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The Blue Basin is named for obvious reasons: the clay formations here are not only beautiful, but blue and green.

We had a busy day of exploration planned, so we left early after the complimentary breakfast at Hotel Condon to get started on day three of our series of mini road trips. Our first stop was Blue Basin. I had hiked Blue Basin last year during the eclipse, and knew it was worth another visit.

The sun was beating down, but we grabbed some water, Vlad grabbed his hat, and off we went. The most remarkable thing to the casual viewer is the colour of the canyon. I was told that it’s most stunning during a rain, and I believe that. Just imagine the bright colours if the picturesque cliffs here were wet.

An easy, well-maintained path leads 1.3 miles to a great overlook.

Along the path we saw a green stream. I put my hand in the water and confirmed it is clay – that slimy feel – that is the sediment clouding the water.

Also along the trail are replicas of fossils found in this area.

Even the dry clay is distinctly blue-green.

The blue is more noticeable next to the reds from oxidization.

We were only a short drive from the gorgeous Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. It was built in 2005 and named after an Oregon scientist who recognized the value of this fossil collection in the 19th century. It is an impressive, modern museum and information center for visitors, as well as an active research center (with windows so you can watch paleontologists at work!). It’s in the middle of No Where Oregon. I’m serious. Part of the reason I love this place is the impressive quality of the facility in a place where there are very few people and the local economy struggles. Thank you thank you to the entity/grant/taxes/ whatever-it-was that made it possible for this facility to be built. It’s top notch.

And it’s certainly money well spent. By geologic and climactic chance, this region reveals 40 million years of fossils in one spot. Yes, fossils have been found here as old as 44 million years old, and fossils as new as 7 million years old, and lots of stuff in between. What an incredibly valuable resource to be able to track the change over time. In fact, fossil collections around the world that span only a couple million years will send samples here for comparison and confirmation of age. This period is after the dinosaurs, with tropical plants like avocados and animals like three-toed horses.

A fossil display of a three-toed foot inside the museum.

The Dawn Sequoia, which still grows in the US today.

For Maureen who loves fossils: a 44 million year old cicada.

We arrived at the Paleontology Center as a ranger was beginning his talk. He explained the significance of the place, and how it was found after erosion exposed the fossils and locals began talking about it. It was a famous place for awhile, and scientists flocked here to excavate and collect. He passed fossils around while he talked, so we could handle them.

View from the Paleontology Center

Ranger tells us about the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

I got to hold leaf fossils. In my hand!

After the talk we went inside and explored the museum, watched a movie, and spied on the research facilities. We went out to the Jeep again to hit the road and hit the next stop.

Ok. Disclaimer. I love the Painted Hills. I’m telling you: such wonderful photographic opportunities. So I’m just gonna post a string of photos, and you’re going to deal with it.

The view from the summit of a short hike.

The colours and formations are simply stunning. And otherworldly.

Vlad and I are former weather forecasters, so we got very excited when some afternoon thunderstorms began.

Here you are, Derrick: flower shots.

Flowers in the desert.

At the Painted Hills, boardwalks are installed to help people resist the temptation to walk on the hills.

The colours along the trail include, red, yellow, and even lavender.

The red comes from oxidization.

Are we on Mars?

Up close, the hills are even more interesting.

Is this not fascinating? Vlad wondered why there is no vegetation on the hills. There was no ranger on site to ask.

Contrasts between green and red were intriguing.

By this time it was late in the afternoon and we were ready for home. We left and drove through thunder, lightning, and downpours for much of the return journey. As any proper forecaster would be: we were both delighted.

Winding highway drops down into the valley in Eastern Oregon.

Most of our mini road trips will be day trips. But there is one place we wanted to go that was so far away we had to do an overnighter. We decided to do this one early in the road trip series. So day two we headed east and then dropped south from the Columbia River Gorge to explore the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. I found a road I had not traveled before (my rule is to take a different road whenever possible), and as we came through the dry, exposed plains, we noticed over and over the gorgeous views.

The Palisades at the Clarno Unit.

The Palisades are a long string of cliffs along the highway. We hiked along them for awhile, then hiked up to the base.

The landscape in this part of Oregon has it’s own kind of beauty.

