Jun 26, 2021

Forget Portlandia: Here's what the 'other' Oregon has to offer


The frontier town of Mitchell is a gateway to the Painted Hills 

For many travelers, interest in exploring parts of Oregon, east of the Cascade mountains, begins and ends in Bend.

A collection of breweries along the Ale Trail beckon bikers, hikers and kayakers drawn to this high desert former lumber town 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."

Red Neck tacos and Hog Wild fries 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 7 million to more than 40 million years of geological history, starting when this arid desert area was semi-tropical  - 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,  or Prineville, 80 miles away.

My vote goes to overnighting in bigger Prineville, with a morning detour in Mitchell for coffee and croissants.

Ashley Tolton is owner and sole baker at Painted Hills Pastry in Mitchell, Oregon

Watch for the blue flashing lights atop the Painted Hills Pastry www.paintedhillspastry.com sign visible from the Highway 26 turnoff. Owner and baker Ashley Tolton CQ 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, each about an hour's drive from the other, preserve the fossilized remains of plants and animals in colorful  rock formations made up of materials from volcanic eruptions.

The Painted Hills

Closest to Mitchell is the Painted Hills unit, known for its layered bands of black, grey 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 and saved the Painted Hills until the end of the day on a recent visit, and pressed on from Mitchell another 30 miles to Sheep Rock and the visitor center named for Reverend Thomas Condon, the first chair of the Geology Department at the University of Oregon.

 Photos, murals and fossil displays help explain what otherwise would be left mostly to the imagination for visitors in 2021. 

Sheep Rock

 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 round-trip. 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 towering Palisades, the remains of volcanic lahars, or mud and ash flows.

Trails in the Clarno Unit

 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 40 million-year timeline, 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 bear-like creatures similar to modern pigs.

 The hour and a half drive back to Mitchell leaves time for an early dinner before sunset on the patio at the Tiger Town Brewing Co. and a peak inside the historic Oregon Hotel, local lodging for those who may want to overnight closer to the park for a second day of exploration. 

The Painted Cove Trail

 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 palates 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 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 system. Entrance is free.  

 Start your visit at the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center in the Sheep Rock unit, 32651 Highway 19, Kimberly, Or.  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, sun screen and a full tank of gas.

Lodging:  There is no camping or overnight lodging within the park. Closest to Sheep Rock is the Oregon Hotel in Mitchell.

For lodging options in surrounding counties, see https://www.nps.gov/joda/planyourvisit/lodging.htm. For nearby campgrounds, see https://www.nps.gov/joda/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm

We booked an Airbnb  in Prineville with private entrance and a kitchen for $128 per night.

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