In Eastern Oregon, hundreds of miles from the nearest skyscraper, is a land of breathtaking vistas where the high desert meets the mountains. Nestled along the Wild and Scenic John Day River in the shadow of electrifying sunsets over snow-capped peaks, the delightful small towns of Dayville, John Day, Canyon City, and Prairie City welcome you with their rich history and charm.
This is a place of wide-open spaces where life slows down. “Being willing to enjoy the slower pace leads you to unexpected surprises,” says Bethany Williams, my dear friend and long-time Prairie City resident. “I’ve lived here for so long, and I’m still discovering new things I haven’t noticed before.”
There are many ways to reach this part of Grant County, but Bethany’s favorite route from Portland travels I-84E through the Columbia River Gorge and south on OR-19S. The four-hour drive flies by. The open road is virtually traffic-free as you watch the scenery transition from mountains to plateaus to high desert prairies right before your eyes.
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
As you approach Dayville, you’ll pass through the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. A stop at the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center offers insight to the area’s unique geology, 500 fossil specimens from the John Day Fossil Beds, and a chance to see scientists studying fossils in the laboratory. There’s also the nearby Cant Ranch Historic Home and Museum, which was established in 1910. You can tour the historic home and museum during the summer and explore the Blue Basin Trailhead and overlooks year-round.
Continue south through Picture Gorge and spot Native American pictographs on the towering basalt formations. When you arrive at US-26W, head east a few miles to Dayville (pop. 144), named for the nearby John Day River. For delicious hometown cuisine and mouthwatering pies, my favorite stop is the cozy Dayville Café. It felt like a charming movie set, and I met many locals who offered tips for my journey. Across the street is the Dayville Merc, one of Oregon’s oldest general stores, and a great spot for road trip snacks. Built in 1896, it has been a school, saloon, dance hall, and a gathering place throughout its time.
Hop back on the road and drive 30 miles east to John Day (pop. 1,660). Lured by gold in the mid-1800s, John Day was home to some of the first Chinese immigrants in Oregon and once had the second largest Chinatown in the state. The Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site is an incredibly preserved building that served as a gathering place, bunk house, and medical center for the Chinese community. Free daily tours are available by signing up at the nearby interpretive center and are an absolute must-do on your road trip. During the busy summer season, it’s best to arrive early and allow several hours for this memorable site as the tours often fill up. After your tour or while waiting for your tour time, stroll main street past the historic Advent Christian Church, shop for locally made gifts at Etc., and buy local produce like wildflower honey at the farmers market on Saturdays in the summer. If you’ve worked up an appetite, visit 1188 Brewing Company for delicious burgers and craft beer like the Strawberry Mountain Hefe.
A mere two miles south of John Day is Canyon City (pop. 668) which burst to life during the 1862 gold rush. It’s the home of the Grant County Historical Museum which houses an array of artifacts collected from the town’s earliest residents. Behind the museum is the historic Sel’s Brewery that opens its doors once a year for the town’s ’62 Days Celebration. If you’re in town one of the 363 days when you can’t get a drink at Sel’s, it’s still worth driving by this unique establishment dating back to the late 1800s.
The journey continues eastward to Prairie City (pop. 910), a quintessential small town with stunning views of Strawberry Mountain. The best place to begin your time is where travelers began their journey a century ago – at the Prairie City Depot. Now the home of the DeWitt Museum and Sumpter Valley Railway Depot, this was the original train depot built in 1910 at the terminus of the Sumtper Valley Railway. Looking through the waiting room, baggage room, and living quarters on the second floor, it’s fun to imagine the travelers that arrived here until passenger service ended in 1933.
Now make your way to Front Street, which feels like an old western main street. It’s full of delightful surprises like the Prairie Trading Post, featuring local artisan Dale Duby’s flintknapping knives and woodworking. To get into the western spirit, browse Bar-W-B’s selection of traditional western wear and dine at the historic Oxbow Dinner House and Pizza Company. Local history claims the wooden bar at Oxbow was crafted in Europe in the early 1900s, shipped around the tip of South America, and pulled through Oregon on wagons.
Spend the night: The historic Hotel Prairie is the perfect place to rest for the evening. This century-old hotel is situated on the town’s walk-able main street and is the perfect blend of historic and modern charm. After a good night’s rest, it may be time to head home. Or perhaps the nearby Strawberry Mountain Wilderness beckons you with its hidden lakes and misty waterfalls. I’ll let you decide when your journey ends.