Even the panoramic view in the image above cannot do justice to the magnitude of the cliffs in the John Day Fossil Beds, Clarno Unit. Highway 218 parallels a range of cliffs that is known as The Palisades. I must admit initial confusion as to the specific location of the fossil beds only to learn after visiting this unit that there are three units and an interpretive center, each some distance apart. Our GPS brought us to the Clarno unit, so we will begin our story here.
At Clarno, which I was to learn later is the least visited unit in the park, there is a small commons ground called the Palisades Picnic Area. There are ramadas (covered picnic tables) and basic facilities for a day trip. The park itself features three interpretive trails, the Arch Trail, the Trail of Fossils, and the Geologic Time Trail. All are short, the longest is Arch Trail, a half-mile out-and-back trail that climbs up to the base of the faces seen in the opening photo.
The self-directed interpretive trails feature descriptive signage pointing out various features. In the image above, the large rock behind the sign separated from the rocks above and fell to the base of the cliffs. At the point where it separated, a large collection of fossilized leaves were left exposed. Those fossils are all of the black spots on the rock.
From the National Park Service website here, I’ve reproduced this trail map to give you an idea of the trail details. From the parking area, it’s a short walk to the Geologic Time Trail which ends at the Trail of Fossils. At the far west end of that loop, if you feel like a bit of a climb (not difficult), you can hike to the base of the highest cliffs for a closer view of the arch that the trail name references.
The views of the Palisades from below are spectacular, but it truly is a small unit of the park. Unless you bring a picnic lunch or are deeply interested in studying the fossils that are plainly visible in the rocks, you can plan to stay only a couple of hours or so. You’ll find the Clarno Unit on highway 218 between Madras and Fossil.
We arrived in the morning, so though I hiked to the top of the Arch Trail, the area below the arch was deep in shadow. You can see the arch at the top of the dark area in the image above. It is truly a delicate arch. The best image I got was this one, captured with my telephoto lens from the base of the cliffs.
After leaving Clarno, our journey that day also took us to the Sheep Rock Unit and we visited the Paleontology Center. I will feature a visit to the center and photos of the Sheep Rock Unit, next week in part II of this Journey with Johnbo.
I submit for your approval, (or not), a gallery of images captured on our visit to the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds. If your browser supports the function, you can click on an image in the gallery to enlarge it for a closer view, and to scroll through the gallery.