“There was no end to the strange ways on the two-leggeds.”
– Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron (Disney Movie)
After visiting the Painted Hills, we headed out to drive “The Loop” which circles the John Day Fossil Beds, and ultimately ends up at the Sheep Rock Unit and home of the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. See the map of “The Loop” below.
We had traveled part of this route before, on our earlier visit to the area (the section of highway 207 between Mitchell and Service Creek) but were looking forward to what we might see on highway 19, as this was new territory for us. Most of the time I think of Eastern Oregon as brown, dry and dusty, but with balsam root in full bloom, the green of the fields where cattle grazing, it was a completely different landscape from our previous visit.
Map courtesy of ODOT
One thing you do see a lot of in this region, cows. In every color and size, littering pastures everywhere you look. Yes, this is where the famous Painted Hills beef comes from, and I am pretty sure I saw my next Burgerville cheeseburger out there in one of those fields.
We did happen upon some animal life that is not destined for my dinner plate. My favorite was a small herd of antelope, grazing next to the road. I wish I had a better picture to share with you, but, unfortunately, RVs do not stop on a dime, and by the time we were able to back up to get a look at them, they had run off into the pine trees and sagebrush.
A little further up the road, a wild horse brought us to a complete stop and was even nice enough to pose beautifully for us. Now, I know seeing a horse, under normal circumstances, is not a remarkable event, especially when fully ensconced in ranch country as we were. But this mustang was a beautiful, majestic creature. He was free from any fences, standing there as if he were king of the world, and with absolutely no fear until finally he tired of us and returned to the forest.
We continued on our route, following the John Day River, stopping to snap pictures whenever something caught our eye. One particularly beautiful rock formation, along the river and near the paleontology center was Cathedral Rock. Just because we were outside the “official” Painted Hills unit, it did not mean the color surrounding us had disappeared.
The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center is a must-see for anyone interested in fossils. If you are looking for dinosaur bones you will be disappointed, but there are many examples of the ancestors to rhinos, elephants, camels and sabertooth tigers that are no less fascinating. The most amazing part is that admission is absolutely free. It is definitely worth your time to explore the exhibits and there were some great hands-on exhibits for the kids. The part that caught my attention the most was the window into the lab, where you can see many fossils in the process of being removed from rock. How these scientists are able to recognize bone from rock, and then remove it so delicately never fails to astound me. I could probably stand in front of a complete mammoth fossil, horns and all, in the ground and still have no idea what I am looking at. My only disappointment was that there was no one in the lab working, but, hey, even scientists deserve a lunch break every once in a while.
At this point, we had literally reached a fork in the road. We had no idea where we would go after this. Time to decide – do we push on to more sights unseen, or go back the way we came?
Visiting the John Day Fossil Beds:
Below are some great websites for planning your own visit to the John Day Fossil Beds: