From snowcapped mountains to prehistoric fossil beds, the John Day River Territory is as diverse as it is beautiful. The Natural Wonders Tour showcases this natural beauty and includes majestic peaks, powerful rivers, rugged canyons, multicolored hills, and friendly communities in between. It’s the perfect journey for those who want to trade in life’s hustle and bustle for a few days of peace, serenity, and awe-inspiring views.
Begin the day with a beautiful drive east along Highway 26 then turn left at Highway 19. Just down the road, you’ll find the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
This unit is the best choice to see fossils from all three units of the National Monument and 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 there, 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. There are exhibits designed for children too, as well as a chance to handle replica skulls and other bone fragments through daily ranger-led talks.
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 provides travelers with shade, picnic tables and a closer view of the Turtle Cove strata.
Retrace your steps along Highway 19 and continue on Highway 26 toward Dayville. You’ll pass through Picture Gorge, a deep crevice slicing through the jagged rocks and hillsides. While the view is impressive, the real treasure lies on Picture Gorge’s walls: sacred, centuries-old pictographs. The pictures, depicting humans, animals and geometric designs, were painted by Native Americans using pigment made from local minerals.
If you’re hungry, visit the Dayville Cafe for a pesto turkey melt or a slice of homemade pie. Then continue along Highway 26, passing through John Day, and arriving in the picturesque town of Prairie City. Spend a few minutes taking in the beauty of the majestic Strawberry Mountains rising in the distance over rolling hills of grassland and grazing cattle.
Pay a visit to the DeWitt Museum (Bridge Street; Open: May 15-October 15, Wednesday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm), which tells the story of mining life in the John Day River Territory during the turn of the 20th Century. Family photo albums, mining artifacts and an extensive collection of rocks and minerals take visitors back to a time when local fortunes rested on treasures hidden below the land’s surface.
For a treat, plan a stay at the Historic Hotel Prairie, which expertly blends historic charm with modern comfort. Spend the evening relaxing and soaking up the natural beauty that surrounds you.