Uncommonly rich in history, this route tells stories of fortunes made and lost, of Chinese laborers, of towns boomed and busted, of timber, agriculture, and pioneer settlers. It also tells a special story of the earth’s history; of sea beds which have long been dry and of extinct creatures.
The Journey Through Time stretches 286 miles through north central to eastern Oregon. It winds through five Oregon counties, beginning in the community of Biggs and ends in Baker City.
Named for W. H. Biggs, a landowner who came to Sherman County from Ohio in 1880, this community also is known as Biggs Junction, because it is located at the intersection of highways U.S.-97 and I-84. Possible side trips: crossing the Columbia River to visit Maryhill Museum of Art; watching nearby windsurfers; walking a portion of the Oregon Trail between Hwy. 206 and Biggs; heading east to see the John Day Dam.
2. Sherman County Museum
Located in the town of Moro, this is one of the finest community-supported museums in Oregon. Its collection includes over 15,000 historical artifacts related to the Oregon Trail, early ranching and farming and Native American culture. Experiencing the links to the past, visitors enjoy period rooms of early Oregon life, Indian artifacts and tools used by blacksmiths, ranchers and farmers.
Currently considered one of Oregon’s most representative “living” ghost towns, Shaniko was known for a short time in the early 1900s as the “Wool Shipping Center of the World.” This reflects the era’s high demand for wool needed for clothing, blankets and military uniforms. The region’s abundant grass and dry climate made it ideal for raising millions of sheep. Thanks to the completion of the Columbia Southern Railroad in 1901, which connected the Columbia Gorge with Shaniko, this town remained for ten years the principal shipping point for much of interior Oregon. During this period, numerous stage and freight routes operated out of the town, linking it with communities to the south and east. Visitors often stay at the historic Shaniko Hotel, rebuilt in 1901 after a disastrous fire. It was completely renovated in 2001 and is on the National Register of Historic places.
The hills around here are a prime habitat for the town’s prong-horned namesake. If you’re on the lookout for the animals, be warned that they are very well camouflaged. According to historical research, members of a supply expedition bringing food and tools to the John Day gold miners probably named Antelope in 1862.
The historic town, established in the 1880s, was named when a fossilized mammoth bone was found in the vicinity. True to its name, Fossil offers visitors a chance to do some free prospecting at the public fossil-collecting site in town. This ancient lakebed deposit contains numerous leaf imprints of ancient deciduous trees as well as a few vertebrate fossils.
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
The area is comprised of three widely separated units: the Sheep Rock Unit, the Painted Hills Unit and the Clarno Unit. Each offers picnic areas, restrooms, information kiosks, hiking trails with exhibits and brochures and outstanding scenery. The main visitor center, located at the Sheep Rock Unit, features displays of fossils found throughout the John Day Basin. Hours vary throughout the year. Few places so accessible to the public present a better selection of fossilized bones, shells, leaves wood, teeth, tracks, nuts and seeds. These artifacts provide an informative overview of the Age of Mammals—the 40 million years that elapsed between the extinction of the dinosaurs and the beginning of the Ice Age. The Clarno formation in the Clarno Unit, just 18 miles from the town of Fossil, consists primarily of huge mudflows or lahars, which roared down the slopes of ancient volcanoes, engulfing everything in their paths. Although the Clarno volcanoes have long since eroded, the hardened lahars remain—along with fossilized plants and animals trapped in the flows.
6. Service Creek
Wild and scenic raft trips down the John Day River leave from Service Creek, which once was a stagecoach stop. Today, a picnic area, parking and a boat launch are available.
After leaving Fossil traveling Hwy 19, take a fascinating 68-mile side trip to see the jewel of the John Day Fossil Beds…the Painted Hills. Follow Hwy 207 from Service Creek to Mitchell, and then journey just 6 miles to the Painted Hills National Monument. Mitchell has plenty to offer too, including the Painted Hills Vacation Rentals, where Aruna and her mom will give you all kinds of insider pointers to the area. Continue on traveling Hwy 26 and join back into the original Journey Through Time route.
In the early 1900s, this historic location was the site of a ferry crossing that allowed freight wagons, stage passengers, cattle and gold to cross the John Day River and connect with the The Dalles Military Road farther west. Now you’ll find the locals proudest of their spirited Memorial Day festivities, featuring a rodeo and a half marathon, occasionally run by competitors shod in cowboy boots.
Farmers in the area are known for extensive orchards, which produce a bounty of cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, apples and pears. Once a historic stage stop at a fork in the John Day River, Kimberly’s modern-day visitors will find this a delicious stop during harvest season. Farm stands are full of local fruit.
9. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
The journey continues through additional portions of the monument, including:
- Foree Trailhead, where two short interpretive trails lead through blue and red fossil-bearing deposits, ending at a stunning viewpoint where you can see basalt flows remaining from 16 million years ago.
- Cathedral Rock displays a beautiful cliff face exposing ancient pyroclastic flows and ash layers. Its unique banded colors and setting high above the river make it a regional icon.
- Blue Basin offers a short trail into the basin, featuring casts of turtle and saber-toothed-cat fossils, along with interpretive signs near the discovery site of the original fossils.
