The Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is known for it's fossil-rich rock formations. Hundreds of fossilized specimens, from plants to large animals, have been discovered here.
I had a lovely early morning drive through winding canyons interspersed with radiant green pastures. This was cattle country, as the numerous ranches attested. Interesting rock formations lined the highway. I even saw a herd of elk grazing in some rancher's field.
|Looking back towards Turtle Cove|
My primary destination - Blue Basin. A large eroded canyon full of unusually colored blue-green rock and soil, it's one of the highlights of the Sheep Rock Unit. Two hiking trails explore this area - the Overlook Trail, a 3.2-mile loop that circles the ridge above the canyon, and the Island in Time Trail, a half-mile path that takes visitors directly into the heart of the basin.
|Interesting iron-stained rocks|
I chose to tackle the longer trail first. Beginning my trek, early morning clouds still hung thick in the sky. Although it kept temperatures down, the lack of light wasn't much help for photo-taking.
I meandered through scrubby juniper and bushy grassland plants. About a half mile from the trailhead, I got my first sighting of the blue-green soils. Turtle Cove, a huge eroded cliff, rose up from the prairie floor. Water erosion had sculpted the rock and soil into interesting castle-like shapes. Bands of harder rock more resistant to the weathering, stood out from the slope face like wavy stripes.
|Self portrait attempt near the top|
I later learned that turtle fossils had been found in this area, so I'm assuming that's how Turtle Cove got its name.
|Looking into the Canyon from Rim viewpoint|
From Turtle Cove, the trail began to climb. It paralleled the fascinating blueish banded rock for a short distance before switchbacking steeply uphill. Nearing the canyon's rim, a strategically placed bench provided hikers a place to rest and take in the amazing views. Desolate hillsides dotted with colorful hues of red and blue soils mixed in with the golden brown tones of the valley below.
|Blue Basin overview|
Climbing up a couple more switchbacks got me to the canyon's rim. A side trail snaked across the crest, which led to another bench. Hikers reaching this point are rewarded with a stunning overlook of Blue Basin and the John Day River Valley.
|The trail passes between these two boulders|
My perch on the rim provided great views of the layered rock and sculpted soils in the canyon below. This colorful blue crack in the earth stood out prominently from the surrounding landscape. Breathtaking!
|Nice view of Blue Basin and the surrounding area|
After soaking in the scenery, I continued my hike, following a circular path around the basin's rim. Finished with climbing, the trail now began to zig-zag back down to the valley floor.
Coming down the other side, I was treated to some incredible scenery. Blue Basin appeared over my right shoulder, and was my constant companion for the rest of the hike. Beyond the canyon, the John Day River Valley spread out, rimmed by steep hills on either side. Green fields of an adjacent farm brightened the landscape.
|Island of Time Trail into the basin|
As I descended (traversing 21 switchbacks), the eerie, fluted formations of Blue Basin became larger and closer. Finally, my path intersected with the Island in Time Trail.
|The minerals stained the water blue|
Time to check out the interior of this canyon I'd just circumnavigated! This second trail leads visitors directly into the heart of Blue Basin. I began by following a trickling creek of murky blue-green water. Thick with minerals leached from the soil, I'd never seen water such an unusual shade of blue.
The rock in this basin was originally volcanic ash, deposited 29 million years ago, which hardened into claystone. Erosion over the eons has transformed these rock layers into intricate castle-like shapes. Minerals leaching into the soil give the rock its distinct blue color.
|Close up of blue-green soils|
Many varieties of fossils have been found in this very canyon. A few interpretive signs spaced along the trail housed replicas of some of the more common finds. But the weatherbeaten signs were difficult to read, and looked liked they'd seen better days.
|Weird rock formations in the basin|
No matter, the scenery was the show-stealer. The further I hiked into the canyon, the more impressive the sights. Deeply ridged hills rose from both sides of the canyon, becoming more numerous. The eroded columns of rock looked as beautiful as any architect or artist could create. It felt as if I was inside an elaborate cathedral. Not expecting to see anything that would top my previous day's visit to the Painted Hills, Blue Basin came darn close.
|This rock is REALLY blue!|
The trail ended in a colorful amphitheater of sculpted stone. The fluted blue formations rose around me on three sides. And, if one cue, the sun, which had struggled all morning to break free of the clouds, began to beam down upon the canyon walls.
|Erosion created sculptures|
Such unusual sights! The Badlands of South Dakota is the only area I've seen that even comes close to resembling the formations found here.
|Finally some blue sky!|
I'd heard all about the Painted Hills, and was prepared to be amazed. But Blue Basin was a total surprise. I didn't expect to see such striking, colorful rock formations twice in the same trip. I'm glad I made the effort to drive further east and check out this unique geologic treasure.
Linking to: Weekly Top Shot.