Weekend Escape in Oregon’s John Day Country
Perched on the John Day River in Eastern Oregon and a stone’s throw from the undulating Painted Hills of the John Day Fossil Beds, the John Day area is perfect for an RV getaway for a week or just a few days. And, after the work week we’ve had, we are yearning for the deep quiet and solitude only the desert can give.
It’s nearly 9 p.m. on Friday when we head east on highway 26 towards Mount Hood, a picturesque route that’s part of the Mount Hood Scenic Byway. Many people think of Oregon as rainy and green, and it is, at least the Western third of the state. The other two-thirds, east of the towering Cascade Mountains, is high desert country with miles of sagebrush and juniper-covered hills, deep gorges, trout-filled rivers, and views that go on forever.
The good news about leaving Portland late is that traffic is almost non-existent. The bad news: we are already tired. So we head for Madras, a little high desert town about 2 ½ hours from Portland, that will give us a good start on our journey to John Day country.
Despite our mid-summer timing, the air is cool and becomes even cooler as we climb higher and higher through the Mount Hood National Forest. We pass through little mountain towns like Welches and Rhododendron (named for the pink rhodies that grow wild in the forest here.). We’re blessed with a full moon and, as we round a bend in the highway, a ghostly Mount Hood appears through the windshield, her craggy flanks still dressed in winter white. This 11,245-foot sleeping volcano, called Wy’East by local Native Americans, is one of the few places that offer year-round skiing and the U.S. Olympic Ski Team often practices here during the summer months.
Our motorhome churns up the steep grade, finally reaching the summit at Government Camp (elevation 3,888 feet). As we start down, we pass the turnoff for highway 35 that angles down to the verdant Hood River Valley. In the fall, the valley’s “fruit loop,” is a favorite destination for RVers, but that’s another trip. Tonight, our goal is the high desert.
On the mountain’s east flank, the forest changes. Cedars and Douglas firs are replaced by lofty pines. The forest floor, thick with ferns, Oregon grape, and vine maples on the wetter Western side, becomes more open, populated by less-thirsty plants like manzanita, elderberry, and snowberry. Then the dense forest disappears all together, replaced by plateaus dotted with juniper and sagebrush. It has showered here recently and, when I roll down my window, the air is filled with a clean, almost minty scent of sage.
It’s late when we pass through Madras in the largely agricultural heart of Central Oregon. We head south a few miles to one of our favorite RV Parks, the Central Oregon KOA, where they offer terrific pancake breakfasts. Alas, when we pull in, we’re disappointed to see a no vacancy sign. (We later learn that several events attractive to RVers, including the Redmond Good Sam Rally and the Prineville Rodeo are happening.) We can drive out to Lake Simtustus RV Park or Cove Palisades in Culver. However, both are popular and often full during the summer and fatigue is setting in. Instead, we pull into the Madras Truck Stop at the Madras Shell station, snug the rig up against growling 18-wheelers, and fall asleep to the sound of raindrops on the roof.
Next morning, the sun greets us as we pass through Prineville, a quaint town that’s fast becoming the Silicon Valley of Central Oregon with employers like Facebook liking the area’s low cost of living and great climate. We stop at the Crook County RV Park, run by the County Parks and Recreation Department, to check out its 81 shady, pull-thru sites. Located right next to the County fairgrounds, the place is loaded with cowboy RVers getting ready for the horse racing event that’ll take place in a couple of hours.
At the corner of Main and Lynn Boulevard, a riot of colorful flowers and the Elkins Gems sign grabs our attention. Central and Eastern Oregon are a rock hunter’s paradise and, for more than 20 years, rock expert and flower gardener Judy Elkins has been selling gems and rocks and directing people where to find their own rock treasures.
Back on highway 26, we stop at Ochoco Lake and the Ochoco County Park and RV Camp. This spot, snuggled under pines, doesn’t have hookups, but it does offer showers, water spigots, and a free boat launch. At the end of the lake where Mill Creek comes in, we’re delighted to find dozens of white pelicans, Canada geese, and blue herons splashing in the grassy waterway and we jump out to snap some photos.
We climb to an elevation of 4,720, passing through the Ochoco National Forest filled with stately Ponderosa Pine and white-barked aspen, and then down into the High Desert National Grasslands. We spot the sign for the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument Painted Hills Unit and turn onto Burnt Ranch Road, a paved two-laner with broad turns that’s great for RVs. We come around a corner and the sight makes us suck in our collective breath – exposed hillsides striped with rusty red, caulk white, and charcoal grey against a brilliant blue sky filled with billowing thunderheads. We scramble out of the rig to take a closer look. The only sound that breaks the deep silence is the wind and the occasional call of a meadowlark.
