Plan Your Trip: Natural Wonders Tour
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.
Day 1: Rufus to Fossil via Condon
Start your adventure in Rufus, a tiny community perched on the edge of the mighty Columbia River. Grab breakfast and take in the view of this impressive waterway, which transports goods and provides food, electricity and entertainment to the region.
Drive west to Biggs and take Highway 97 south to Moro and the award-winning Sherman County Historical Museum (200 Dewey Street; Open: May-October; 10am-5pm). The Museum celebrates the land’s bounty with exhibits devoted to agriculture and one of the region’s most important crops: wheat. Visitors can learn about the tools and tricks that have transformed this arid landscape into family farms whose products feed people around the world.
Backtrack to Wasco and follow Highway 206 to Condon. The road cuts through fields of earth, emerald 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.
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.
Return to Condon and stop in for a fresh salad or a tasty wrap at Sandi’s Soups & Catering (located in Murray’s Pharmacy). You can also try the nearby Round-Up Grill or Country Flowers, which contains an old-fashioned soda fountain, locally-crafted gifts and an Eastern Oregon branch of the famous Powell’s Bookstore inside.
Save part of your afternoon for a visit to the Gilliam County Historical Museum (Highway 19; Open: May 1-October 31, Wednesday-Sunday, 1pm-5pm). See how the natural landscape and local communities have changed over time through the Museum’s excellent historic photograph collection. Then check out some of the wonderful, restored outbuildings, including an authentic one-room schoolhouse and brothel-turned-barbershop.
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.
Fossil is a gateway 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.
Stay overnight at the Fossil Motel, Wilson Ranches Retreat or one of the many campgrounds in the area. Don’t miss the greatest show in town: the sun setting over the spectacular landscape.
Day 2: The Painted Hills (One of the 7 Wonders of Oregon)
Begin the day with a visit to 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.
Leave Fossil via Highway 19 then turn right on Highway 207. A right turn at Highway 26 leads to the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
One of the 7 Wonders of Oregon, 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.
Follow Highway 26 back to Mitchell, a community full of rustic charm, for dinner and a good night’s sleep.
Day 3: Mitchell to Prairie City
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.