There’s a place where traffic-free roads meet Eastern Oregon’s spectacular natural beauty and famed hospitality. The John Day River Territory is a haven for bicyclists in the know, a place where two wheel is spoken fluently.
The Paleo Lands Tour is a challenging 158-mile loop through the region’s world-famous John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The tour winds its way through jagged canyons, friendly communities, and breathtaking multicolored hills.
Duration: The route works well as a two-day trip.
Season: Spring to Fall
Motorized Vehicle Traffic: Light
Day 1: 83 Miles
Begin your ride in Condon, a charming community nestled between miles of rolling, golden wheat fields. The historical Main Street District looks like a Norman Rockwell painting and offers several good options for supplies and a healthy breakfast.
Leave Condon pedaling south on Highway 19. The 20-miles to Fossil are a mix of wide, traffic-light roads, challenging climbs and a final descent into the beautiful Butte Creek Valley.
Fossil is proud of its status as a gateway to the John Day Fossil Beds and offers visitors several opportunities to learn about the prehistoric remains found in its hills.
For a small fee, budding paleontologists can try their hand at digging fossils in the rich beds behind Wheeler High School. Roughly 33 million years ago, the area was the bed of a shallow lake. Today, it is one of Oregon’s only legally accessible fossil digs, containing the fossilized remains of deciduous trees that grew along nearby streams and wetlands. Loaner hammers, shovels, and buckets for toting rocks are available.
You can also stop by the Oregon Paleo Lands Field Center (333 W. 4th Street; (541) 763-4480; Open: Call ahead for hours/days). The Field Center is a hub for hands-on exploration, offering interactive displays focused on the John Day Basin’s geological history. The star attraction is a 12-foot, half-scale replica of a plesiosaur, a carnivorous aquatic reptile whose remains were discovered near Mitchell.
As you leave Fossil on Highway 19, the sagebrush and juniper are replaced by pine trees and increasingly challenging climbs. Bathrooms and water are available at Bear Hollow, Shelton Wayside Campground and Julia Henderson Pioneer Park along the way.
The Service Creek Stage Stop, which includes a restaurant and small store, is a good place to refill your water bottles, eat lunch, and cool off.
Just beyond Service Creek, turn right on Highway 207. A short but challenging climb out of the river canyon gives way to 20 miles of rolling hills and valleys before a fairly steep descent into Bridge Creek Canyon and Highway 26 near the town of Mitchell. A right turn here leads 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.
Return along Highway 26 to Mitchell, a community full of rustic charm.
Day 2: 75 Miles
The day begins with a challenging climb leaving Mitchell. As you travel east on Highway 26, you’ll encounter more modest climbs and a few flat stretches before the road narrows and snakes its way through a jagged gorge.
Turn left onto Highway 19 and continue 2 miles to the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
The Sheep Rock Unit is distinguished by its Turtle Cove strata, a striking blue-green rock layer produced by millions of years of volcanic ash accumulation. It 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 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.
Across the road, the Cant Ranch (Open: Monday-Thursday and alternate Fridays, 9am to 4pm) stands as an oasis in the jagged canyons and rugged landscape. The homestead 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 is a good place for a picnic, providing shade, water and picnic tables.
After lunch, continue north on Highway 19 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.
Follow the mostly flat and curvy Highway 19 to Spray, a western community located on the John Day River. Spray is known for its annual Rodeo and Half Marathon (Memorial Day weekend) and offers visitors food, lodging, water and the peaceful Riverfront Park for swimming and relaxing.
Continue on Highway 19, pedaling the final miles back to the Service Creek Stage Stop. Celebrate with dinner and a relaxing evening listening to the John Day River as it rushes by.
Safety, Planning & Resources
The Paleo Lands Tour includes long stretches of road with little or no phone service, limited water, and heat in the late Summer months.
In addition, many small-town businesses along the route, including restaurants and grocery stores, only stay open until 5 or 6 p.m. and may not be open on weekends. Bicyclists should bring plenty of water and snacks with them.
Communities throughout the John Day River Territory welcome cyclists and are available to help should you need assistance planning or during your ride.