Kittens invade our campsite at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Follow our St. Clair family summer road trip of 4 weeks, 5 states, and 3,851 miles: All posts

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument: A high desert land of canyons, incredible rock formations, and fossils that range from huge mammals to tiny flowers. We first visited John Day in 2019, but as we crossed from Idaho into Eastern Oregon during our 2021 road trip, we were excited to return to John Day (or, National Park-speak, JODA). After all, even when you’ve been somewhere before, you can return to it with fresh perspective and an open mind.

We made our way parallel to the verdant, sprawling fields that lay in the narrow valleys between the brown and yellow hills. Vast crops of onions, beets, potatoes, corn. But soon we left them behind, as we made our way up 26, through the eastern mountain ranges. Though the passes, of course, were much gentler than Colorado and Utah’s: 3 passes, from around 4,900 feet to 5,500 feet or thereabouts.

Home pulls at us too though. After nearly a month on the road, we were enjoying ourselves, but we were also feeling a readiness to be home for a while. While part of the joy of a journey can be anticipating its end, that doesn’t mean you have to rush home.

Besides, even on the home stretch, you never know what might happen on a trip. Sure, critters have been part of our journey, from teeny lizards in a campsite fire pit, to a massive moose standing in the driveway of a cousin’s cabin. But the last thing we expected was to have our John Day Fossil Beds campsite invaded by kittens. Cute, snuggly, bouncy, adorable kittens…

Learned

…Not only does John Day Fossil Beds National Monument have a Junior Ranger program, kids can also earn a Junior Paleontologist badge…
…Clyde Holliday State Park has lovely walks and grounds, but beware July’s merciless mosquitoes…
…Ice creams tastes all the better after an afternoon hiking in the Eastern Oregon summer sun…
…No matter how many times you’ve visited a place, you can always pack a fresh perspective when you return…
…The only word for the Painted Hills…

Made

…Tracks on dusty trails to see rock formations that are millions of years old…
…Plans to visit the Wallowa Mountains and Hell’s Canyon on a future trip dedicated to Northeast Oregon…
…Room on Junior Ranger vests for new badges…
…Time to savor a fresh experience in a previously visited, beloved place…
…A return visit to a beloved spot that Aster wanted to see again, because the first time she was too young to remember it…

Family travel video: The Northwest’s lost world… or are we on another planet?

Return to John Day Fossil Beds: Quest for Junior Paleontologist badges

Crossing from Idaho back into Oregon brought us not only that much closer to home, but it took us to a change of plans as well. We’d originally planned to visit the Wallowa Mountains and Hell’s Canyon, in Oregon’s northeast corner, but air quality concerns persuaded us to shelve this amazing, beautiful region for another trip.

Home still called, but with every mile, the pull of John Day Fossil Beds got stronger. When we revisit places, we make sure to take a fresh perspective with us. There’s always something different to see. Or an opportunity to explore an aspect of a place that we haven’t checked out yet. At the very least, even when the place seems the same, we are different. We’ve grown, learned, and made new understandings, new knowledge, new questions.

And that’s the wonderful thing about John Day. Along with returning to the immersive Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center, we’d explore more of the trails and rock formations nearby. Aster had also told us that she didn’t remember much of our stop at the famous Painted Hills. Once we were ready to continue west on our gradual journey home, we’d also made another stop there.

Camping at the nearby Clyde Holliday State Recreation Site, we looked forward to an entire day at JODA. Chatting with a ranger, we pointed out that during our 2019 visit, Connor had earned his Junior Ranger badge (his first ever).

“Ah,” said the ranger, “but did you know about our Junior Paleontologist badge?”

Aster and Connor’s eyes got wide. They took their activity booklets, looked through the pages, and began exploring the center’s dioramas, fossil displays, and other exhibits. We examined fossilized leaves and insects, huge mammals and fascinating birds. Now old enough to really get the Junior Ranger magic, Aster especially let loose her big mind and inquisitive spirit.

Soon, proudly wearing their JODA Junior Paleontologist badges, the kids said we were hungry. As were we. Hungry for a hike. For some new places. North of the Condon Visitor Center, in the evocatively named Foree area.

Under the sun and back in time at Foree Trailhead, John Day Fossil Beds

Seeing this striated wall of stone is like looking back in time.

Foree. The name has a Tolkien touch. A feeling of faraway. And in both space and time, that’s true.

Part of John Day’s Sheep Rock Unit, Foree Trailhead is only a few miles north of the Condon Visitor Center. Yet, as you drive past rocks and hills that are around a hundred million years old, you feel your perspective shift into a past that’s hard to imagine.

