Road Trip: Fossil and Condon

September 29, 2014 (Updated December 2, 2016)

Sunshine looks different on the hills of Eastern Oregon. It tucks away on the curves of the John Day River and in the rolling wheat fields along the two-lane highway near Cottonwood Canyon State Park. It bounces off the untamed leaves of the trees for which that park was named. It peaks over the jutting cliff line above the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, before blanketing the canyon in golden light. Soak in some of that remarkable sunshine with a road trip to the little towns of Condon (pop. 712) and Fossil (pop. 466).

Take I-84 east past The Dalles to Biggs Junction and head south on Highway 97 to 206. Windmills tower above the open horizon in the perfect blue sky. Stop at Cottonwood Canyon State Park, Oregon’s newest state park, to enjoy hiking, camping, fishing and boating. Enjoy views of the rocky buttes above this meandering section of river and explore some of the 8,000-acres of beauty. Onto the town of Condon, stop in at Murray’s Condon Pharmacy where you’ll find all manner of comforts (Trivia bonus: Murray’s hold the first liquor license in the state). You’ll also find 2 Country Girls here with decadent pastries and mouth-watering daily specials. Stroll the charming downtown, and visit Country Flowers with an old-fashioned soda fountain, a lunch counter and a petite bookstore that’s an annex of Portland’s Powell’s. Spend the night at the beautifully restored Hotel Condon, which offers regular special events and lodging packages. Browse the stacks at the new library, or enjoy 9-holes at the Condon Golf Course. Stick around and explore the rolling Eastern Oregon backcountry with the folks at nearby TREO Bike Tours. They’ll plan your supported bike itinerary (bringing food, water and tools) and you provide the pedal power. You can relax in the evening on the 300-acre farm and guest ranch.

Twenty miles further south, you’ll come into the town of Fossil in the foothills of the John Day River basin. It feels like stepping back in time here. The streets are safe, everyone waves at you–it is a slower pace of life in Fossil. Amble around the historic 1902 county courthouse, which is still in use today. (Its lawn is the site of the free Wheeler County Bluegrass Festival held each July.) While some come for the bass fishing, hiking and cycling opportunities, most visit because of the town aptly being named for its location in Oregon’s fossil epicenter. Fossil offers visitors the chance to dig for specimens at the fossil beds behind Wheeler High School and learn about the geology of the area at the Oregon Paleo Lands InstituteThis is one of the only places in the U.S. where visitors can take plant fossils home with them, like the Metasequoia, Oregon’s state fossil. Coming to Wheeler High School in late 2016 will be a Native Plant Park, which was supported by the Travel Oregon Forever Fund, local businesses like Wilson Ranches Retreat, and by visitor contributions. The Native Plant Park will be home to dozens of native plant species as well as information kiosks with labeled specimens so visitors can identify what kinds of plant fossils they unearthed in the nearby fossil beds.

When you are done digging through Oregon’s history, stop for a juicy burger and slice of homemade pie at the Service Creek Stage Stop. Just 20 miles outside of town, you can explore the distant past at the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Here, 44 million years ago, volcanic flows preserved the plant and animal life of the tropical forest that once flourished on this spot. Hike a series of short trails and view fossils of wood and leaves as well as the soaring rock palisades.

About The

Eileen Garvin
Eileen Garvin lives and writes in Hood River. When she’s not hunched over her keyboard or digging in the garden, you can find her mountain biking, kiteboarding, hiking, skiing or camping somewhere in Oregon.