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The marks of time are stamped across the landscape on this 286-mile/ 460-kilometer route through prehistoric fossil beds, mining boomtowns and surprising sights like the Painted Hills — one of Oregon’s 7 Wonders.

Driving across northeastern Oregon is a trip through the state’s historical timeline. This route begins at the Columbia River, the traditional fishing and gathering grounds for generations of Native Americans. It travels through river canyons and into the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, where 55 million years of life are preserved in the rocks. And it explores communities past and present that tell stories of the state’s hardworking heritage in the woods, in the mines, on the ranches and on the railroad.

Rolling Hills and River Canyons

The byway begins at Biggs, along the Columbia River, and curves up US-97 between the canyons of two more major Oregon rivers: the Deschutes and the John Day. The skies here seem huge and the views stretch for miles, with checkerboard wheat fields, undulating golden hills and spinning wind turbines.

In Moro, the Sherman County Historical Museum collection includes thousands of artifacts of Native American life, Oregon Trail migration and wheat farming. Continuing south, Shaniko was the wool shipping center of the world in the 1880s. Today this living ghost town springs to life at annual events celebrating its heritage.

Fossil Beds and Painted Hills

The byway heads east along OR-218 from Antelope to the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The three John Day Fossil Beds units, all on the byway, comprise a remarkably diverse record of more than 2,000 species of plants and animals dating back 6 million to 54 million years, forming one of the most complete fossil records in existence. Interpretive trails guide you under castle-like cliffs and past easy-to-spot fossils exposed in the rock.

The byway heads northeast to Fossil, where the public can discover the region’s rich natural history at the Oregon Paleo Lands Center and dig in fossil beds behind Wheeler High School, then southeast to Service Creek. The newest section of the byway adds 65 miles/105 kilometers and includes the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument via OR-207 and US-26. This spur forks south at Service Creek and continues to the town of Mitchell for access to the Painted Hills. From here the route heads east on US-26 to reconnect to the original byway at the intersection of OR-19. The extension of the byway through this landscape offers unforgettable views of ancient hills striped in dazzling bands of ochre, gold and bronze volcanic ash, and also connects all three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

Along the John Day

The byway’s other route, from Service Creek to Dayville, twists along the Wild and Scenic John Day River, from which the fossil beds take their name. The John Day is the longest free-flowing river in Oregon and a delight for steelhead and smallmouth bass fishing as well as rafting in this arid climate. The North Fork joins the main stem of the river at Kimberly.

Along the route between Kimberly and Dayville lies the Fossil Beds’ Sheep Rock Unit, where the visitor center has films, interpretive exhibits and local fossils on display, from ancient ferns to saber-toothed tigers. Trails lead through an amphitheater of blue-green clay stone and up to an overlook of the John Day River Valley. Just before Dayville, the byway passes through Picture Gorge, with the river flowing below and jagged palisades rising above.

East Toward the Mountains

The route follows US-26 east through John Day, once known for its cattle drives down Main Street, and the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site. The 1870s landmark was a general store, doctor’s office, herbal pharmacy and ad hoc community center for the Chinese workers who lived here in the 1880s. The site includes a museum and an interpretive center.

Continue through Prairie City on a particularly scenic stretch of the byway, with the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness as a backdrop, and up into the Blue Mountains on OR-7. The byway passes Whitney, once a busy center for area logging, mining and cattle operations. Now abandoned buildings are all that remain in this easy-to-reach ghost town. East of the gold-mining center of Sumpter, the byway joins the Elkhorn Drive Scenic Byway and makes a gradual descent into the “Queen City of the Mines,” Baker City.

related Trip Ideas

  1. 7 Wonders of Oregon: Painted Hills

    an Oregon Story by Emily Forsha on February 24th, 2015

    When you travel to the Painted Hills, you can see millions of years of history revealed in the layers of mountains of earth, one color at a time. A journey to the hills is a journey through ancient and recent history; here’s how to see this…

  2. John Day Fossil Beds

    a Grant's Getaway by Grant McOmie on September 9th, 2010

    This week I took a colorful hike through time through one of Oregon’s most spectacular landscapes – the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. From its headwaters in the Blue Mountains to its salmon-rich confluence with the grand…

  3. Kam Wah Chung

    a Grant's Getaway by Grant McOmie on June 4th, 2010

    If you know where to look across Oregon’s vast high desert landscape, there are powerful human stories found in small, quiet places. This week, we go to a “time capsule” of sorts in Eastern Oregon‘s John Day, where a unique…

