Lessons on the Road

In recent years, our family has planned summer trips to visit National Parks. Hells Canyon made the list this year. Hells Canyon is part of a National Forest and National Recreation Area, but not a National Park – oh well! It is beautiful and rugged, and we were among only a few visitors. Along the way, we stopped at a few other noteworthy locations. Each of these places offered views, lessons, and opportunities for the classroom.

A must see in Eastern Oregon is the John Day Fossils Beds. This is a three-unit National Monument, part of the National Park Service. Since two of these units were on the way, we had to stop :). The Painted Hills offered fascinating content for the classroom. These hills have different colors of materials and have led to discoveries of different ecosystems over time in the same location. The scientific discoveries made here rely on convergence of knowledge of geology, geography, biology, botany, paleontology, and  chemistry. What an opportunity to create an integrated unit!

The next unit of the John Day Fossils Beds we visited was the Sheep Rock Unit. Having spent time in Alaska, we stared at the hills looking for mountain sheep (something like Dahl Sheep up north) on our way to the visitor’s center. We did not see a single sheep on those beautiful, jagged, rocky hills. At the visitor’s center, we asked the ranger why it was called Sheep Rock. It turns out, there are no wild, native, mountain sheep. Instead, the area used to be sheep farming territory and the farmers would graze the sheep on the rocky hills. This use of the land ended many years ago. Our looking for sheep on the hills also ended 😦 The unit is beautiful, though, and offers quite different landscape than the Painted Hills. The fossils found here and at the two other sites confirm the changing landscape over million of years which led to changing ecosystems. This could make an incredible unit – the wheels in my head are turning!

Our next stop was not a scientific place, but instead historical. Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site tells the story of emigrants from China to John Day, Oregon. If you go, and you should, you must take the tour!

We finally arrived at Hells Canyon and were underwhelmed by the facilities. However, I think our planning may have played a role in our disappointment. The scenery is beautiful and the camping is absolutely natural. There are outhouses at many of the campgrounds and they are well-kept. The sites are large and well-spaced. We drove through three campgrounds before choosing our location. The first one had one site occupied, the second also had only one site occupied, and our choice had five sites occupied. That should give you a sense of the lack of congestion in this park. We appreciated this 🙂

Though the camping met our hopes, the exploring was more rough. We had hoped to find a visitor’s center to guide us on our trip. Unfortunately, two of the centers we were told about no longer existed (or were simple bulletin boards instead of facilities) and we did not find a true visitor’s center until the day we decided to head back home. If I were to do this trip again, I would start on the north end of the canyon in Idaho and plan to be in the car on winding roads for the best views.

Even without the guidance we hoped for, we were able to see some of the canyon and the Snake River. The views were great and, again, I was hit with all kinds of questions that could lead to science lessons. For example, the hills along the Snake River have these jagged edges and crevices that made me wonder how that portion had not yet fallen into the River (or onto the road). There were other areas where the force of gravity clearly won. What was the determining factor? Was it predictable? So many questions and opportunities for learning.

Although I was hoping for better pictures, our viewpoints allowed for limited views of the canyon. I love photography, as you have likely figured out, so I am including a few of my pics that relate to the information above. If any of these spark a science lesson idea, please share! 🙂

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