There’s a place where cowboys and Native Americans aren’t just characters in old western movies; where cattle drives, campfire stories, and endless star-studded skies are part of everyday life. In the John Day River Territory, locals live history every day, and they’re eager to share it. So pack your spurs and hit the road for a chance to experience the Wild West as it really was.
Begin at the award-winning Sherman County Historical Museum in Moro. The Museum celebrates the region’s proud Western heritage with exhibits devoted to agriculture and one of the area’s most important crops: wheat. Learn about the lives of early pioneers and explorers, hardy people whose work ethic and grit have been passed down to today’s generation of local family farmers. Special exhibits for little buckaroos include tracing Native American petroglyphs and milling bags of flour.
From Moro, venture east to Arlington, a peaceful riverfront community and important shipping port for farmers’ crops. As you travel south on Highway 19, you’ll pass an historical Oregon Trail marker and century-old farms with fields that change from earth to emerald to amber as the seasons progress. Notice the region’s newest crop: windmills, whose clusters of white pillars and massive turbines rise up in all directions.
Stop at Country Flowers, in charming Condon, for a treat from the old-fashioned soda fountain. The brick building houses unique, locally-crafted gifts and an Eastern Oregon branch of the famous Powell’s Bookstore.
An authentic one-room schoolhouse and brothel-turned-barbershop are just a few of the century-old buildings that make up the Gilliam County Historical Museum’s collection and provide a glimpse into the lives of early settlers here.
Bunk down for the night at the beautifully restored, historic Hotel Condon.
A quick detour on Highway 206 and Lonerock Road leads to Lonerock, a once booming pioneer town located in a picturesque valley. Look for the huge rock — the town’s namesake — next to a sparkling Methodist church, which dates back to 1898 and is still used for weddings and other special events. Don’t miss the community’s Instagram-worthy post office.
For an authentic cowboy experience, mosey over to Wilson Ranches Retreat, a friendly bed and breakfast located on a 9,000 acre cattle ranch in nearby Fossil. Visitors can partake in ranch tours, fishing, hiking, or, if you’re lucky, a cattle drive with the Wilson family.
History buffs will enjoy a visit to the Fossil Museum and Pine Creek School House and the Fossil General Mercantile, which dates back to 1883 and houses a quilt display along with memorabilia from the store’s early days.
Shaniko, a living ghost town, is worth the drive. Once the largest inland wool shipping center in the world, today the town is a link to the Wild West through its historical buildings, can-do pioneer spirit, and annual events celebrating the region’s rich western heritage.
Spend the evening marveling over Eastern Oregon’s unmatched sunsets and starry nights; the same ones that have welcomed pioneers and dreamers for more than 150 years.
From Fossil, the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway meanders through ponderosa forests and along the wild and scenic John Day River. It also passes through Spray, a friendly community known for its annual Rodeo, which attracts cowboys from miles around each Memorial Day weekend. Just up the road in Kimberly, Thomas Orchards offers bushels of fresh cherries, peaches, pears, and other fruits to fuel the next adventure.
The nearby Cant Ranch is an oasis in the surrounding jagged canyons and rugged landscape. The homestead harkens back to the early 1900s when wool and sheep were booming industries in the area. The white, two-story home James and Elizabeth Cant used to entertain guests and educate local schoolchildren is now a wonderfully preserved museum, which provides visitors with a glimpse of ranching life here in the 1900s.
Stop in Dayville to pose for pictures outside the town’s miniature Western storefronts then head across the street to the Dayville Cafe, which serves up hearty portions and thick slices of homemade pie.
John Day and Canyon City boast several great museums dedicated to the region’s rich western heritage. The Grant County Historical Museum tells the story of the 1860s Gold Rush, which led Canyon City to become the largest city in Oregon for a time. While the Grant County Ranch & Rodeo Museum’s collection includes saddles, bits, spurs, ropes, tools and an extensive photo collection depicting the American cowboy in this rough and rugged landscape.
The Oxbow Trade Company builds and restores horse-drawn wagons and coaches and offers tours of their facility for those who call in advance.