It’s a three-hour drive from the Tri-Cities to the John Day Fossil Beds, but if you get up early and spend the whole day, you can see some of the oldest and most remarkable geological formations in the whole Pacific Northwest.
This memorable adventure, sponsored by the Intermountain Alpine Club (IMAC), was designed as a one-day trip, three hours each way, with five to six hours of easy hiking at several high interest locations of interest.
When we left the Southridge parking lot at 6:07 a.m., the skies were gray and overcast and there was a nippy cold wind blowing from the west. We headed south on Highway 395 to Interstate 84, headed east six miles and then headed south on Highway 207 through the Umatilla National Forest to Kimberly, and then south on Highway 19.
Three hours later, our first stop was to get a few pictures of a beautiful blue geological formation called Cathedral Rock, a multi-colored and layered cliff face that creates a structure that causes the John Day River to curve 180 degrees.
Then we drove on another four miles to the trailhead to the Blue Bell Canyon Trail – one of the showcase hikes in the John Day National Monument.
When we got there, it was partly cloudy with no wind and the sun was beginning to light up the hillsides. From the trailhead, you have your choice of the more-challenging Blue Basin Overlook Trail (3.9 mile loop, 800 feet of climb) or the easier Island in Time Trail (1.3 miles, 220 feet of climb).
There was a park ranger at the trailhead who recommended we do the gradual climb to the top of the ridge. We took her advice.
The trail is scenic and offers eye-candy everywhere you look right from the start. The walking is on packed sand with bunch grasses and a few wildflowers and shrubby junipers. It’s starts off at an easy grade, and with a few short moderate pitches steadily climbs higher above the eroded badlands of Blue Basin, offering spectacular close-up views of the fractured multi-colored ravines and of the John Day River winding through the valley below.
The trail runs through a stunning canyon carved by erosion into 30 million to 60 million-year-old beds of gray blue sedimentary rocks. These claystones form what is called the John Day formation comprised of layers of volcanic ash containing a rich diversity of vertebrate fossils, which are explained in glorious detail in the impressive exhibits in the Thomas Condon Visitor Center, a few miles up the road.
The views get better as you climb to the ridge and reach a stunning vista with an overlook that allows you to see the amazing carved canyons capped by layers and layers of 11 million to 50 million-year-old basalt lava rocks. And then the sun came out and lit up the rocks and the incredible views.
The first hike was done after about two hours, and we jumped in the cars and then drove south to Highway 26 and west to Mitchell, and then headed nine miles northwest to the Painted Hills Trailhead.
We first hiked the easy, basically flat Overlook Trail (half a mile), which gives you a close-up view of these colorful, vibrant rocks of bright red, orange, tan and yellow clays, which preserve a sedimentary sequence of past climate change. The formation’s soils here are so sensitive that it is prohibited to walk on them and you must stay on the trails. The trail ends at a logged off viewpoint that offers great picture taking opportunities.
Then we walked back to the north and up the Carroll Rim Trail (1.6 miles round trip), which offers panoramic views of the Painted Hills, Sutton Mountain and canyons as far as the eye can see. It’s a little bit steep, with about 400 feet of climb up a series of switchbacks.
Then it was back to Mitchell, where we gassed up the vehicles at a station with a gigantic cage that last fall housed a black bear right across the street from the memorable Mitchell Stage Stop.
We hit Highway 19 north to Arlington and then back to Interstate 84, Highway 395 and Kennewick.
There are a lot of other places to see in the John Day National Monument, especially if you like fossils. So once you get there, so you might consider camping out or staying overnight at the Mitchell Hotel.
It was a wonderful day.
Paul Krupin is an avid local outdoor enthusiast and a member of the Intermountain Alpine Club (IMAC). He has been hiking the trails of the Pacific Northwest since 1976. At least once a month, he leads a free hike to one of the local area trails. Find out more at the Intermountain Alpine Club (IMAC) Facebook or Meetup pages. He can be reached at email@example.com.