John Day Fossil Beds
Volcanic landscapes, dinosaur fossils, and a 1920 hotel: Welcome to Oregon’s Old West.
DRIVE TIME: 3 HOURS
Find it on the map
WHEN YOU ARRIVE at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument—which appears on maps as a near-empty swath—you may feel like you’ve landed on another planet. Bluish heaps of clay have weathered over time until they resemble giant sand castles, and volcanic ash in shades of red, yellow, purple, and green stripe the aptly named Painted Hills. Adding to the otherworldliness are the bizarre fossils that archaeologists have found here: relics of four-toed horses, short-faced bears, and meat-eating creodonts (a now-extinct, wolflike mammal) that once inhabited the area. (You can see some of those fossils, dating back as far as 48 million years, at the park’s Thomas Condon Paleontology Center.) Spend the weekend ambling along any one of the park’s 15 trails and you’ll be privy to a landscape where time, quite literally, stands still. —Anna Hirsh
Friday, 7 p.m.
Check-In: Hotel Condon
Ten years ago, this 1920 hotel was poised to go the way of the creodont. But in 2007, a $3 million renovation by Rick and Marlene Stanley—a Portland couple who moved to nearby Fossil in 1999—transformed the three-story structure into an 18-room boutique hotel complete with flat-screen TVs, overstuffed chairs, and fireplaces in each floor’s common area. Many guests prefer the third-floor rooms (90-year-old floors tend to be creaky), but only Room 201, on the second floor, has both a claw-foot tub and a window seat, perfect for curling up in the hotel’s cozy bathrobes and planning tomorrow’s journey through the past. $100–$199; 541-384-4624; www.hotelcondon.com
Saturday, 8 a.m.
John Day Fossil Beds
The national monument’s 14,000-acre fossil beds are divided into three sections, called “units.” Start your trip at the easternmost Sheep Rock Unit, where several short trails decorated with interpretive signs wind through volcanic formations. Ambitious hikers might opt for the Blue Basin Overlook loop trail, a rigorous three-mile climb to the top of a butte, where you can peer down at the valley. From here, you’ll be able to make out the blue-green ribbon of the John Day River cutting through the dusty landscape toward your next stop, the Painted Hills. www.nps.gov/joda
Think of the Painted Hills (pictured above) as a kind of geological fall foliage. The landscape gets its striking hues from oxidated mineral deposits—the result of ash expelled from erupting volcanoes. Of course, that’s the scientific explanation. When you reach the top of the 1.5-mile Carroll Rim Trail and take a seat on the bench overlooking the jewel-toned hills, you might prefer to think of the landscape simply as a natural canvas, one smeared with the same kinds of hues that inspired Georgia O’Keeffe to pick up her brushes in New Mexico.
Saturday, 5 p.m.
Dinner at the Sage Restaurant
There may be only four restaurants in Condon, but fortunately for you, the very best one is a mere elevator ride away. Located inside the Hotel Condon, the Sage Restaurant is all about steak. Choose from the likes of Kobe beef top sirloin, elk tenderloin, or slow-roasted prime rib, and pair your selection with one of the nearly 40 Oregon and Washington wines on offer. If you’re feeling indulgent (and since you’re on vacation, you should), order some chocolate-peanut butter pie for dessert.
Sunday, 6:30 a.m.
Fishing the John Day River
When you book a guided fishing trip with Mah-Hah Outfitters, you’ll start your day as every fisherman should—with a big ol’ breakfast. Guide Steve Fleming has been fishing the John Day since 1968, and he insists you meet him at his house at 6:30 a.m. for a proper morning meal. And when he finally takes you out? You’ll be on one of the best small-mouth bass-fishing rivers in the country. Mah-Hah also offers a “fish-on” guarantee: If you don’t hook anything at all, you’ll get another day trip for free. 888-624-9424; www.johndayriverfishing.com