The National Monument is in three pieces separated by quite a distance. Our route to our hotel passed one of the areas, called the Clarno Unit. We arrived in the afternoon and had time to park and explore the trails at The Palisades. The Palisades are interesting and beautiful crags that tower above the highway. They were formed 45 million years ago after a volcanic eruption that filled the valley with mudflows called lahars. There were multiple flows filled with rocks, ash, and other debris that settled in layers. Over the millennia, erosion has formed magnificent towers.

The lahars also trapped living things like plants, trees, and animals. It is a treasure trove for fossil hunters. The Clarno Unit is protected as part of the National Monument, so the only time these fossils are disturbed or collected is for scientific study. Near the trail we spotted leaf fossils trapped here from when the environment was wet, lush, and near-tropical.

Fossilized leaves trapped in stone.

Embedded in stone are two petrified logs: one horizontal and one vertical.

An exposed stone that tumbled from the cliffs above shows clearly that the lahars were a mixture of foreign debris. Vlad described it as “concrete, basically.”

The time of day we arrived put most of the cliffs in shadow, but the views were stunning nonetheless.

The first trail we walked had information signs that explained how the landscape changed over time. The second trail took us up the mountain to an arch.

Vlad takes a closer look at the base of The Palisades.

The arch from a distance.

The arch up close.

After the second hike we were hungry and ready to stop traveling. In an hour we reached our hotel in the town of Condon.

I was in this area (and blogged about it) not too long ago when I came over to view the Eclipse in 2017. When I made my way toward the path of totality in August 2017, I passed through the darling little town of Condon, Oregon. I recalled that Condon was the last place I still had cell service before heading farther into the vast emptiness of this part of the state, and for me that is as good a reason as any to choose a home base. Earlier in the week we made reservations at a place called the Hotel Condon that looked interesting online.

It is indeed an interesting place, built in 1920 and restored to a fine state. As one might hope in a place like this, there are rumors of a ghost. I talked with a resident who suspects he has seen evidence of the ghost. The man has stayed here almost 4 months, he said, while doing an electrical project nearby. When the place is mostly empty of guests, he has heard footsteps in the hall and has seen doors opening and closing. Now that is cool.

Hotel Condon (image from

The lobby of the Hotel Condon.

Dining Room

View from the Thomas Condon Visitor Center

View of Sheep Rock from the Thomas Condon Visitor Center

We roused the kids early, fed everyone breakfast, and were rolling through the eastern Oregon desert by 8 am. We stopped first at the Mascall Formation Overlook. The Mascall layer is remarkable because it’s a 15 million year old section of rock made up of successive layers of volcanic ash (you know I love volcanoes) separated by floodplain activity. This formation spreads across a large area of Oregon and holds a wealth of fossils. The protected area of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument includes 20,000 square miles.

Mascall Formation Overlook. You can see the wedge of the ash layer poking up.

Mascall Formation Overlook. You can see the wedge of the ash layer poking up.

Picture Gorge. On the other side of that gorge is the turn off road to the Visitor Center and museum.

Picture Gorge. On the other side of that gorge is the turn off road to the Visitor Center and museum.

From there we could also see Picture Gorge, so named for the pictographs said to be on the walls of the canyon. I yearned to see the pictographs, but there didn’t appear to be any good place to pull off the highway, and there was no clear indication in brochures and signs of where the ancient art might be. And we had a truckload of teenagers dying to get home to their friends…

Those kids were so funny on this trip. Moan and groan at every opportunity, then enjoy every stop. We pulled up to the museum, and blam! They all disappeared into the exhibits, got excited about stuff, read the placards, pulled out drawers holding small fossils, and peered through the glass into the fossil laboratory co-located with the museum. “Mom! Check this out!” “Dad! Look at this!”

dinosaur heads and turtle shell

fossilized skulls and turtle shell

Tara, Arno, and Diego engrossed in the displays

Tara, Arno, and Diego engrossed in the displays

Million-year-old leaf fossils

Million-year-old leaf fossils

Like I said in the last post, Arno and I had never been to this part of Oregon before, and for me it was a surprise to discover what a wealth of fossil excavation and high-quality paleontology is going on right here in my back yard.

