Disclaimer: In the past his blog has shared cruising adventures aboard Anjuli, however, from time to time it has covered land-based adventures that may be of interest to boating friends and family. Sailing blogs will resume in the future!
Since no real vacation was had last year, we were keen to go somewhere this year. Flying out of the country (and getting back in) are still problematic so we looked closer to home. Why not a road trip to Zion National Park in Utah? Because if you weren’t on the National Park Service website at 12:01 am when they release the campsite reservations for the next 6 months you will not be camping there. Okay, closer to home. Surely there are some cool geologic sights in Oregon. Besides, what better way to celebrate my recent retirement after nearly 25 years as a geotechnical engineer?
I have always wanted to visit the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, so that seemed like a good place to start. From there we would travel east and cross into Idaho before crossing back into Oregon and visiting the Owyhee Canyonlands along the Owyhee River, and then on to the Alvord Desert on the east side of Steens Mountain.
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (JDFBNM) is comprised of three separate sites, the Clarno Unit, the Painted Hills Unit and the Sheep Rock Unit, located about 25 to 50 miles apart in north-central Oregon. All sites have a small interpretive center or signage, restrooms and hikes. We hit the Clarno Unit on the drive in to look at fossils formed when volcanic lahars, or mudflows, flowed over the area 54-40 million years ago when this part of Oregon was a lush semi-tropical rainforest. We camped two nights at Priest Hole, a BLM (the other BLM, Bureau of Land Management) “dispersed” camping area near the Painted Hills Unit. BLM dispersed camping areas have no fees, and limited or no facilities. Priest Hole is on the John Day River, has a boat ramp and a pit toilet, but the access road is 8 miles of one-lane dirt road.
Camping is always more fun with good friends, and the Taylors braved the road in to Priest Hole towing their 5th-wheel trailer, and a good time was had by all!
We visited the Painted Hills on the way out. One of the most photographed sites in Oregon, the Painted Hills were formed when volcanic ash covered layers of decomposed vegetation, which was then topped by more organic matter making beautiful colored layers. Fossils of animals and plants are found all across the area, including the Painted Hills, hence the “fossil beds” in the national monument’s name.
Continuing east, we passed into Idaho then headed south on Highway 95. From the Hwy 95 turn-off, it is about 25 miles of gravel road to Leslie Gulch and the Slocum Creek Campground on the east side of the Owyhee Reservoir. Leslie Gulch is one of the more well-known locations in the Owyhee Canyonlands.
The Owyhee Canyonlands is a huge remote area of eastern Oregon, southwestern Idaho and northern Nevada, which is nearly the size of Yellowstone. It’s considered one of the largest expanses of undeveloped land in the lower 48 states. It has been a bit of a political football in recent years, as designation as a National Monument, which would sharply curtail activities such as grazing and mining, has been considered.
The most striking features of Leslie Gulch are the towering and colorful geologic formations. The Leslie Gulch Tuff (consolidated volcanic ash), makes up the bulk of these formations. The ash erupted in a series of violent explosions about 15.5 million years ago. Much of the material fell back into the volcano as a gaseous deposit of fine ash and rock fragments up to 1,000 feet thick. About 100,000 years later, additional eruptions deposited another layer of tuff. Today, the tuff is beautifully displayed as steep slopes and vertical, honeycombed towers carved over time.
The Slocum Creek Campground at Leslie Gulch is a deluxe BLM campground, with ten individual campsites each with a shade shelter (it gets hot here), picnic table, and fire ring. There are his and her pit toilets, and a concrete boat launch at the reservoir just a few hundred yards away. No cell service, and no water, but amazing star gazing.
There are numerous trails for hiking. We were hoping to see a bighorn sheep, as they were re-introduced here in the 1960s, but were not so lucky. Local fishermen we talked to indicated sheep numbers have declined in recent years due to mountain lion predation and a virus spread by domesticated sheep.
It is a magical place, and I would love to go back, but not in the summer. In the 3rd week of April, the days were pleasant in the 60s and 70s, and nights were chilly in the high 30s, but in the summer average daytime temperatures are in the 90s.
Leaving Leslie Gulch, we headed southwest towards Steens Mountain. As this was a geology-themed trip, we made a quick stop at the Pillars of Rome. The nearby community of Rome takes its name from these formations of fossil-bearing clay that look like Roman ruins. These 100-foot-high formations were a landmark to pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail.
Continuing on, we made our way down the east side of Steens Mountain (on another dirt road) to Alvord Hot Springs on the west side of the Alvord Desert. Alvord Hot Springs is located on private property, but with a paid campsite or bunkhouse rental you can sit in the hot springs and use their private access to the playa of the Alvord Desert.
The desert is situated over a tectonic fault that is responsible for the uplift of the Steens Mountain fault block and the numerous geothermal springs found here (geology trip, remember?). The Alvord Desert was once a lake extending over 100 miles but has since completely dried up, forming what is now known as a playa, approximately 20 miles long and 7 miles wide. The playa is flat as a pancake, and the women’s four-wheel world land speed record was set here in 2019 by Jessi Combs at 522.783 miles per hour. Sadly, she died shortly after while attempting to better the record.
Although there is a free BLM campground across the road, we splurged on a bunkhouse (which are actually old surplus army MASH units), as overnight temperatures were expected to dip into the 20s. We enjoyed a soak in the tub where we met a couple from Slovenia traveling the West by campervan, and had a scotch on the rocks outside our bunkhouse.
We finished the trip at another BLM Campground, Lone Pine, on the John Day River. Amazing what can be found so close to home. We toasted to a successful trip, my retirement, and to future adventures.