  4. Journey to the Painted Hills

    an Oregon Story by Michelle Fahlgren on May 14th, 2014

    I love the high desert area. Not just because of the juniper-scented warm air, but because it is a great home base for a radius of adventures. I was beyond ecstatic when I learned that the Painted Hills were only a short 1.5 hour drive from Redmond.…

  5. Road Trip: John Day Fossil Beds Country

    an Oregon Story by Eileen Garvin on October 26th, 2015

    The first time I saw the Painted Hills in Eastern Oregon, I was in a hurry. My group had stopped at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, which acts as the interpretive center for the hills and the rest of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument…

  6. Exploring Oregon’s Wonders: Painted Hills, Sheep Rock and Blue Basin

    an Oregon Story by Lisa Holmes on June 1st, 2015

    In spite of my intrepid drive to experience the diverse and incredible landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, the Painted Hills were one of the 7 Wonders of Oregon that I had yet to see. And to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d seen many…

  7. Tasty Road Trip: the Wallowas and Painted Hills

    an Oregon Story by Tally Gunstone on February 10th, 2015

    Driving from Portland to Enterprise may have have taken all day, but proved to be worthwhile when we woke up at Barking Mad Farm Bed & Breakfast with a stunning part of Oregon to feast our eyes upon for the very first time.

  8. 7 Wonders Road Trip: Day 7, Bend to John Day

    an Itinerary by Eileen Garvin on March 1st, 2015

    Day 7: Bend to John Day (Driving time: 92 miles/4 hours) Get ready for two more Wonders! You won’t be driving far today, but it will take you some time to get where you’re going. Head north out of Bend on Highway 97 to the town of Redmond. The…

  9. Family Weekend at the John Day Fossil Beds

    an Oregon Story by Natalie Bennon on September 10th, 2014

    It is 10 o’clock at night. I am standing outside in the dark, holding a three-year-old. It’s way past his bedtime. We are waiting for a turn to look at Saturn’s rings through a telescope. Mama, I have to pee. Of course. But at least he…

  10. Gregory Gourdet’s Culinary Tour of the Painted Hills

    an Itinerary by Kerry Newberry on September 14th, 2015

    Chef Gregory Gourdet picks a few favorite stops for fresh bounty around the Painted Hills.

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Drive safely.

Keep in mind many of the routes listed here travel through remote areas where gas stations are few and far between. And since road and weather conditions can be hazardous, even into summer, we urge you to call 800-977-6368 or check Trip Check before starting out.

Share your thoughts Comments

Have something to say? Your Comment

  1. Mark Chappelle says…

    Old website of scenic byways was awesome! why did you change?

    very sad, very sad

    Written on March 10th, 2012 / Flag this Comment
  2. Terry says…

    I agree with Mark…the old website was perfect! The new one doesn’t do your site justice.

    Written on May 5th, 2012 / Flag this Comment
  3. Elenibee says…

    The Over the Rivers and through the Woods byway was absolutely gorgeous, I highly recommend. We took this route to connect with the West Cascades Scenic Byway to get to Portland. All I can say is wow. Do it!!

    Written on June 19th, 2012 / Flag this Comment
  4. Joni Anderson says…

    Is this scenic highway paved and appropriate for road bike riding?

    Written on August 29th, 2012 / Flag this Comment
  5. Jen Greisel says…

    We stayed in Dayville (on our last night of a weekend road trip to the Steens area and the Owyhee area). The first day, we visited the Sheep rock unit and then the Painted Hills the next day. Both units are so amazingly beautiful! I cant wait to get back to explore the other unit

    Written on July 2nd, 2014 / Flag this Comment
  6. Steve says…

    I’m confused. You had these great scenic byway maps on your site and now I can’t find anything but an ‘interactive’ map. As an example, while in the Wallowas we picked up “The Wallowas – Top 20″ authored by Travel Oregon. Where are these maps hidden in your new design??

    Written on June 25th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  7. Travel Oregon says…

    Hi Steve, we think the map you are referring to is only available in print. Here is where you can order print versions of our travel guides:

    Written on June 25th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  8. Dan says…

    Is there a better direction to do this route? Is it just as nice to do it from east to west?

    Written on July 25th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  9. Bob Armstrong says…

    Would you happen to know how I can find lapel pins that are specific to Oregon’s 7 Wonders? We just completed a trip through several scenic byways in Eastern Oregon and would love to have the pins as momentous of our trip.
    Thank you.

    Written on October 26th, 2016 / Flag this Comment
  10. Joel says…

    Clarno was crazy cool! Not any better than the other two painted hills units, just cool in its own way. More hiking, or it just felt that way because it was 90 or so degrees that day!

    Written on December 28th, 2016 / Flag this Comment
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