Contrary to popular belief, Eastern Oregon isn’t just for cowboys and ranchers. Here in the John Day River Territory, you’re just as likely to hear the roar of a motorcycle echoing down our canyons and through our pristine landscape. The Journey Through Time Tour is all about curves; zigzagging past brilliant, color-washed Painted Hills, historic ghost towns and maybe a cattle drive or two. So rev up your engine and come for a visit, scenic roadways, friendly communities, and jaw-dropping curves await.
To make the most of your time, plan on staying overnight in John Day. For a down home breakfast, stop by The Squeeze In Restaurant and Deck then start your ride west on Highway 26 to Mount Vernon. The road is flat and relatively straight here, but becomes much more curvy when you turn right onto Highway 395 and climb to the friendly town of Long Creek.
Leave Long Creek via Highway 402. The twisting road provides stunning views and a thrilling descent into the community of Monument. The road follows the John Day River, passing by sprawling cattle ranches and emerald alfalfa fields.
Continue to Kimberly and Thomas Orchards, a sweet, juicy stop for travelers. Bushels of fresh cherries, peaches, pears, and other fruits are available throughout the growing season (April to October) at the Orchard’s Fruit Stand. Stop in for a quick snack then continue south on Highway 19 to the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
This unit is distinguished by its Turtle Cove strata, a striking blue-green rock layer produced by millions of years of volcanic ash accumulation. The Sheep Rock Unit is equipped with picnic areas and plentiful hiking opportunities to take in the area’s awe-inspiring natural beauty and learn about the flora and fauna that inhabited these lands over the past 25-30 million years.
While you’re here, don’t miss the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center (Open: Check website for days and hours). The Center is the crown jewel of the Monument, welcoming visitors from around the globe and hosting a world-class research base for scientists.
Large bay windows allow visitors to peek into a working paleontology lab where scientists gently scrape away at the latest find. A white board lists the day’s project and flat-screen displays let onlookers get a closer view of the delicate work and tools employed by scientists to unlock the fossil remains from their rocks.
An impressive exhibit hall showcases the fossil record found here with colorful dioramas, replicas of animals and plants, and a soundtrack to match.
Just across the road is a little oasis in the jagged canyons and rugged landscape of this region. The Cant Ranch (Open: Monday-Thursday and alternate Fridays; 9am to 4pm) harkens back to the early 1900s when wool and sheep were booming industries in the area. The white, two-story home James and Elizabeth Cant used to entertain guests and educate local schoolchildren is now a wonderfully preserved museum, which provides visitors with a glimpse of life here in the 1900s.
The lush lawn surrounding the house has ample shade and picnic tables available.
Get back on Highway 19 and continue 2 miles to Highway 26. Turn right at the junction and follow the hairpin turns and fast, flat stretches to Mitchell, a community full of rustic charm and the gateway to the Painted Hills. Stop for lunch at the Little Pine Café and view the unique collection of gems and fossils at the Lucky Strike Rock Museum right outside of Mitchell on Highway 26. Then continue on to the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
Nominated as one of the 8th Wonders of the World, the Painted Hills are named for the vibrant mounds of gold, red, black and orange soils that punctuate these hills. The Monument welcomes guests with a shaded picnic area, restrooms, and interpretive signs. Short hiking loops throughout the park allow visitors to get a close-up view of the unique, multicolored bentonite soil.
Just a heads up, the Painted Hills Unit is made up of gravel roads, so be sure to plan your visit accordingly.
Backtrack to Highway 207, a switchback road that leads to Highway 19. Turn left and continue on Highway 19 to Fossil, a friendly community nestled in the beautiful Butte Creek Valley.
For dinner, head over to RJ’s for a flavorful steak, cold brew and friendly conversation with the locals.
Then, for an authentic cowboy experience, stay at Wilson Ranches Retreat, a friendly bed and breakfast located on a 9,000 acre cattle ranch. Spend the evening marveling over Eastern Oregon’s unmatched sunsets and starry nights; the same ones that have welcomed pioneers and dreamers for more than 150 years.
Take advantage of Phil and Nancy Wilson’s famed “pioneer hospitality” with a hearty country breakfast. Then set off on your own Wilson Ranches adventure. You can choose from horseback riding, fishing on the John Day River, hiking, even a real life cattle drive or just spend the morning taking in the peace and serenity of this beautiful place.
After breakfast, leave Fossil via Highway 218, a twisting, turning, traffic-free road. Make a pitstop at the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
The rocks of the Clarno Unit capture a period in time where tiny four-toed horses and massive rhino-like brontotheres roamed hills covered in lush, dense vegetation. As you drive through today’s desert-like scene — palm trees replaced with juniper and sagebrush — it’s hard to imagine this region as the semitropical forest it once was.
Roughly 44 million years ago, a series of volcanic mudflows swept up plants and vegetation from this period and preserved them in the Palisades. Scientists have identified petrified wood from 173 unique species of trees, as well as leaves, fruits, nuts, seeds and shrubs, vines and other plants preserved within the Clarno Unit’s rock layers.
The Monument offers a picnic area and restroom facilities, as well as three short hiking trails.
Continue on Highway 218 to Shaniko, a living ghost town. Once the largest inland wool shipping center in the world, today Shaniko is a link to the Wild West through its historical buildings, can-do pioneer spirit, and annual events celebrating the region’s rich western heritage.
Cruise north on Highway 97, taking in the majestic peaks of Mount Hood and Mount Adams rising in the west.
The award-winning Sherman County Historical Museum (200 Dewey Street; Open: May-October, 10am-5pm) in Moro is worth a stop. The Museum celebrates the region’s proud farming heritage with exhibits devoted to agriculture and one of the John Day River Territory’s most important crops: wheat. Visitors can also learn about the lives of early pioneers and explorers in the region, hardy people whose work ethic and grit have been passed down to today’s generation of family farmers.
Get back on Highway 97 and pull over at Wasco for lunch at the Lean-To Cafe and Goosepit Saloon. Stop by the Wasco Railroad and City History Center (1020 Clark Street; 541-442-5079; Open: Fridays and Saturdays, 1pm to 4pm from April 15-October 15 and by appointment) just down the street.
Follow Highway 206 to Condon. The road cuts through wheat fields before twisting its way down steep canyons and past the new Cottonwood Canyon State Park on the banks of the John Day River.
As you continue on Highway 206, look for the Mountain Identifier, a round platform marked with the names and elevations of the majestic Cascade Mountains, which stretch out like sleeping giants on the horizon.
When you arrive in Condon, be sure to check out the community’s historical Main Street District, which resembles a Norman Rockwell painting. Stop in at Country Flowers, which has an old-fashioned soda fountain, locally-crafted gifts and an Eastern Oregon branch of the famous Powell’s Bookstore.
Finish the tour with a zigzagging ride north on Highway 19. Along the way, you’ll pass century-old farms with fields that change from earth to emerald to amber as the seasons progress. The winding road climbs and gives way to Shutler Flat, a flat, straight stretch lined with the region’s newest crop: windmills, whose clusters of white pillars and massive turbines rise up in all directions.
As you descend from Shutler Flat, be on the lookout for the Oregon Trail Historical Marker. More than 150 years ago, wagon trains rumbled through these hills as early settlers made their way west from Missouri to the Willamette Valley.
Continue to Arlington, a peaceful community and paradise for water lovers on the mighty Columbia River. Stretch your legs at the lush Earl Snell Memorial Park, which offers restrooms and a great place for visitors to swim, picnic, and cool off during the Summer months.