In a short distance, the pavement becomes well-maintained gravel and you can choose to drive up to the observation point or a rest stop with green grass, picnic tables, and restrooms. We drive up the hill to the overlook and an easy, half-mile walk to a spot that looks down on 33 million-year-old ash and pumice layers of red (iron), gold (oxidized magnesium/iron and metamorphic claystone minerals), and black (manganese). We’re mesmerized by the beauty and the sense of eons of time past.
Back on 26, we meander through steep canyons along Rock Creek to the turn off for the Thomas Condon Visitor’s Center. This modern building houses fascinating exhibits about the area’s rich fossilized history, dating back millions of years to when the area was a tropical swamp filled with dinosaurs. Researchers and paleontologists work out of this building and large windows allow us to see into their laboratories and watch as they examine fossils they’ve recovered from nearby hills.
Following the John Day River along highway 26, we pass through Picture Gorge, its basalt columns and uplifts of segmented rock towering above us. The gorge spills out into agricultural fields, their borders ringed with slender cattails and their grasses still green from late spring and early summer rains.
A few miles further, we pull into Clyde Holliday State Park and claim a spot for our rig under the shady cottonwoods. This large park, perched right on the John Day River, features plenty of shade, green grass, and full hookups. It’s a cool and popular retreat for RVers, especially in the summer months when temperatures can soar into the high 90s. Fortunately for us, the weather stays cool and a bit cloudy, and my dog and I enjoy an early evening stroll along the park’s Riverwalk Trail.
Chinamen and Rails
Next morning, it’s off to the town of John Day, home to Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site, one of the most interesting museums in the West. In 1887, Doc Ing Hay, a Chinese physician, came to the Wild West town of John Day in response to an ad for a doctor. A year later, businessman Lung On joined the doctor and ran a store out of the same building. The place became a doctor’s office, a general store, and center of the community. However, not everyone in John Day embraced the Chinamen, as evidenced by the building’s steel re-enforced front door that’s punctuated by bullet holes.
When Doc Hay died in 1948, the building was simply closed up and sat untouched like a time capsule for more than 30 years. Today, the museum, which is free and open to the public for hourly docent-led tours, contains thousands of objects such as old tin containers, wooden boxes, foodstuffs, tobacco, and more than 500 herbs Doc Hay used in his practice. There’s even an alter that contains dried out fruit the doctor placed there more than 60 years ago.
Right on Main Street, amidst false-fronted Western-style buildings, John Day also offers the Grant County Ranch and Rodeo Museum. This is still cowboy country and the museum is worth a stop to check out old photos, lariats, and saddles that are icons of the area’s world class ranching and rodeo reputation.
Another gem just up the road a few miles in Prairie City is the DeWitt Museum and Prairie City Depot of the Sumpter Valley Railroad. The museum is housed in the former station of the narrow gauge rail line that ran between Prairie City and Baker City and captures life in this area at the turn of the century. The ground floor contains the station’s original waiting room, station agent’s office, and baggage and freight room. Upstairs, the former station agent’s home, is filled with furniture, clothing, and domestic goods from the early 1900s.
Interestingly, there’s an RV park right on the museum property, appropriately called Depot RV. It offers 20 gravel sites with full hookups, picnic tables, BBQs, and a big outdoor pavilion.
It’s getting late when we turn west toward home. It’s about five hours to Portland, but, a few miles past the little town of Dayville, we can’t resist a last look at Picture Gorge. We turn at the Mascal Formation Overlook sign and head up the half mile of paved road. We’re rewarded with a spectacular sunset that illuminates the rocks of the Gorge and turns the valley grasses golden. Ah, now we’re ready to face another work week.
For More Information
Kam Wah Chung State Historic Site oregonstateparks.org/park_8.php
Crook County RV Park, Prineville ccprd.org/RVPark.php
Ochoco Lake Campground, Prineville ccprd.org/OchocoLake.php
Clyde Holliday State Park, John Day oregonstateparks.org/park_11.php
Depot RV Park, Prairie City prairiecityoregon.com/prairie-city-oregon-depot-rv-park.html
Fish House Inn and RV, Dayville fishhouseinn.com/rvpark.html
by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor, Photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor
This story originally appeared in MotorHome magazine.