Guest Post: Fossils in Fossil, Oregon and a Hike

This being my first contribution to my sister, Cindy’s blog, I would like to introduce myself. I am Cheryl (Morris) and third in line of seven Swanson children, Cindy being the eldest. Our childhood was idyllic, growing up on an 80 acre farm in Clark County, Washington, adventures galore, and always a buddy to pal around with. I am blessed to have Cindy as my sister, the one who is not afraid to try new things, is a fine example of a mother and grandmother, and taught me (among a lot of other things) that fresh asparagus is far better than canned.

She asked me to contribute to her blog about our summer trip to central Oregon, and more specifically, fossil hunting in Fossil, Oregon.

A summer wedding for our niece (August 2014) brought my husband and I to Bend, Oregon. When the festivities came to an end, we headed north to Prineville, where we hopped onto Highway 26 / Ochoco Highway eastbound and landed in Dayville, Oregon. There, we found a real ‘gem’ of an RV Park called The Fish House Inn and RV. For our purposes, the location was central to the sights and activities that we were about. The park was quiet and immaculate and turned out to be a ‘hub’ for firefighters battling a growing blaze to the southwest.Wildfires near Fossil, Oregon 2014
We realized that fossils would satisfy our rock hounding desires, but soon discovered that we were in the middle of the Painted Hills Region of central Oregon; a real bonus. Turns out, there are several information centers and interpretive sites for fossils, and the road from Dayville to Fossil is a part of Journey Through Time Oregon Scenic Byway. (A couple of places to research are National Park Service John Day Fossil Beds and the Oregon Paleo Lands Institute.)

Our few days were for sightseeing and a visit to dig real fossils from a site behind Wheeler High School in Fossil, Oregon. The location of the fossil ‘dig’ is easy to find, and we found we were the only ones present on this mid-morning trek. You enter beside the football field, where a small building provides instructions and tools to borrow and the metal box on a nearby post is the collection spot for the fee (honor system) which helps support Fossil Schools. (A quick search and you should find a couple of travel websites which provide maps and reader pics of the fossil beds.) A take-along flyer explains the history of the Bridge Creek Flora fossil site discovery and drawings of the types of leaves, flowers, and seeds to be found. I believe it to be one of the only places where you can take home fossils that you’ve found (two handfuls).

We spent a couple of hours on the hillside, digging and finding a plant fossil in almost every swipe. Several larger rocks produced easily identifiable leaves and flowers. Only when we headed for a picnic lunch in the parking lot did the fossil beds begin to fill up with more visitors, families, couples, and kids anxious to try their hand at discovering a treasure.
Sightseeing was beautiful in spite of the haze caused by the lightening-started wildfires being fought to the southeast of Dayville.

The greens and reds of the Painted Hills were evident along our drives, as we spotted deer, wild turkey and geese enjoying the lush, irrigated alfalfa fields along the forks of the John Day River.

Painted Hills Hike
Painted Hills Hike

With the temperature in the nineties, it was impossible to resist a swim in the gentle flowing John Day.

Returning to the RV Park found an influx of workers and coordinators from the nearby wildfires, setting up tents on the lawns, stopping to shower up from a long grueling day on the front lines, or bringing in communication systems to help organize the monumental task. A small fire in a couple of places which began with lightening strikes had combined and quickly grown to 17,000 acres, becoming what is called a ‘complex’ fire, and changing the rules on who and how to fight it.

Cell phone coverage is spotty at best in the area, but the RV park had WiFi, if we wanted it. It was a good time for a DVD in the evening.

We planned to go on a hike while we were in the Sheep Rock Unit, so we picked Blue Basin, which is a few miles north of the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. We arrived early in the morning, where we found the only others in the parking lot were about 15 young people from the NW Youth Corps, getting ready for a day of trail maintenance. The 3.25 mile long trail brought us up in elevation 760 feet.

Hiking in the Painted Hills near Blue Basin Overlook in Oregon
Author hiking in the Painted Hills near John Day. Oregon

The vistas of the John Day River valley were ever changing as we rounded the hill to the Blue Basin overlook, and the trails were easy enough with plenty of picture taking opportunity.

John Day River Valley
John Day River Valley

We ended up in the badlands of Blue Basin, called Island In Time Trail.

Islands of Time Blue Basin Badlands
Islands of Time
Blue Basin Badlands

Here, we found castings of a prehistoric tortoise and large cat, a depiction of previous discoveries in the area.

Fossils - Islands of Time Blue Basin Hike
Fossils – Islands of Time
Blue Basin Overlook hike near John Day, Oregon
Blue Basin Overlook
Blue Basin Overlook
Blue Basin
Blue Basin
Blue Basin Badlands
Blue Basin Badlands

We finished our trip with drives around the John Day River valley, into the town of John Day itself, which was setting up for Fair Days. I highly recommend this little getaway from anywhere in Oregon or Washington ( or parts beyond ). Such beautiful country and not that far away!

Note from author:
We had so much fun on that trip that we returned last summer (2015) with our 13 year old granddaughter. The fossils were still easy to find and there was the same beauty all around… and wildfires too. Our hike to Blue Basin was just to the lower Island In Time Trail, as the upper trail fell victim to a recent fire, and was a bit charred. We look forward to returning again soon, as the grasslands and hillside will have certainly recovered quickly, and there are more places in the area that we have yet to poke around.


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