I’ll admit at the start of this post that my roots run deep in the John Day Valley in Eastern Oregon and it has been common for me to head over there every year or two to see family. This most recent trip, however, was a bit different because we “played tourist” more than we usually do.
The city of John Day (population 1,850) lies along the John Day River in the heart of Grant County. The local joke is that they are the first stoplight past Prineville (117 miles to the west). From Cottage Grove, it is 280 miles — or roughly a 6 hour drive — on some of Oregon’s very scenic highways. I love the drive over because the topography, climate, and views change regularly all the way into the John Day Valley where the Strawberry Mountains provide a beautiful backdrop.
You’ll like the John Day area if you enjoy hiking, road biking, hunting or fishing, wild west history and antiques, few people, open expanses, and a slower pace of life. There is a lot to see on the drive over – including the John Day Fossil Beds – and many things to do in the John Day area itself. Beyond the hiking trails and bike routes, I consider the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site a “must see.” Now owned and operated by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, the Heritage Site documents the lives of two Chinese immigrants — Ing “Doc” Hay and Lung On — who came to John Day when gold was discovered to provide services to the Chinese gold miners in the area.
On this trip we also enjoyed the views from the John Day airport (including their new observation tower), the historic towns of Canyon City and Prairie City, the views from the Covered Wagon overlook, and exploring the new Bates State Park at the site of an old company lumber town (37 miles east of John Day just beyond the Dixie Butte pass).
A few things to note – it can get HOT in John Day in the middle of summer. We were extremely lucky to have highs in the mid-80s in late July (I was prepared for temperatures closer to triple digits) and in hot, dry summers like this one it is important to be flexible in case wildfires close roads or trails. We were lucky to get through on Highway 26 just after it re-opened from the Waterman Complex fire.
If you have never been to the John Day area, I love this video created by Travel Oregon about the Old West Scenic Bikeway which starts in John Day. Even if you aren’t a bike rider, it will give you a sense of why I like eastern Oregon so much.