Having taken our fill of lighthouses and crashing waves for a spell, we turned inland toward a far and different place on the other side of Oregon, the John Day Fossil Beds. The detour from the coast would be more than 250 miles each way. We began with a night near the costal town of Florence; we had heard good things about staying in the parking lot of the Three Rivers Casino, which is owned and operated by the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians. Many casinos offer this overnighting possibility, and here it was free to stay up to three nights. What’s more, the casino offered us $5 in play money, so we had some fun at the penny slot machines, walked away with a profit of almost $30, and thought it courteous to spend most of it on dinner at the casino restaurant. In the morning we filled our coffee mugs (there was free soda, coffee, and hot chocolate inside), unhitched our trailer, and drove into Florence to poke around the small shops and enjoy the town before heading east in earnest.
The casino option is well worth remembering for nomads on the road, and should you find yourself in Oregon, the Three Rivers Casino (which, BTW, got top billing on TripAdvisor) is a particularly good choice.
On we went, stopping for gas in Eugene, and passing through Brownsville,
which we learned was the filming location for Stand By Me, that nostalgic film of our youth for all of us who came of age in the 80’s and 90’s. The town loves its bit of history, and every year celebrates “Stand By Me Day,” when fans and old cars descend on the town for remembrance of a classic. Sadly we’d miss it by a month.
We spent one en route night in Willamette National Forest east of Cascadia,
happening upon a little dispersed campsite next to the river. The site was perfect, though in the morning Colin found a lot of trash that people had left, from old shoes to beer bottles. He did a big cleanup, our payment of thanks for all of the goodness we’ve received from our National Forests throughout our journey.
Fossil Beds – Painted Hills and Turtle Cove
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument consists of a trio of contrasting land areas with fossils and unique features in the dry, hot hills of eastern Oregon.
We arrived at the Paint Hills Unit in late afternoon, just after the ranger station was closing. True to both Oregon’s and the National Park Service’s proven hospitality, the ranger gladly opened up again so we could buy a postcard and pick his brains for some advice on our visit. Later we ate an early cheese and cracker dinner at the tables in the oasis-like front yard of the ranger station, while Katie “circumnapigated” the area at the stretch of her rope: sunny spot, then cool shade, then sunny spot, then cool shade again.
We biked up to the Painted Hills, each layer a different color from natures paint brush, a palette of paleosols and manganese concentrates related to the geological and paleobiological history of that era.
That night we had a little project to take on. Katie’s running booties had begun to wear thin from the many miles she had put on them. We had acquired some rubber dip (very useful stuff indeed; if you’ve never tried it, have a look around your house and think of all the things you might dip in rubber, not including the cat’s paws or your entire spouse…) and over the course of the evening, dipped the booties twice to add a robust new layer to the bottom.
Sheep Rock Unit was our second fossil bed stop. It had a new museum, the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, gorgeously appointed, and dedicated to the Age of Mammals. Though I’ve alway been a bit tepid about animal fossils (sorry, Samantha!) , there amongst the fossilized leaves and nuts I channeled Kirk Johnson* and fell in love with fossil plants, if only just a little bit.
* Previous DMNS chief curator/paleobotanist, now director at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.
Outside again, we hiked Turtle Cove, along the bizarre green-grey-blue hills formed by alkaline ash beds and water. We hiked out to see the fossilized tortoise shell, still embedded in the rock where it was found.
Having just spent time with all these fossils, wouldn’t you want one to keep? Oregon understands, and the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument has partnered with Wheeler High School in Fossil, OR, to offer you a chance to find your very own fossil to take home. The brochure from the ranger welcomed us to try our luck at digging a fossil in the school’s back field, only requesting, along with a $5 donation, that we bring home no more than we could carry in our own two hands. That sounded promising to us.
It started raining as we arrived (Yeah, did you notice all the green in these photos? Rain…), but we were determined to persevere. We chiseled and buffed and peeked between layers of chunks of rock we’d chipped from the muddy cliffside. We came away with some fossil leaves, and, though paleobotinists might sniff at our findings, we were pleased enough.
Leaving the fossil beds behind to began our travel northward toward the Columbia River, we passed emerald green fields dotted with hundreds of graceful wind turbines. I can never get enough of these quiet, majestic beauties.
On we went, putting those long detour miles under our six wheels. The long drive gave us the chance to stay in one of Oregon’s newest state park campgrounds, the remote Lone Tree at Cottonwood Canyon State Park. A wide expanse of flatland around the river gave way to a close mountain, behind which the moon rose that evening to cast a moon shadow over half the campground. We’d arrived late afternoon and settled into a lovely spot. The bushes and trees were still establishing, so wood dividers had been erected to provide privacy and wind block. Water was not yet plumbed (the host ranger was most apologetic), and the $10 per night price reflected the “more primitive” (!) conditions. But Oregon State Parks had a reputation to keep – no shower? So sorry… how about a bicycle? A row of them sat ready and open for anyone to use. Go ahead, read the friendly Oregon sign, take one for a ride.
11 things we love about Oregon
The Oregon Beach Bill
Oregon State Parks and their campgrounds
Cops riding bicycles, doubling as mobile tourist information services
So dog friendly
Rugged beaches and stunning sunsets
Three (count them!) John Day Fossil Beds
Even the signage is welcoming and courteous
The charming, outdoorsy town of Hood River, along the Columbia River