Plan Your Trip: Nature Lovers Tour
With our lush forests, pristine lakes, rugged canyons, and awe-inspiring mountain peaks, the John Day River Territory is the perfect escape for nature lovers. The Nature Lovers Tour provides plenty of opportunities to hike, fish, swim, and explore the natural beauty that marks this region. Get ready for roaring campfires, mountain hikes, evenings under star-studded skies, and a sampling of Eastern Oregon’s famed hospitality.
Day 1: Hiking the Strawberries, Camping at Clyde Holliday
To make the most of your time, plan on staying overnight in picturesque Prairie City. The Historic Hotel Prairie is an excellent choice or try one of several local campgrounds.
Begin the day with breakfast at cozy Roan Coffee Company. Sip a latte and take in the view of the majestic Strawberry Mountains rising in the distance over rolling hills of grassland and grazing cattle.
Grab an extra muffin or head to the market next door for a few snacks then set off for the Strawberry Lakes Campground and Trail. Plan to spend 3-4 hours for this 6.5 mile hike which begins at Strawberry Campground and includes forests, rocky cliffs, a gorgeous waterfall and two peaceful, trout-stocked lakes. With more than 125 miles of hiking trails, the Strawberry Wilderness Area also offers shorter and longer hiking opportunities depending on your interest and abilities.
Return to Prairie City for lunch then pack up the car and follow Highway 26 west to John Day. While you’re there, be sure to stock up on last-minute camping supplies and food. Continue on Highway 26 until you reach Clyde Holliday Recreation Site, a green, shaded campground on the banks of the John Day River.
Make camp and take your pick of Clyde Holliday’s many outdoor adventures. There are plentiful opportunities for fishing, hiking, and viewing the local herds of elk and deer. For a unique camping experience, consider renting one of the two authentic teepees.
Spend the afternoon and evening relaxing by the rushing waters of the John Day River, roasting marshmallows over a campfire, and sleeping under a canopy of stars.
Day 2: Hiking Through History (John Day Fossil Beds)
Pack up camp and continue your journey west along Highway 26. Just a few miles beyond Dayville, you’ll come upon Picture Gorge. From the outside, it looks like a geological wonder, a deep crevice slicing through the jagged rocks and hillsides, but 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.
Just past Picture Gorge, turn right and follow Highway 19 to the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The area 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.
Stretch your legs and take in the view with one of several great hikes.
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 sometimes rocky trail.
Don’t miss the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center (Open: Check the website for opening hours), the crown jewel of the Monument. The Center welcomes visitors from around the globe and hosts 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.
Backtrack on Highway 19 and continue west along Highway 26 to Mitchell, a community full of rustic charm. Stop for lunch then continue 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.
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, return to Mitchell for dinner and a good night’s sleep.
Day 3: Hikes, Fossil Digs, and Fun on the River
After breakfast, follow Highways 207 and 19 to Fossil, a friendly community nestled in the beautiful Butte Creek Valley. At Fossil, turn left on Highway 218 and continue until you reach 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. 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.
Backtrack to the community of Fossil and try your 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. There is a small fee for each explorer.
Continue north on Highway 19 to Condon, whose historical Main Street District resembles a Norman Rockwell painting. Ongoing renovations to the community’s storefronts have restored the spirit and charm of this town.
Stop in for a fresh salad or a tasty wrap at Sandi’s Soups & Catering (located in Murray’s Pharmacy). There are other great lunch options a few steps away at the Round-Up Grill and Country Flowers, which contains an old-fashioned soda fountain, locally-crafted gifts and an Eastern Oregon branch of the famous Powell’s Bookstore inside.
After lunch, continue 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 riverfront community and paradise for water lovers. Spend the afternoon swimming at the lush Earl Snell Memorial Park, try your hand windsurfing or stand-up paddle boarding on the mighty Columbia River, or just spend a lazy afternoon taking in Eastern Oregon’s beautiful outdoors.