It might be a stretch to call a place as vast and rich in history as Eastern Oregon “undiscovered,” but you won’t find any crowds out there yet, either. Close to Bend, the John Day Territory allows you to pack multiple adventures into one weekend.
Looking for solitude? Wide open spaces? Natural wonders that draw more wildlife than tourists? Consider pointing your wagon east, where a landscape brims with history and Western charm. Just an hour or so east of Prineville, the opportunities begin to unfold. From fossil hunting to horseback riding, it’s easy to pack multiple adventures into just a weekend. Though with low crowds and stunning scenery, you’ll probably start looking for excuses to extend your trip.
History in the Hills
The Painted Hills will evoke a lot of questions upon first sight. Mainly, what? and how? The softly carved rolling hills are, in fact, seemingly painted with a dramatic patina of ochre and emerald hues, a stark contrast to the golden, rocky hills that surround them.
If you can peel your eyes away from the natural wonder, you’ll learn that the Painted Hills are 40 million years in the making, the result of the ever-changing floodplain of the region. The Painted Hills are one unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, three separate geological wonders that are time capsules of North American natural history. The entire monument is filled with well-preserved fossils, and is considered one of the most complete fossil records in the world.
Traveling east, the Sheep Rock Unit includes the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. Perched on a bluff overlooking the towering green claystone rock formation along one side of Highway 19, the center is a museum featuring the dynamic history of the floodplain. Inside, watch scientists at work as they study the immense trove of fossils that continue to be found throughout this region.
Going west again just past the small town of Fossil, the Clarno Unit trails bring you up close to the rocky spires of volcanic mudflow that hold fossilized remains of plant and animal life. These ancient markers are remnants from a time, long ago, when the region was a tropical rainforest, a fact than can be hard to wrap one’s head around today in the present desert landscape where fewer than fourteen inches of rain falls annually, on average. As a matter of perspective, that’s less precipitation than Los Angeles receives in any given year.
Each unit has a handful of short hikes, none longer than three miles, that bring you to diverse views of the landscape. Plan your trip to visit in the evening around sunset to catch the last rays of sun illuminating the red, orange and green rocks.
Small Town Living
Mitchell is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of town. Just nine miles up Highway 26 from the Painted Hills, it would be a mistake to miss Mitchell. The town of a little more than one hundred people has had its fair share of misfortune, getting ravaged by three floods in the twentieth century.
But it always comes back, refusing to be labeled as another Oregon ghost town. This time around, though, Mitchell is determined to do more than just survive. With a local craft brewery, a new biking hostel and several local businesses in various stages of renovation, Mitchell might be (dare we say it?) happening.
Stop for breakfast or lunch at the Sidewalk Café or Little Pine Café. They’re both places where you’ll end up chatting with the locals, learning about the best swimming holes and getting directions such as “turn right at the leaning rock.”
In 2015, a new local watering hole popped up in the form of Tiger Town Brewing, the name a reference to the rough and tumble history of Mitchell’s main street, where loggers and miners once descended to spend their hard earned wages with predictable results. It’s set in a gravel lot, with picnic tables and a food truck serving up some of the best wings in recent memory.
Hunters and fisherman know the town well as a gateway to local outdoor recreation, but a lot of people who visit the Painted Hills, especially from out of state, aren’t aware Mitchell is just up the road. Though it’s small, the town is ideally located for exploring this region.
The Painted Hills Vacation Rentals, a triad of colorful cottages in a garden-like oasis, are a charming home base for a weekend visit. Aruna Jacobi and her mother, Barbara, run the Painted Hills Vacation Cottages and are committed to boosting tourism to the region. Aruna and Barbara, along with others in town with a vision for Mitchell, are hoping that the latest successes are just the beginning of bigger things for the town.
Still, most residents will continue to joke about the presence of rattlesnakes around town, just to keep it from getting too crowded.
Don’t Call it a Dude Ranch
The John Day Territory is quickly becoming a draw for road cyclists and motorcycle riders who are drawn to the scenic roadways. That said, the best way to see the region might be from the saddle of a horse. It’s a slower pace, which is fitting for the lifestyle here.
At Wilson Ranches Retreat in Fossil, grab cowboy boots and a straw hat, hop on a horse and lend your hand. The working cattle ranch (as opposed to dude ranches, which are just resorts) sits on 20,000 acres in Fossil and traces its roots back six generations to the Oregon Trail. Kara Wilson and her husband Brian run the ranch now. They opened a bed and breakfast in 2000.
Wilson Ranch is set in a valley surrounded by golden hills. It feels like a secret, as does most of Eastern Oregon, but Kara is clear that locals don’t want to keep it to themselves. There’s enough room out here for everyone, she said.
When she talks about why more people should visit this region, it’s clear why travelers are choosing to make it a destination.
“You get to be the one hiker on a trail. The one rider on a horse going into the high desert hills, the one kayaker on the John Day River,” said Kara. “You get to be in a pristine, untouched place of Oregon. And you get to be the one.”