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!

A Scenic Road Trip through NE Oregon – Journey Thru Time Oregon Scenic Byway, Elkhorn Oregon Scenic Byway, and Blue Mountain Oregon Scenic Byway

30 08 2013

Journey Thru Time BywayFor years, inner NE Oregon has been on my bucket list! I have seen the areas around it, but never been in the thick of it. I have been to Halfway, Oregon. I have been to Hells Canyon. I have hiked the Wallowa Mountains. I have backpacked the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. Three of Oregon’s Scenic Byways lie there: Journey Thru Time Oregon Scenic Byway, Elkhorn Oregon Scenic Byway, and Blue Mountain Oregon Scenic Byway.

I have always been curious about the less renowned Blue Mountains, and the Elkhorn Mountains. The Central Cascades and Wallowas get all the attention. In the Blue Mountains and Elkhorn Mountains lie the headwaters of the John Day River – the North Fork and Middle Fork.

Elkhorn Byway

And 19th Century history lies here. Gold Rush ghost towns, abandoned mines, mine tailings left behind by Chinese prospectors.


Blue Mtn Byway

The John Day River cuts through a swath this region – made famous by the John Day Fossil Beds, where huge discoveries of Ice Age fossils were made. It meanders lazily in the valley underneath the Strawberry Mountains, where cowboys tend cattle and farmers raise grain. In the Elkhorn Mountains, the road passes gold mines before climbing to over 7,300 ft. then descending to the jewel of Anthony Lake.

Oregon’s Blue Mountains are high altitude rolling hills and vast meadows with limitless views of the Columbia Plateau and John Day River. There, one can simply camp on a horizon-to-horizon meadow, with not a care about neighbors whatsoever

This area is full of beauty and history. But not crowds. By comparison, Central Oregon seems downright urban! It has its own beauty, which is not overwhelmed with volcanoes dominating the view. My next few blogs will cover this beautiful, often overlooked, region.










John Day River Region, Oregon Day 2

19 05 2011

Morning Joe

I camped overnight. The only camping place I saw on my Oregon Atlas was the Shelton Wayside. I knew it had 40 sites and was open. It is about 15 minutes from the John Day River.

It has a brook running through it. Otherwise unremarkable. There was a vacant camp host RV in the campground.  I was the only camper. I had a nice fire and dinner, and went to bed.

In the morning I awoke to gobbles from a wild turkey before dawn! That guy would not be quiet. He was determined to let other turkeys both male and female know he was the dominant guy around!

Once done with a breakfast of oats, fruit and yogurt I packed up and headed out. Down to Service Creek, up John Day to Spray.

Wow. I hadn’t seen this stretch of the river before! I was totally impressed! It was so beautiful, green, serene, with the brown hillsides above. I drove along the river, it bending, winding, and with the town of Spray as a simple destination.

The river was in a pretty mellow state. I was due to return to the area in late spring with my friend Tully for a boys out weekend. It looked perfect, and I could envision getting some boats out on the river.

In Spray, I found another sleepy town in the John Day region.

It probably has less than two thousand people total in town. It had some lodging and a little city park on the river.

On the outskirts, the river winded through a farmers green field surrounded by the beautiful mountains. It was so peaceful, and the cows were just sitting in the fields admiring the view.

Though a lonely town, I could see the attraction of Spray. Such beauty, unspoiled by the buzz of big city life, not being bothered with the constant need to keep up with the Internet, social media, and all that. Just letting the day flow with the season etc.

Later on, I drove back past Service Creek, and found a road that took me too a place called Twickenham. Holy Cow was this a silly beautiful road. It just wound through the canyons and I was so mesmerized I just let the car coast down the roads through little gulleys and canyons where homesteaders had stakes out their places, each green against the stark brown of the valley walls above.

Finally I arrived in Twickenham, which is nothing more than a few ranches with a bridge over the John Day River.

The scene at Twickenham is just so pretty. The green valley with the lazy river flowing along, little human activity going on, and lots of birds doing their thing.

From here, I had to make some decisions which the map I had could not provide. I decided to take a dirt track around a mountain which seemed to wind up at the Painted Hills National Monument.

Truth was, I really did not know if the road would go where I wanted, and I was a bit concerned about gas.

More to come. I finally did find the Painted Hills…

I saw a dotted line around a mountain on the map and a road to “Burnt Ranch” on the other side…and then it seemed to lead to the Painted Hills…so I took it. It soon became a dirt track and I really wondered if I’d get lost. Earlier in the day I’d been searching for a “Dry Hollow Road” on the map – it just did not exist. Or, if it did, it had to be this dirt road running behind a mobile home!

So, I arrived at the Painted Hills.  They’re interesting. The hills are piles of ash from ancient eruptions, that turned into clay. When it rains the hills absorb and hold the moisture and become so hard that plants cannot get a toe hold. They also change color with moisture.

There is a small hiking trail through an area called Painted Cove – the elevated trail is so close to the hills that you can touch them – but touching is highly discouraged!

It’s warm and quiet out there. I took some time to pause and have lunch.

Then, it was time to head home.

I picked highway 26 back through Prineville and then through Government camp. It’s a spectacular contrast to the John Day area. Farms & ranches with the snow covered Cascade volcanoes in the distance! This was a lot of driving, but I saw some really beautiful country!