailer next door, and another one down the way, our only other neighbors in this 12 spot campground. There are plain envelopes at the old wooden kiosk to use for depositing your 25 fee in the box. It says 3 bucks to dump and 3 bucks to use the bathrooms, but we won’t need either. Our site has electric, water, and sewer.
Yesterday, when we arrived, it was 98 degrees and we were happy to have the air conditioning to cool things down for Jeremy before we drove back to the Clarno beds. The storm was incredibly black, and we looked at each other thinking…hmmm…a hike? Not so sure I want to hike in a thunderstorm, but we decided to give it a try anyway.
On the way, we thought it might be nice to try a back road instead of retracing our path along 218, but the road was hidden and unmarked, and I missed it. It was a good thing I did. Another mile down the highway I saw a guy walking across the road to his barn and stopped to ask him where Stone Cabin Road might be. He laughed, and said, “I have seen that Gazateer map twice now, and it’s wrong. That was the road back there and it is a dead end.” He turned out to be a great guy, owning a juniper log mill, and is the one who did the gorgeous posts on the shelters at the Clarno Beds parking area.
He also showed us another side route along Cottonwood Creek where we could go up and down the mountains and see elk and bobcat and something different as we wound our way back to 218. We checked out our planned route to the Painted Hills Unit portion of the monument with him and were happy to find that in fact, it really went through. Always nice to check with the locals, especially friendly ones.
We didn’t see any elk or bobcats, but did see a large group of big mule deer. By the time we intersected again with the highway, the rain was coming down in earnest. Then it started pouring, and as I rounded a curve it looked literally like someone was dumping a giant bucket of water on the road in front of me. I don’t think I have driven through that kind of rain in a long time. OK then, we are going to hike in the Clarno Beds unit…
Just heard this as I am writing accompanied by music and words I have never heard before. “With 100 watts of antenna melting power, KFSL, spanning the expanse from Butte Creek to something or other Summit” . Then after this little ditty, comes another saying “KFSL, a non profit radio station supported by donations from….” OK Then, they never said public radio, but this seems to me to be the very best use of public not for profit radio, a small town where radio would be non existent without it. So far there hasn’t been a speck of news or even a weather report. Hmmmm.
Back to our visit to the Clarno Beds. With no rain in sight, and thunder in the far distant north, we took off on the short Trail of the Fossils, where the signs indicated that with each step we were crossing about 37,000 years. We traveled back in geologic time to 50 million years ago, when the area was a thick lush tropical forest, much like what is found in Panama now. Fossils of more than 300 species of plants have been found here, including nuts and berries. The Clarno Nut Beds and The Hancock Mammal Quarry are the highlights of the Clarno Unit, but neither of these areas are yet open to the public. What?
Ah well, the short hike to the Palisades was beautiful and interesting. There are actually three short trails in the area south of the Palisades, but we decided against climbing the slippery rocky trail up to the base of the arch in the cliffs. The huge lightning strike just across the valley had a lot to do with that decision as well. I know if you even hear thunder it is time to seek shelter, and shelter was a long way back to the car. At least our hair wasn’t standing on end, but the more I read about lightning, the less I like being out in it.
We got back to the car just in time to miss the downpour. How lucky is that?! And I didn’t get struck by lightning either. Winding back along highway 218 to Fossil we had a bit better understanding of the lay of the land. With the ups and downs and winding roads it is very easy to get disoriented here. Obviously, the maps don’t always tell the story, either.
It was a great day, and I can tell from this morning’s entertainment, this day will be great as well, whether it rains or not. We adjusted our plans from hiking in the Painted Hills Unit to driving south toward the Sheep Rock Unit where we can spend some time in the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center.
Next: Sheep Rock Unit and some great hikes
Cloudy and 58 degrees
I woke up on this cloudy morning wondering what happened to all the stars I saw during the night, but it was still warm enough we didn’t need any heat in the rig to be comfortable. My back felt great! We took our time with a simple breakfast and turned on the generator. No worries, not another soul in the campground to be disturbed by us, even at 7 AM!
Our planned route for the day was over Highway 126, toward the Historic Mackenzie Pass Road, and into the sunny eastern part of Oregon at Fossil. Daughter Deanna and her husband Keith took a break from truck driving recently to take the Harleys out of storage and do a road trip from Tri-Cities to Eugene. They traveled over Mackenzie Pass and Deanna warned me that there was a 35 foot total limit on rigs going over that road.
I thought, no problem, we have been over this route before. I was wrong, however. We haven’t been on this road in the MoHo. Nothing seemed familiar. Sure enough, as we turned onto the historic road 242, more signs warned of the 35 foot limit. We are just over 44 feet total from bumper to bumper with the Tracker hooked up, but we thought, “No problem, we have been on far worse roads, I am sure”
Well, so much for that! As we continued up the road, we came to another open gate and a very large sign with very bright blinking lights that notified us, “OVERLENGTH VEHICLE DETECTED!!” Capitals intentional, that sign was doing everything but yelling. Okay then. We thought maybe it might be a good idea to unhook before continuing over the Mackenzie Pass Highway. This is one of the reasons that we chose a motorhome instead of a truck and fiver, we can unhook and BOTH parts of our setup can be driven in tight situations. Has worked out in the past for us, and it worked out again today.
It was a gorgeous drive, deep and dark under the overcast skies, with forest thick and lush as any you might find in the rain forest. The pavement was surprisingly perfect, with brand new yellow lines, but of course, no shoulders. Our dual tires just fit between the center line and the edge of the road, and yes, there were a few places where the Tracker may have been a bit too much. But I still think we would have made it OK. Monitor Pass from California down to 395 was much more difficult, and we didn’t encounter any over-length signs on that road at all. Still, it is good to follow the rules most of the time at least.
Once near the summit, we encountered huge lava flows and distant view of Belknap Crater across the black expanse. Since I was driving the baby car, I stayed behind to take photos while Mo continued to the summit.
Another huge surprise on this road that we never drove before was the Dee Wright mountain observatory built by the CCC in the 30’s. I’ll let the photos tell the story.
The observatory is beautiful, and even on the slightly overcast day, we could see most of the mountains through the labeled portals inside the observatory. I think that the legacy of what the CCC created is one of our greatest treasures. It saddens me that today we can’t manage to do anything of this magnitude with our tax money.
The Observatory is right at the summit of the pass, and the narrow road continues down and east toward Sisters. I followed along in the Tracker, waiting for an opportune moment to hook back up, and was surprised that it was a very short time before we were actually in Sisters, where we pulled over and hooked up the car to continue east toward Redmond. Hi again, Loree! Once again we are in Redmond and you are still traveling back home from your journey east. Eventually we are going to get together!
Next post: Highway 126 to 97 to 293 to 218 to Fossil Oregon and the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument