Oregon’s Ochoco Mountains and John Day River Picture Gorge: Journey Thru Time Oregon Scenic Byway

30 08 2013
Journey Thru Time Car

Uh Oh! Am I going back in time?

Planning my trip was a bit of an effort. The route I wanted to see in inner NE Oregon wasn’t all that clear – I had no less than four maps and guides. Some showed route numbers, and some just gray lines on the map. Others showed possible ghost towns, like “Greenhorn,” “Granite,” “Sumpter,” or “Susanville.”  And others still showed tent icons where one might camp along the way. So, I pieced together a route from all these sources. Looking at it in total, I decided the most rewarding way to head out there was to use Oregon’s highway 26. That would take me past Mount Hood, into Central Oregon, through Prineville, and up and into the Ochoco Mountains.

From there, the road would meander along the John Day River and the Journey Thru Time Oregon Scenic Byway. What better way to get to inner NE Oregon? The other way would take me via I-84 which I have seen so many times. Highway 26 meanders through farms, ranches, and small towns such as Mitchell, Dayville and Prairie City, all the way to its connection with the Elkhorn Oregon Scenic Byway.

I’d need to get an early start. So the night before, I packed the 2013 Ford Escape SE. The weather forecast looked great. I would be on the road by 8:00 a.m. And what a day it was. Sunny and bright. I’d just had the car’s first oil change, so it was ready. Packed up, iPhone 4S plugged in with 1,840 songs, ready to go!  No kayaking this trip so I removed the roof rack to get max mileage. I’ll have grilled pork chops tonight with mashed potatoes and salad. But I dunno where I’ll be camping. Just figure it out. See how it goes.

On my way. Up and over the Oregon Cascades, through Blue Box Pass, about 4,400ft. Then into the Central Oregon Plateau past Madras. From here, I can see Mount Bachelor (9,068 ft), the Three Sisters (10,358 ft),  Broken Top, Mount Washington (7,800 ft) Three Fingered Jack, Mount Jefferson (10,450 ft) Olallie Butte, Mount Hood (11,241 ft) and even Mount Adams (12,280 ft)!

I climb the Ochocos. These are high dry mountains. It’s pretty up here. Ponderosa pines are everywhere.

OchocoDescending toward the John Day River Valley, the view is unlimited, the sky crystal clear.

The road eventually drops into a crack in the earth – the Picture Gorge. In the Picture Gorge, the John Day River has followed a fault line for millions of years. That is right.

And it has flowed here for so long that it is older than the mountains themselves. When the flood basalts erupted and flowed all over eastern Oregon millions of years ago, the John Day River kept on cutting through on its way to the Columbia. Thousands of feet of basalt layer caked one upon another but the John Day continued cutting.

Today, the John Day river flows north right through the ascending basalt layers, even as the highway descends in the opposite direction. There are few places on Planet Earth where a river seems to flow INTO a mountain, rather than out of it. This is one such place. I saw another in New Zealand, when I was there in January 2013.

Not long after the Picture Gorge, highway 26 opens up into a beautiful valley filled with farms and ranches.

It is here one finds the entrance to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and Oregon’s Painted Hills. I’m not here to see these treasures, my quarry lies beyond.

But I am enjoying the view, and by noon getting hungry. The town of Mitchell comes within striking distance, so I decide to Stop in Mitchell, Oregon and grab a bite for lunch. Mitchell1

Like a lot of eastern Oregon towns, Mitchell has seen better days. Yet, it has enough character to hold up all its own. Townsfolk lazily walk the street, stopping to seek shelter and converse under a shady porch or tree.

Mitchell2Nobody is in a hurry in Mitchell!

My lunch spot today is to be the Little Pine Cafe, right on main street.

Its customers this lunch are myself, a family from Portland, and a mother with toddler. Mom and toddler regularly go behind the counter to pick up condiments or change the station playing on cable TV.Mitchell3

I pick the Mushroom Swiss burger and a side of macaroni & cheese. Turns out to be fine and dandy!

Adorning the walls are pictures of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Gene Autry, plus locals over the years. There are a lot of dollar bills with various scribbles thumb-tacked to the walls. One says, “Brought my boyfriend from CA up here. He says, this explains a lot!”

I can only imagine. I depart feeling satisfied, planning to return on my next pass through.

Today’s drive will take me through the towns of John Day, Prairie City, and into the Elkhorns, into Sumpter and Granite.

Check back on the next blog post for Elkhorn Mountain trip journal entries!





Memorial Day Camping along Oregon’s John Day River – Escaping the Rain!

30 05 2011

Lazy days in Mitchell, Oregon

2011 has been one of the rainiest/coldest on record in Oregon. With only a few sunny days in the 70’s, May has felt a lot like February! The summer season typically kicks off in Oregon’s Cascades around Memorial Day but in 2011, all the mountain campgrounds are still under snow!

Solution? Head east! Oregon’s reputation for rain belies the fact that most of the state is high desert.

When most Oregonians think “high desert” they think the Three Sisters / Bend region. While that area has great weather and is beautiful, it’s become full of tourists.

