: Painted Hills by Ric Ergenbright

A Road Trip Back in Time

January 17, 2017 (Updated January 5, 2023)

It’s the perfect time to pack up the family and head to the John Day Fossil Beds in sparsely populated Eastern Oregon. Not only does more sun shine here than in the western side of the state, you can experience time-travel fun with virtually no crowds.

Keep in mind that the solitude of the eastern part of the state can also make for challenging travel conditions in the winter: Many services may close for the season, business keep unpredictable hours and weather can make remote roads sketchy. Plan ahead and consult TripCheck.com, which offers updates on driving conditions and travel services.

Getting There is Half the Fun

Leave Portland on I-84 and drive through the Columbia River Gorge. Sights along the way are so plentiful you could easily extend the trip a couple of days before you even reach the Fossil Beds. Continue through Hood River and The Dalles before turning onto Highway 97 and entering what feels like a new universe.

A broken-down stagecoach sits in the ghost town of Shaniko.
Shaniko by Buddy Mays

Ghost Town Stopover

From rolling hills along the mighty Columbia River, the landscape changes to farmsteads and wind farms before the white pyramids of Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams and Mt. Jefferson steal the view. After 55 miles of this easy-on-the-eyes route, everyone will want to stop at Shaniko, an authentic ghost town crumbling into the sagebrush and juniper. In summer, a few services are open, but in winter you experience its empty and eerie state — which also means no restrooms. Wander around the 40-plus buildings, including the Columbia Southern Hotel, jailhouse and schoolhouse.

Clarno Unit by Robbie McClaran

Welcome to the John Day Fossil Beds Clarno Unit

Driving 16 miles, now on Highway 218, you’ll come to magnificent palisades that welcome you to the first of your main destinations, the John Day Fossil Beds Clarno Unit. It’s worth walking all three of the unshaded rocky trails, 1.25 miles in length together. You’ll reap great views and photo opportunities up the palisades. But once you reach the Trail of Fossils, keep a sharp eye out for fossilized wood and leaves in the formations. They are not easy to spot.

Sheep Rock by Greg Vaughn

Find Out What it’s all About at the Sheep Rock Unit

Drive another 80 miles to the John Day Fossil Beds Sheep Rock Unit, through desert that turns lush along the John Day River. Your first stop is the Thomas Condon Paleontology Museum, which provides an explanation of what’s going on geologically out here. Check out the types of fossils, scale models of the animals and flora of 7 million years ago, skeletons and even a viewing area into the fossil laboratory where scientists work with regional specimens.

Now, take the knowledge you have gained and head to the hills. Some of the best fossils are found in the Blue Basin area, including the Island in Time Trail (0.3 miles) that includes replicas of mammal fossils. You’re rewarded at the end of the trail by an amphitheater of blue-green pinnacles.

Stay over in Mitchell

By this time, it’s getting late and, likely, the troops are tired and hungry. Luckily, it’s only 36 miles to Mitchell and the quirky Historic Oregon Hotel. While not luxurious, rooms start at $55 per night and they’re well-suited to families. Mitchell has a handful of basic, American-style restaurants, but in winter it’s wise to call the hotel in advance to find out what will be open.

A person looks at an exhibit of dinosaur bones.
Thomas Condon Paleontology Museum by Robbie McClaran
Painted Hills by Christian Heeb

Catch the Morning Light on the Painted Hills

After a good night’s rest, rise early to catch the best light on one of Oregon’s most spectacular sites: the Painted Hills. Ten miles from Mitchell, it’s an easy drive. Then wander around the red, yellow and orange striated mounds that look more like Mars than Earth. Visiting with young children? Get inspired by the LGBTQ bloggers 2TravelDads’ account of their Painted Hills tour with their two young sons, and learn how to practice the park’s “Don’t Hurt the Dirt” campaign to keep the area pristine for generations to come.

Dig For Your Own Fossils

It’s back in the car, but only for 50 miles along Highway 207, to Highway 19, to the aptly named town of Fossil. This is where you can piece together the experience of your trip. Start at Oregon Paleo Lands Center & Gallery to see examples of fossils you may find digging at the Wheeler High School Fossil Beds (open Saturday and Sundays in winter). The beds are located on the high school grounds, and it costs only $5 for a family of four to dig at the easy-access area. You can expect to find ancient leaves and branches etched into the rocks. Take your treasures as remembrances and dream about the past all the way home.

A person holds fossils in their hand.
Digging for fossils at Wheeler High School by Leon Werdinger

About The

Celeste Brash
After 15 years in French Polynesia, Celeste Brash now lives in Portland. She’s contributed to over 60 Lonely Planet books and countless articles in outlets such as Islands Magazine, National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel and BBC Travel.