Travel

Let's Talk About This Super Trippy Desert in the Middle of Oregon

This wild national monument is a 40 million year time capsule.

Peter Unger/Stone/Getty Images
Peter Unger/Stone/Getty Images
Peter Unger/Stone/Getty Images

So we all know about Oregon: its rainy forests and rugged coastlines, its beer-loving towns and brunch-loving cities, its misty waterfall hikes and plaid-clad bearded dudes.

What you don’t typically associate with the Beaver State? The desert, and the otherworldly, Dr. Seussian landscapes you typically find in Arizona and Utah. But venture east of the Cascade Range and you’ll stumble into dry, high-desert terrain that feels lightyears away from rain-soaked Portland.

To wit: the sunset-striped hills and badlands of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. You’ll find the park about an hour and a half away from the city of Bend, and it contains one of the richest fossil sites on earth-evidence of fluctuating climates and changing ecosystems that span millions of years.

“What I find most exciting about the story that John Day Fossil Beds tells, is how complete of a story it is,” says Sarah Holman, Chief of Interpretation and Education at John Day. “It’s not just a small glimpse into a couple hundred, or a couple million years. We range over 40 million years, and that’s extremely difficult to comprehend.”

The region consists of three “units:” Clarno, Painted Hills, and Sheep Rock. Although it is possible to see all three sites in one day, Holman strongly recommends spreading them out, as each unit is around a 1-2 hour drive from each other. Holman adds, “We like to describe the three different units as chapters of the same book. Each of them speaks of a different time frame within the Cenozoic era.”

Peter Unger/Stone/Getty Images
Peter Unger/Stone/Getty Images
Peter Unger/Stone/Getty Images

Clarno

With its towering palisades and weathered arches, Clarno is essentially a rainforest that has been locked in stone. About 50 million years ago, ancient Oregon was a lush, tropical ecosystem. But when volcanoes erupted, mudflows ensued, cementing together rocks, standing trees, and even some unlucky wildlife-everything from tiny, four-toed horses to rhino-like brontotheres. “You can actually see some of the leaf imprints and fossils on the rockfall along the trails,” says Holman. Keep a sharp eye out for glimpses of the fossilized plants in the boulders and cliff walls along the aptly named Trail of Fossils.

Anna Gorin/ Moment/Getty Images
Anna Gorin/ Moment/Getty Images
Anna Gorin/ Moment/Getty Images

Painted Hills 

The star of the show, Holman advises getting to the Painted Hills unit early, as it tends to be the most crowded of the three. These sweeping badlands are brushed with brilliant hues of red, gold, and pink. You can choose from five hiking trails that vary in difficulty, but the most popular is the Painted Cove Trail, a leveled boardwalk that leads you straight through the rolling red clay hills. For a panoramic view from above, take the 1.6-mile Carroll Rim Trail.

The soils get their vibrant colors from the remnants of ancient deciduous forests. Depending on the season, or even time of day, the hills will take on a unique appearance as changing light and moisture levels drastically affect their tones. Come in the spring and you might spot some wildflowers.

 VW Pics/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
VW Pics/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
VW Pics/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Sheep Rock

At the Sheep Rock unit, you’ll find stunning, blue-green clay stones that date back as far as 95 million years. A number of trails offer scenic views overlooking the John Day River Valley-the most spectacular of which is the 3.5-mile Blue Basin Overlook. 

Besides hiking, you can swim and fish in the John Day River, or enjoy a packed lunch at one of the many picnic areas. And if you’re interested in seeing excavated fossils up close, make a visit to the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center, where you can peer into a laboratory of scientists who continue to discover new fossils each year.

It’s not unusual for temperatures to reach the nineties, so extra water and sun protection are key. “Since we’re in a high desert area, you may be hiking and not realize how much you are sweating, because it evaporates so quickly,” Holman notes. 

But even if paleontology or geology isn’t your thing, the monument is still worth exploring as an unexpected addition to the natural wonders of Oregon. “When I first moved here, I was expecting big, tall Evergreen trees, and the very wet environment of what I now know is western Oregon,” Holman explains. “And I was so surprised to see a desert with cacti and sage brush. I think there’s something really special about visiting places that completely upend your expectations.”

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Jessica Sulima is an editorial assitsant at Thrillist. 

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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