Fossil, Oregon
Fossil, Oregon

John Day River Territory Natural Wonders Tour

There’s a place where cowboys and Native Americans aren’t just characters in old western movies; where cattle drives, campfire stories, and endless star-studded skies are part of everyday life. Here in the John Day River Territory, we live history every day, and we’re eager to share it with you. So pack your spurs and hit the road for a chance to experience the Wild West as it really was.

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.

While you’re here, experience Eastern Oregon’s spectacular natural beauty and famed hospitality. 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. Read on to learn about our Natural Wonders Tour and ideal 3-day itinerary for your Western adventure. (You’ll want to bookmark this page.)

Day 1

Drive east to Biggs and take Highway 97 south to Wasco and follow Highway 206 to Condon.

Driving to Condon - Photo by Elizabeth Farrar

The road cuts through fields of earth and amber before twisting its way down steep canyons and past the new Cottonwood Canyon State Park on the banks of the John Day River. Jagged cliffs, steep canyon walls, and an untamed river provide the backdrop for Oregon’s second largest state park. The sprawling 8,000-acre oasis is a gateway to adventure, offering excellent fishing plus plentiful hiking, wildlife viewing, and star-gazing opportunities.

Cottonwood Canyon State Park in John Day River Territory

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.

Pass through charming Condon and continue on Highway 206 toward Heppner, taking a right down Lonerock Road. The road leads to a beautiful valley and the quaint community of Lonerock, a once booming pioneer town. Look for the huge rock — the town’s namesake — which looks as if it fell from the sky and happened to land next to the sparkling Methodist church.

Lonerock Church in Condon on your John Day River Territory Tour

Return to Condon and stop in for a fresh salad or a tasty wrap at 2 Country Girls (located in Murray’s Pharmacy). You can also try the nearby Country Flowers, which contains an old-fashioned soda fountain, locally-crafted gifts and an Eastern Oregon branch of the famous Powell’s Bookstore inside.

Also, unless you’re traveling by horseback, it’s a good idea to fill up your gas tank here too.

Follow Highway 19 to Fossil, a friendly community nestled in the beautiful Butte Creek Valley. The sagebrush and juniper-filled hills may look similar to others you’ve seen so far, but don’t be fooled, there are all sorts of prehistoric wonders waiting to be discovered just below the surface.

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Fossil is home to the world-famous John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. While there is no digging allowed in the Monument, 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.

For dinner, hungry explorers should head over to RJ’s for a savory steak, cold brew and friendly conversation with the locals.

Day 2

Take advantage of the Wilson’s famed “pioneer hospitality” with a hearty country breakfast. Before you leave Fossil, wander down Main Street and stop in at the Fossil General Mercantile (1883) for your day’s provisions. Be sure to check out the quilt display and some of the memorabilia from the store’s early days.

Wilson Ranches Retreat Breakfast - Photo by Justin Myers

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, water, and the peaceful Riverfront Park. If you’re a nature lover, bring your binoculars and hiking boots and keep your eyes peeled for the elk, deer, big horn sheep, birds and other wildlife that call the John Day River’s rugged canyons home.

Continue to the Kimberly and enjoy a sweet and juicy stop at the John Day Trading PostThomas Orchards and Apricot Apiaries. Bushels of fresh cherries, peaches, pears and other fruits are available throughout the growing season (April to October) at the fruit stand where you can also find locally produced honey.

Continue east on Highway 19 to the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. This 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.


Sheep Rock Unit in John Day River Territory

The Sheep Rock Unit is equipped with picnic areas and several 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. Stretch your legs and take in the view with one of the many great trails available.

The 1-mile long Island in Time is a gravel trail leading to a natural amphitheater carved out of blue-green clay. Interpretive signs and replicas of fossils line the trail and tell the story of the rich variety of vertebrate that once lived in these hills.

If you’re looking for a world-class view, give the Blue Basin Overlook Trail a try. It is a 3-mile hike through some of the prettiest country in the area and ends with a spectacular view overlooking the John Day River Valley below. Be sure to wear shoes with good soles to safely navigate this somewhat rocky trail.


Blue Basin Overlook Trail - John Day River Territory Tour

While you are there, don’t miss the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center (open 10am-5pm daily).  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.


Skulls and Fossils at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Continue east on Highway 19 and take your next right on Highway 26 to Mitchell, a community full of rustic charm. Stop for lunch and then continue to the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

One of Oregon’s 7 Wonders, the Painted Hills, is 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.


Painted Cove Trail through the Painted Hills - Photo by Elizabeth Farrar

The Painted Cove Trail contains a portion of boardwalk that winds its way through rust-red mounds and is wheelchair accessible. For a longer hike, try the Carroll Rim Trail (1.5 miles), which climbs 300 feet in elevation to give hikers a birds-eye view over the Painted Hills.

When you’re finished exploring, leave Mitchell via Highway 207 arriving at the Service Creek Stage Stop and head west on Highway 19 to Fossil.

Return to your ranch home at Wilson Ranches Retreat and don’t miss the greatest show in town: the sun setting over the spectacular Butte Creek Valley.

Day 3

After another hearty breakfast, you’ll be fueled to set off on your own Wilson Ranches adventure. You can choose from horseback riding, hiking, or just spend the morning taking in the peace and serenity of this beautiful place.

Leave Fossil via Highway 218, a twisting, turning, traffic-free road. Make a pit stop at the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

Palisades Clarno, John Day River Territory - Photo by Elizabeth Farrar

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. Visitors interested in spotting fossils should choose the appropriately named Trail of Fossils, which is a 1/4 mile loop that snakes its way past boulders containing dozens of visible plant fossils.


Clarno Unit Photo by Elizabeth Farrar

Stay Now & Save!

The summer crowds have gone and it’s time to take advantage of this Natural Wonders Tour and popular John Day Fossil Beds Monument. Stay with us for 2+ nights and save $25 with our Quiet Season Special.

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Group Horseback Riding