- Cant Ranch National Historic District, across the highway from the Thomas Condon Visitor Center (currently under construction), features displays of old farm equipment plus descriptions of sheep and cattle ranching in the early 1900s.
- Mascall Overlook presents a spectacular view of Picture Gorge and the Mascall and Rattlesnake formations along with detailed interpretive signs.
This was a well-known stage stop on The Dalles Military Road due to its location at the junction of the South Fork and the main stem of the John Day River. As you leave Dayville heading east, note the landmark 1883 red barn that still remains structurally sound. (This barn is on private property, so please view it from the roadside pullover.)
11. The Dalles Military Road
One of the interesting sidelights to the Journey Through Time was the historic need of the U.S. government to ensure the safe delivery of the gold from Canyon City to a mint in The Dalles. The government commissioned The Dalles Military Road, which ran approximately parallel to the scenic byway.
12. Mt. Vernon
Another tiny town with an unusual history, Mt. Vernon was famous for its horse racing and hot springs. In the late 1800s, horse racing was one of the most popular regional pastimes, and many races took place just west of town. Another major attraction, known for its healing waters, Mt. Vernon Hot Springs operated near the current townsite as a major spa in the early 1900s, flourishing until about 1920. The facility was destroyed by fire in 1968, and today, only the bricks and chimneys remain.
13. John Day
John Day is the major town along the Journey Through Time route. Chinese railroad workers and miners were vital to the area in the late 1800s, and their presence helped to create one of the most unusual museums in Oregon—the Kam Wah Chung Museum. This original Chinese medical clinic, run by the Chinese herbalist Ing Hay and his business partner Lung On, is perfectly preserved today. After the mines shut down and most Chinese workers moved on, they continued to serve local residents from this building. During summer months, tours are conducted through the museum. You can see rooms colored by opium smoke, collections of medicinal herbs and furnishings representative of Chinese life.
14. Canyon City
Amazingly, this little town became the largest city in Oregon for a short time in the late 1800s after one of the biggest gold strikes in the Northwest occurred along Canyon Creek in 1862. Between 1862 and 1880, miners removed over $26 million in gold from the area, and Canyon City became known for its round-the-clock rowdiness and occasional violence.
15. Prairie City
Strawberry Mountain looks down upon Prairie City, creating one of the most photogenic vistas on the Journey Through Time. After its founding in 1868, Prairie City had to be rebuilt three times following major fires. Much of its importance as a shipping point for Grant County was due to the Sumpter Valley Railroad lines, with its narrow-gauge tracks running from Baker City to Prairie City.
The Great Depression ended this connection, although the shortened Sumpter Valley Railroad continued to transport logs to sawmills in Baker City until 1947. The original train depot in Prairie City has been restored and is now the DeWitt Depot Park Museum.
16. Covered Wagon/Upper John Day
A significant memorial of the Oregon Trail lies approximately four miles east of Prairie City. Consisting of an oversized covered wagon and a viewpoint, it is a moving reminder of more than 150,000 pioneers and their arduous journey in covered wagons in the mid-1800s on the Oregon Trail.
Here is one of Oregon’s more accessible ghost towns, located about a mile south of State Route 7, 18 miles from Sumpter. Once a major station stop on the Sumpter Valley Railroad, Whitney did not develop around a gold mining district. Instead, its existence was linked to the railroad and a sawmill that supplied lumber to the mining towns. Visitors will see many buildings remaining from its more boisterous days.
This stop on your journey takes you back in time to the days when gold mining was an important industry in Eastern Oregon. The gold was collected with a 1240-ton gold dredge, which extracted ore from the alluvial gravels in the valley of the Blue Mountains from the 1930s to the mid-1950s. Similar to those that operated in the John Day Valley, these dredges created their own temporary lakes as they transformed landscapes and churned up the gravels of the valley floor. You can still see long piles of gravel tailings south of State Route 7. In addition to viewing the restored dredge, you can ride the original narrow gauge steam train of the renamed Sumpter Valley Railway from Memorial Day through September and enjoy the amenities of the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area, which include trails, picnicking sites, interpretive displays, special events and more.
19. Baker City
This handsome and historic community has been one of Eastern Oregon’s most vital towns since 1862. It impressed so many Oregon Trail pioneers on their way to the western side of the state that many returned when they found much of the Willamette Valley’s prime land already claimed. Baker City boasts over 100 structures on the National Register of Historic Places, including the restored Geiser Grand Hotel (above). At the turn of the century, this elegant hostelry, its dining room atrium enhanced by a stunning stained glass ceiling, was considered to be the finest hotel between Salt Lake City and Seattle.
The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.
Flagstaff Hill, five miles east of Baker City, offers one of the most moving experiences on the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway. Standing on the windswept hillside, with expansive views far to the west and with 150-year-old wagon ruts in sight, it is easy to imagine the intense emotions of the pioneers who were finally nearing the end of their perilous journey. Inside the architecturally unique museum are numerous realistic, life-sized dioramas and interactive exhibits depicting the joys and hardships of nineteenth century western migration.