This part of Oregon holds one of the richest fossil beds on Earth, revealing a window into the Age of Mammals, in which ancient prehistoric critters battled out the circle of life in rich riverbeds and floodplains. The fossils here come from multiple eras dating back as far as 55 million years. There are remnants of early three-toed horses and rhinos, camels, elephants, and giant sloths. Early dogs, wolves, and cats are here, and crazy creatures like warthogs as big as bison. Tara and I were pleased to discover bones of ancient mouse-deer and bear-dogs, since they would fit perfectly into the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender or Korra.

Diego suggested a stop at Painted Hills, without being able to explain why. He had seen them the summer before, while at an OMSI camp. We were still trying to keep kids happy, and made a lunch stop there. The ranger at the museum had told us that all the trees growing in the park were particularly selected because they were relatives of the 30 million year old plant fossils retrieved from that very area. So cool!

View from the Painted Hills Overlook trail

View from the Painted Hills Overlook trail

What a spectacular scene. From this distance, I could only guess at the texture and composition of the hills.

What a spectacular scene. From this distance, I could only guess at the texture and composition of the hills.

After lunch we chose a couple trails and headed out to see the sights. Bravo Diego! The painted hills are wonderful! They are 33 million year old coloured clay hills that are somewhat beyond description with words. You’ll have to use the photos to see what I mean.

The hills are fragile and millions of years old, so one of our trails was on a boardwalk, to keep our reckless feet away from the precious resource. There were a couple places where we could see tracks across the mounds. Yes, the appeal of touching them is nearly irresistible, but resistance is not impossible. And I wished people could do a better job of restraining themselves (or their children or dogs).

Mounds of coloured cracked clay

Mounds of coloured cracked clay

Miguel, Diego, and Tara along the boardwalk on the Painted Cove Trail

Miguel, Diego, and Tara along the boardwalk on the Painted Cove Trail

This little girl ran ahead of her parents in her excitement

This little girl ran ahead of her parents in her excitement


boardwalk into Painted Cove Trail

boardwalk into Painted Cove Trail

We hit the highway again, and put the miles behind us. We had to screech to a halt when we spotted this beside the road.

Shoe tree

Shoe tree

wow. all those shoes...

wow. all those shoes…

North of Madras we had a lovely view of a whole string of volcanoes running north-south along the Cascade Range. Three Sisters, Mt. Jefferson, both above 10 thousand feet, then Mt. Hood above 11 thousand.

We came to an intersection that is a poignant reminder of one of the obstacles in our lives. A metaphor for Arno and me. Amidst the astounding beauty of this phenomenal place in the world, the sign says turn left for where Crystal lives, or turn right for where Arno lives. Before we met, Arno and I moved a lot. A LOT. We packed up our kids and dragged them all over the place. Before we met, we had each promised our eldest not to move anymore, so they could have a home in one spot till they were able to finish school. So we find ourselves today, 62 miles apart in a beautiful relationship, which is not impossible, but frustrating on some days. Miguel and Tara graduate in 2015, and Diego will still be in high school in Hood River. I’m already scanning the internet for homes for sale in Hood River!

left or right?

left or right?

A new perspective of Mount Hood. This is from the south, an angle I don't get to see very often.

A new perspective of Mount Hood. This is from the south, an angle I don’t get to see very often.

Post Script: I had to soothe my curiosity and thus finally figured out the mystery of The Great and Powerful John Day. Who was this famous man? Ground-breaking paleontologist? Mining magnate? Politician from the pioneering days of the Oregon Trail? No, to all the above. Mr. Day left Virginia with a group heading for Astoria, Oregon to start a fur trading post on the coast. On the way he got lost and was helped by a band of Indians to find the Columbia River Gorge in late 1811. Not long after, a different band of Indians robbed him, taking even the clothes he was wearing. The scene of the robbery was the mouth of the Mah-hah River as it emptied into the Columbia. Mr. Day finally made it to Astoria and told his story. From then on, people pointed out the river and said, “That’s where John Day was stripped naked by the Indians.” Well, it eventually was known as the John Day River, instead of the Mah-hah. Meanwhile, far upstream, and many many years later, a national monument was named after the river that flowed through. As far as anyone can tell, John Day never came within 100 miles of the town of John Day, the fossil beds, or any of the other dozens of things named after him in the region. 

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