If you drive just a couple of hours east of Bend, Oregon you’ll find strikingly painted hills and a center devoted to paleontology. The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center will impress you with fascinating information and artfully displayed artifacts. Wow! What a place.
Thomas Condon in history
In 1862, minister and self-trained scientist Thomas Condon learned of fossils in the John Day basin. Soldiers stationed in the area told him about the fossils. He began excavating them in 1865 and sent specimens to the east coast for verification. There was a great amount of interest in what he uncovered. Condon was later appointed to be Oregon’s first state geologist due to his many discoveries.
Fossil collectors collected as much as they could as fast as they could for many years. In the late 1800s, John C. Merriam, Professor of Geology at the University of California, developed a new practice when collecting specimens. He took detailed notes about the layer of rock strata where each specimen was collected. Merriam, along with Ralph W. Chaney and Chester Stock, led the way in correlating the fossils found in each layer with the geological age of the strata.
As early as 1903, citizens became concerned over the preservation of the fossil beds. They wanted the area designated as a state park. They later pushed for the protection that national park status would provide. In 1975, the area was designated as the John Day National Monument. Ted Fremd, hired in 1984, served as the Monument’s first paleontologist. He developed a program of systematic prospecting, mapping, and radiometric dating of the rock layers. Scientists in a wide variety of fields helped determine the flora, fauna, and geology of the region.
Creation of the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center
The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, built in 2003, houses fossils found in the three units of the Monument and areas nearby. It’s located in the Sheep Rock Unit near Dayville, Oregon. Visitors can get a good view of scientists carefully cleaning locally found fossils in a lab with large viewing windows. Scientists have found 2,200 species of plants and animals in the lands of this National Monument. The Center displays fossils in glass cases. Large murals, with re-creations of what the land may have looked like, decorate the walls. A small store with fossil and dinosaur-related products is located in the lobby.
The Monument covers 14,000 acres in its three units. Services are limited in this rural area so plan in advance. There are several trails in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument to give you a close-up view of the landscape. Since this is a National Monument, you cannot collect fossils.
You can dig for fossils on the hill located just behind Wheeler High School in the town of Fossil. I have collected fossils there and the site is easily accessible. For more information on collecting fossils there, go to Wheeler High School Fossil Beds.
Go to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument site to find out more about the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center and other places to visit.
See my Painted Hills – An Oregon natural wonder for more about the Painted Hills Unit. A great place for photographs.