For many Seattleites, Oregon east of the Cascade Range begins and ends 325 miles away, in Bend.
A collection of breweries along the Bend Ale Trail beckons bikers, hikers and kayakers drawn to this high desert former lumber town that transformed into a hip outdoor adventure destination. Think vegan restaurants, gluten-free bakeries and Joe Biden bumper stickers.
Travel 35 miles northeast to Prineville, gateway to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and you’re in a slice of the state that looks and feels more like the Old West.
Cattle graze on open ranges. Trucks piled with hay bales rumble along the highway, past businesses with names such as Boots and Blooms and Grizzly Mountain Construction.
Redneck tacos (flour tortilla, pulled pork, coleslaw, tomatoes, banana peppers and barbecue sauce) and Hog Wild fries (garlic fries under pulled pork and beer-cheese sauce) are on the menu at Dillon’s Grill, named for a town leader known for rolling and selling his own cigars. Across from the Crook County Bank, now a historical museum with an exhibit devoted to hometown tire king Les Schwab, Prineville Men’s Wear is the go-to store for boots, hats and Wrangler jeans.
City slicker alert: John Day — a 14,000-acre preserve showcasing more than 40 million years of geological history, dating back to when the arid area was semitropical — is a remote destination that takes at least a day’s worth of driving to explore. And that’s if you start in either Mitchell, a frontier town 40 miles from the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center in Kimberly, or Prineville, 80 miles away.
My vote goes to overnighting in bigger Prineville, with a morning detour in Mitchell for coffee and croissants.
Watch for the blue flashing lights atop the Painted Hills Pastry sign visible from the U.S. Route 26 turnoff. Owner and baker Ashley Tolton opens at 7 a.m. to sell her French pastries, sandwiches and fruit tarts to tourists passing through.
John Day’s three main locations (or “units”) — Sheep Rock, Painted Hills and Clarno — are each about an hour’s drive from the other. In the loosely connected park you’ll find preserved fossilized remains of plants and animals in colorful rock formations made up of materials from volcanic eruptions.
Closest to Mitchell is the Painted Hills unit, known for its layered bands of black, gray and red that change colors with the light and weather.
You could save time by stopping here first, but photographers recommend waiting until late afternoon for the best pictures.
With this in mind, my husband and I saved the Painted Hills until the end of the day on a recent visit, and pressed on from Mitchell 30 more miles to Sheep Rock and the visitor center named for Thomas Condon, a reverend and the first chair of the geology department at the University of Oregon.
Look out for photos, murals and fossil displays to help explain what otherwise would be left mostly to the imagination for visitors in 2021.
Sheep Rock, for instance, was named for wild bighorn sheep that once roamed the area. The National Park Service maintains seven trails here, most not more than a half-mile in round-trip distance. Interpretive signs and fossil replicas lead hikers along the 1.3-mile Island in Time trail, a gravel path ascending though blue-green bluffs colored by reworked layers of ash turned to stone.
The northernmost destination is the Clarno unit, 77 miles from Sheep Rock and 18 miles west of Fossil, Oregon. Not everyone makes it this far along remote, two-lane roads, but for those who do, the rewards are nearly empty trails below the towering Palisades, which are the remains of volcanic lahars, or flows of mud and ash.
Fossil-hunters may be able to spot leaf imprints within boulders that have fallen from the cliffs. The half-mile Geologic Time Trail creates a timeline spanning 40 million years, with each foot representing 37,000 years of changes.
Exhibits in the visitor center show how seasonal flooding washed away dead animals fossilized in the Hancock Mammal Quarry, including small, three-toed horses, large rhino-like animals and bearish creatures similar to modern pigs.
The 90-minute drive back to Mitchell leaves time for an early dinner before sunset on the patio at the Tiger Town Brewing Co. and a peek inside the historical Oregon Hotel, local lodging for those who may want to overnight closer to the park for a second day of exploration.
The hours before sunset bring the most visitors to the Painted Hills.
Five short trails lead to different vistas. Skipping the most aggressive, the 1.6-mile uphill Carroll Rim trail, the others can be walked fairly quickly, each yielding views of differing color palettes as sunset approaches and the light shifts.
Our favorite was the quarter-mile Painted Cove Trail, with a level boardwalk protecting sensitive soils, snaking through hills of of yellow and crimson rock.
ADA-accessible and pet-friendly, this is a trail suited for everyone — although, as it was almost everywhere we went, there were few others around.
If you go
Park information: John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is part of the National Park Service system. Entrance is free. See nps.gov.
Start your visit at the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center in the Sheep Rock Unit, 32651 Highway 19, Kimberly, Oregon. Exhibits include displays of more than 500 fossil specimens. Scientifically accurate murals depict the environments in which plants and animals lived. Check on opening hours before visiting.
What to bring: The drive between units is long, and services are limited. Bring a picnic lunch, water, hat, sunscreen and a full tank of gas.
Lodging: There is no camping or overnight lodging within the national park. Closest to Sheep Rock is the Oregon Hotel in Mitchell, Oregon.
For lodging options in surrounding counties and nearby campgrounds, see nps.gov. We booked an Airbnb in Prineville with private entrance and a kitchen for $128 per night.
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