To reach the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, head 18 miles west of the town of Fossil along Oregon’s 286-mile Journey Through Time Scenic Byway. Although it’s a near-desert environment today, had you visited 44 million years ago, you would have seen a jungle-like landscape inhabited by tiny four-toed horses, huge rhino-like creatures, and crocodiles. Volcanoes would have towered in the background.
The Palisades is the most striking feature in the 1,969-acre Clarno Unit and is a remnant of the ancient volcanoes. The spires were formed by volcanic mudflows called lahars. The red, buff, and beige layers are known as tuff (a rock formed of compacted volcanic fragments). The greenish rock contains celadonite, a mineral in high iron content. Each layer has a unique chemical composition and color, depending on the time of the various volcanic eruptions.
For a closer look, stop at the Clarno Palisades picnic area. Three separate quarter-mile hiking trails lead from here to the base of the cliffs. To see plant and nut fossils embedded in rocks, take the Trail of the Fossils. You won’t find dinosaur fossils here, though, because this part of the country was beneath the Pacific Ocean during the time of the dinosaurs. Petrified logs are visible in the cliff face of the Clarno Arch Trail, and interpretive signs along the Geologic Time Trail denote pre-historic events of the last 50 million years. Each foot of this trail represents 37,000 years! Keep in mind that you’re in rattlesnake country. If you see a snake, just back away slowly to let them know you mean no harm. To be on the safe side, wear snake gaiters whenever hiking in snake country.
You can’t dig for fossils within John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, but for $5 per person, you can dig for them behind the high school in the town of Fossil.
Click here to read Part 1 – Sheep Rock Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
Click here to read Part 3 – Painted Hills Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument Clarno Unit
Kimberly, Oregon phone: (541) 987-2333