Visiting the Visitor Center reminds us that the world is always changing. Foree, and all the area around this part of John Day, used to be a warm, humid forest. Lakes and rivers provided habitat and water for forests and menageries, even as the land gradually cooled and dried over millions of years. Life thrived here. Until one bad day about 7 million years ago, a massive, fast volcanic eruption buried the area in thick layers of ash.

Anthony likes to call it “Oregon’s Pompeii.” It’s why there are so many exquisite fossils in the area. Why we can see minute fossils of fragile leaves and flowers. And it’s why the area is dotted with high cliffs, proud hills, and intriguing rock formations.

Just off the main road, Foree Trailhead is an isolated parking area with toilets and a few picnic areas. (Bring plenty of snacks and beverages though, as this is Eastern Oregon, and especially in summer, the sun here can be mighty.) Two short trails take you along low scrub, a few sinewy, beautiful trees, and hills and cliffs that span from red to golden, white to turquoise.

Foree is another example—like the Never Summer Mountains of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park—of names that sound like they came from stories. It’s a place where you’re unlikely to find crowds, but you will be among turquoise rocks that look like they could have been painted with the sea.

Flood of Fire Trail

Kissing at John Day Fossil Beds

A half-mile round-trip, Flood of Fire is follows a slightly sloping trail up a ridge. You’ll finish at the top of a cliff, looking out over the John Day River Valley.

But the big payoff? A wide, high blue wall of ancient, etched stone awaits. It’s the sort of landscape that can make you think you’ve somehow stepped from our wee world to some alien planet. But of course you haven’t. You’re just looking into rock changed by heat and time, a trip not to a distant world, but the distant past, laid bare in the glaring summer sun.

Story in Stone Trail

Otherworldly landscapes abound at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

Also from the Foree Trailhead area, you can follow another short, picturesque round-trip trail. 

The shorter, 0.3-mile Story in Stone trail takes you through a changing array of blue-green claystone formations. Much of the trail is also paved, making the trail a more accessible choice for wheelchair users or other travelers with mobility conditions.

Each trail gave us a different vantage point into the area’s deep past. Lush landscapes would be covered with lava and ash from eruptions. New life would emerge. So the cycle would repeat—and who knows? Maybe it will again.

Kittens invade our campsite

After a day at John Day, we stopped for ice cream at Dayville’s Twisted Treasures. Back at camp, we fired up our Hobbit audiobook and tried to dodge the mosquitoes, out in force to slake their July bloodthirst. When we needed to move around, we took to the shady path running alongside the low, slow stretch of the John Day River that ran through the park. (The eastern end of the path has some great spots for spotting crayfish.)

While relaxing at camp, we kept noticing little blurs of movement at the edge of our vision, and at the edge of camp. Indeed: we had company.

Three stray, gray kittens wandered in and out of our campsite. They’d wander up near the camper, then scamper back to the brush at the edge of the campground. The kids quickly took to trying to track them, setting out water bowls and the GoPro to try to get some soft, furry video of cute adorable kittens.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen real kittens!” said Aster.

The only word for the Painted Hills

https://www.instagram.com/p/CVgpGm-r7VY/

After breaking camp and continuing west from the John Day, we had one more stop to make, just off US 26. We’d been to the Painted Hills before as well, during our 2019 visit, but Aster had pointed out that she had been too young to remember it well.

As if we needed much reason to return.

The hills ripple with green, gold, tan, and red striations. Each is the result of different minerals, different weathering and geologic processes, the scars and transformations of ancient points in time.

While that first visit is still part of her, Aster’s second visit is now definitely a stop, and a sight, she’ll remember. We drove along the vast golden landscape, where rounded domes seemed to rise toward the sky, but in reality are being worn down by time and weather. We returned to one of our favorite walks, the accessible, winding boardwalk of the 0.3-mile Painted Cove Trail.

Aster’s big eyes took in the unique beauty around us, the snapshot of hills that, one day, may be gone. Yet as we drove in to the Painted Hills, past the red and gold striations, so bold and striking against the hazy blue sky, of what Anthony calls Preview Hill, Connor said it best:

“The only word for the Painted Hills is breathtaking.”

Too right, kid. Too right.

Homeward bound… ish

Full moon near John Day Fossil Beds.

Mile by mile we headed west, ready to go toward home, but not to be home yet. Around the Redmond area we turned south, toward Bend, and away from the westward route that could take us back to Eugene.

We needed to make one more stop. One last couple of nights camping, before we moved from camper beds to our own beds again.

Somewhere we meant to go last year, but had to change plans due to smoke and wildfires.

And we wanted to see one more place, one more new place. Have a few more adventures.

Sure, we wanted to go home. But first we wanted to camp inside a massive, active volcano.

Visit John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Directions to the Thomas Condon Visitors Center, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Directions to the Painted Hills, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.