Journey Through Time Scenic Byway

Mileage Today: 259 Total: 3,063

Yesterday it was so hot, and we were a bit tired, we decided to do nothing and just enjoy our hotel in Bend. Consequently we lazed around the pool all day and then cooked dinner in our studio in the evening. It did us the world of good.

And this morning we were up with the lark and ready to head out along the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway to Baker City, our next stop for the night. There was some haze in the Bend area from a wildfire somewhere. It’s that time of the year apparently. Lightning strikes set them off. The grass and vegetation is so very, very dry in many parts. The visibility improved markedly as we moved east.

This route travels through river canyons and into the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, an incredible area where 55 million years of flora and fauna are preserved in the rocks. And it also explores communities from the past that tell stories about north eastern Oregon’s history: railroads, timber, mines, ranches

Our route from Bend intersected with the Byway (RT 26) just before one of the John Day Fossil Beds’ 3 units: The Painted Hills. As we descended from the high peaks, the trees disappeared and the landscape turned into an artist’s palette of painted rocks, buttes and rock desert. We drove about 5 miles off the highway into the Park and parked up at the first trailhead and walked up to the overlook, about .5 mile each way. The scenery was staggering. Hills of orange and yellow, ochres, striped, some spotted with black like a strange leopardskin….. Interesting information boards along the way that explained the strata and what they taught us about the landscape. Apparently 45 million years ago, Oregon was a tropical rainforest populated by strange animals and dotted with huge volcanoes. Over the millions of years, these volcanoes eruped frequently causing huge mudslides that covered forests and valleys. The trees would grow again…. the volcanoes would erupt. Gradually, the climate changed and grew drier and cooler. Trees changed to deciduous pine forests and the animals and birds adapted. Still strange to us: massive elephantlike creatures, relatives of the camel, horses that ate leaves and twigs not grass, pig like bears…… These forests too perished as the land changed, rivers carved through, creating ravines and valleys….. It became drier……. Rock eroded leaving the layers visible. The red layers are oxidized meaning that they were formed in wet times. The yellow layers indicate a drier, cooler period. Animals, plants and birds were trapped and died either naturally or as a result of an eruption and became encased in rock. These fossils are being exposed as the landscape continues to evolve and paleontologists study them and learn about the creatures that lived in different time periods.

The John Day beds have yielded enormous numbers of fossils, recording over 2000 species of plants and animals dating back 6 million to 54 million years. Just absorb those numbers for a minute!!!! It is one of the most complete fossil collections in existence and fossils from these beds are represented in museums all over the world.

So… who was John Day???? I thought, a famous paleontologist. But no. He was a fur trapper and in 1812 he came to the Oregon Territory as part of an exploration party. They were attacked and robbed by Indians and left naked in the woods. The men were rescued by another party and reached Astoria in early May, 1812.  His story became famous and people started calling the Mau Mau River ‘John Day River’ because he was attacked there.  Within a very few years, the maps changed the name to John Day, and then a valley, two cities, the fossil beds and a dam took on the name of the river.  It is likely that John Day never actually visited the area which now uses his name so frequently.

After enjoying the overlook trail we drove a little further to the Painted Cove nature trail. This circled an ochre and yellow hill right up close so that we could see the strange popcorn like texture of the rocks and clay. The colours were so vivid.

We drove on about another 30 miles to the next John Day unit: the Sheep Rock one. The visitor centre is here in another strange rock canyon. We ate lunch here and then went into the visitor centre. There was a very good 20 minute film explaining how the different layers were formed as the landscape and climate changed over all the millions of years. There was then a very good selection of fossils on display grouped by type and landscape. There was also a glass viewing window into the paleontology labs where scientists were working on extracting fossils from large pieces of rock. Very delicate work from what we could see. It was so interesting to see the fossils – jaw bones, femurs, whole skills….. There were ferns and leaves preserved in rock and the teeth of saber tooth tigers and weird ancestors of the rhino.

We proceeded on down the byway and came to the town of John Day itself, an old cattle town surrounded by cattle farms. Apparently once upon a time the herds would be driven right down the main street. The other interesting feature in town was a museum and monument to the Chinese workers who lived there in the 1880s building the railroad. The building had been a post office, pharmacy, general store and doctor’s surgery to the community.

The road continued flanked by cattle farms for miles. Then we turned onto Rt. 7 and the landscape changed again as the trees started to come back. We stopped at a viewpoint looking toward the Strawberry mountains where there was a large recreation of a pioneer wagon. We passed relics of the lumber industry and then as we approached Sumpter, gold mining with gold rush towns, some of them ghost towns now. Sumpter has a massive dredge still visible as a monument and the Powder river has piles of spoil all along the banks leading into and out of town for miles. We had seen scenery like this along the gold rush rivers of the Rockies.

Eventually we came down into the so called Queen of the Gold Rush, Baker City. A place also with strong Oregon Trail links. And suddenly there was smoke in the air again. A wildfire somewhere to the south. Baker City is an absolute marvel of Victoriana with a wonderful long Main Street complete with an historic hotel, The Geisler. We plan to explore a little tomorrow.

Checked into our motel and later headed out to dinner at the Oregon Trail Restaurant. A proper old diner with a great local reputation. It was packed. A good sign. We both went for the prime rib dinner. It came with a salad bar and then the prime rib which was served with carrots, potato, jus, dinner roll, etc. It beat me. I did eat all the prime rib though. Very good value. We think we’ll go back for breakfast in the morning and make it a sort of brunch…..

A very good day. A lovely route with incredible scenery and very easy driving. The road was good and pretty empty really. A real pleasure to drive.