Truly beautiful and overlooked is the region between Condon / Service Creek / Spray and Mitchell. Head there and you’d think you were in northern Arizona. Plus, locals are really friendly, it hasn’t been wrapped in tourist trap coffee shops, wildlife art galleries and microbreweries. It’s as it was.

I got three days off from Alder Creek so I could spend some time out there, to help celebrate my upcoming 50th birthday. My longtime friend from college Tully Alford came along. We loaded up the bikes and overburdened my VW Jetta Wagon with campfire wood and headed east! We had great weather that first day.

I’d scouted the area in early May and found this BLM Campground called Muleshoe right along the river. That was our target. Once past Service Creek, along Oregon Hwy 19, we came to the campground. True to form, the road was empty, as was the campground. We had it to ourselves!

Some campgrounds offer both sites with drive-in parking and other sites called “primitive” or “walk in.”

I have always found the walk in sites superior to the others.

These sites are more separated, with more trees and shrubs offering a more privacy and outdoorsy experience. True to form, at Muleshoe’s primitive sites were far and away the best. In this region, shade is paramount, and we picked a site with a lovely juniper tree above the picnic table.

So we set up camp, including the QuickUp shelter borrowed from my neighbors Janis and Brent Campbell! That shelter is KEY. Not only does it provide much needed shade on hot desert days, but we wound up spending a couple hours underneath it our second night, during a rainy spell!

Yes, although these photos show the sun, we had all kinds of weather in three days. We began with sun in the high 70’s, with a warm star filled evening, but day two broke cloudy. No rain until after 5:00 though. Then a cold front swept through with some wind. We weighed down the canopy so it wouldn’t blow away. I had to don a winter parka. The following morning was 100% clear, warm and bright. I ditched the fleece for shorts. But on our return through Prineville, that same day, we had some snow flurries! That’s 2011 spring in Oregon…back and forth all day.

The area is geologically significant, and its geology made fossilization of millions of years of plants and animals possible. We were driving the Journey Through Time Highway.

Going back some 60 million years, repeated ash falls from volcanoes and basaltic flows covered the area.

The region is a pancake of layers of ash, basalt and other evidence of such activity.

Those layers have been uplifted by tectonic forces lying deep beneath Oregon, the North American and Pacific Plates, which intersect there.

All these layers are younger than the dinosaur era. So there are myriad early mammals that sprang up, evolved and became extinct.

We took a hike up one of the fossil bearing canyons. It was completely otherworldly in there. There were examples along the trail of turtle, saber toothed cat and bird fossils.

Later, we visited the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument Information Center. It’s worth visiting and we took in an 18-minute film detailing the rich fossil record found in the area. The ash falls fell on creatures and the chemical nature of the ash preserved them.

Our last day dawned clear and warm. After excellent breakfast of oatmeal, blueberries, banana, yogurt and a few strips of campfire bacon we headed back to Portland through Prineville. It snowed on the way to Prineville! Maybe we’ll have summer in Oregon…but when?





John Day River Area, Oregon, Day 1

18 05 2011

In early May I had a couple of days off and the weather forecast called for a couple of really nice days! Having extreme cabin fever brought on by months in the Portland, Oregon gray skies, I pulled the camping gear out and headed for north central Oregon!

In spring, even in May, most Cascade camping is snow bound. So if you want to car camp, you have to look elsewhere. North Central Oregon has the Deschutes and John Day Rivers. The John Day begins way east and it’s a snow melt-fed flow. It courses through sleepy valleys and ranches before wending its way into the canyons and fossil beds of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. There are sections where the road passes right by the river – truly beautiful, especially in spring, when the valleys are still green, and the mountains are so brown you’d swear you were in the southwest.

I started in Arlington, where Oregon 19 winds south through wind swept agricultural areas and is home to thousands of wind turbines…

All along highway 19 you view wind turbines.

The turbines stretch out in every direction. It’s an area prone to constant wind, so this comes as no surprise.

It is comforting to me to know that sizable efforts are underway to tap clean sources for electricity!

There aren’t many people out there. It’s wide spaces of farms with not much in between. Instead of flat farmland like Kansas, it’s as if that same land has been upheaved everywhere. In the distance you can glimpse snowy cascade volcanoes Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, and Mount Adams.

The first town you pass through is Condon. I’d never heard of Condon, but its lonely place in this part of Oregon is palpable. Its downtown has a cowboy feel, but also a feeling as its best years are behind, and that it is falling further into decay. Somehow I found this appealing.

There were architecturally significant buildings – crafted in the days when a human hand’s touch added character. But many were in disrepair. Still, I found this refreshing.
I’ve spend some time in Sisters and Joseph, and once in Condon, those places seem so fake – very gentrified. There, outsiders moved in and upgraded everything. Where as Condon is nakedly left alone, as it was, the bare bones of its old West Heritage laid bare. In some ways it is sad, in others, attractive.

The town still sports a Hotel, plus some other trappings of a frontier town…

The next town I came across was Fossil.

Fossil, Oregon, is another sleepy town quietly nestled in the hills of the John Day region. There, I witnessed cowboys passing the time with downturned hats on the porch of one of the general stores.

In Fossil, I realized I was nearing the John Day River. I saw postings advertising services for river running like shuttle services!

You are now in river running country!