Oregon Road Trip: Dig for Fossils, Meet Dinos & Haunt a Ghost Town

Each turn on an Eastern Oregon road trip presents a new view of the region. Driving through valleys and over peaks carved by ancient floods, you’ll encounter flat range where cattle graze, basalt mountains that stretch thousands of miles into the blue sky, yellow wheat fields bending with the breeze, white windmills generating power for a growing urban population. Truly unusual sights dwell here, yet it’s not too difficult to find a room, even during summer’s peak travel season. It’s like a little slice of undiscovered Oregon — so get out there. Here’s a trip to remember.

Eastern Oregon Road Trip with Kids, Stop by Stop:

Shop a tiny Powell’s at Country Flowers Soda Fountain, a one-woman emporium of gifts, lattes, great kitchenware, beauty supplies and yes, a very small Powell’s Bookstore. Really! It’s a book-lover’s oasis.Condon Café offers microbrews on tap, bottles, pizza, salads and fine service.

Country Flowers; Powell's in Oregon

Country Flowers; Powell’s in Oregon

Wash the grit off at the restored Hotel Condon, a welcome sight after a day driving along hot, dusty roads. This 1920-era hotel offers spacious rooms for families, cable, and yes, hot showers. Truly one of my favorite little Oregon hotels. Wine and cheese hour and a continental breakfast is included in the nightly rate.

Kid-friendly Hotel Condon in Condon, Oregon

Hotel Condon in Condon, Oregon

Drive back in Time. From Condon, it’s a 20-minute drive south along the John Day Highway, a valley with giant basalt mountains cut by floods, flanking both sides of the road, until you reach the town of Fossil.

Find fossils in the aptly named Fossil. Behind Fossil High School, you’ll find Oregon’s public fossil beds, where you can scrape and brush aside layers of dirt and rock to find your very own plant fossil, such as the needles of a metasequoia that fell 33 million years ago. The fossil tools are free for use by anyone, but there is a $15/four-person family admission fee.

 

Digging for fossils with kids in Fossil

Digging for fossils with kids in Fossil

Meet ancient residents at Oregon Paleo Lands Institute, which has a full-size Plesiosaur found right in Fossil, along with little puzzles and playthings for younger children. Don’t miss the family activities at OPLI, if you can arrange your visit around one of the hikes.

Oregon Public Lands Institute with Kids

Oregon Public Lands Institute with Kids

From Fossil, you have two good choices. You can drive for another hour south toward the Painted Hills, which are stunning; I recently wrote about the Painted Hills. Or you can drive a half-hour west  for an otherworldly hike at the Clarno Unit of John Day Fossil Beds, just 18 miles west of Fossil; giant rock outcroppings almost look like a sci-fi high-rise made of stone (those little holes/windows look they belong in alien condos, for sure). It’s a great place to picnic.

Clarno Unit with Kids

Clarno Unit with Kids

Heading north again, don’t miss a chance to creep through the Oregon ghost town Shaniko, where the town’s  remaining buildings are painted in almost-giddy colors. You can still get lunch or ice cream in town though — without scaring your wallet.

Shaniko Ghost Town with Kids

Shaniko Ghost Town

From here, it’s about a 90-minute drive to The Dalles. Eat at Burgerville, just for me. Drive back toward Portland along I-84, through the Columbia River Gorge.

Painted Hills (Oregon) with Kids: Photos & Tips

Painted Hills, Oregon

Painted Hills, Oregon: A national monument

The Painted Hills are one part (or “unit”) of a three-part Oregon national monument: The John Day Fossil Beds, located in Eastern Oregon. They’re all pretty cool, but I think this is my favorite.

Painted Hills, Oregon

Painted Hills, Oregon

Over millions of years, ancient Oregon volcanoes spewed ash that fell, then transformed into these breathtaking mounds of crimson, gold, and ebony claystone (bentonite). Lacy fossil leaves and metasequoia needles were found here — evidence of a once-damp, rainforest-like climate almost impossible to imagine today.

Painted Hills, Oregon

Painted Hills, Oregon

Smart travelers pack a camera — during spring, otherworldly parfait-like layers of color brighten after a rainstorm, and more than 22 varieties of vibrant flowers blossom in the hills and valleys. In the summer, the bright red hills almost seem to show off beneath brilliant blue skies.

Painted Hills Close Up

Close up of ground at Painted Hills

From a distance, the ground looks velvety, or like the playground surfacing now so popular. But it feels like hardened mud. Bentonite expands as it absorbs water, then cracks and breaks as it dries. Today, bentonite clay is used in kitty litter, among other things.

Painted Hills, Oregon with Kids

Walking the Painted Hills Cove Trail

 

Boardwalks weave around the bright red mounds for the gentle (but otherworldly) 1/4-mile Painted Cove hike that even a preschooler or baby-jogger stroller can manage. It’s very hot out here though, with few shady spots. Slather on the sunscreen before leaving the car, and if you decide to go on one of the non-paved, more strenuous hikes that cross the Painted Hills, then bring lots of water for everyone. A mile doesn’t sound far, but in 90-degree temperatures in midday sun, it feels like a slog.

A picnic area is available; pack a picnic, because there are not many food options are nearby, except for the nearby dead-end town of Mitchell, Oregon, nine miles from the Painted Hills. Half of the town’s buildings appear to be sinking into the earth, a ghost town in the making.

Mitchell, oregon

Mitchell, Oregon

 

We ate an unforgettable breakfast at the Little Pine Cafe. Three words: Ice cream pancakes. They were somehow both scary and awesome. The kids loved them (of course), and I liked the cafe’s decor. The service was fast and friendly, and the menu is stacked with classics like onion rings and burgers. It felt very old-school Oregon. We still talk about that cafe. See? Unforgettable.

Little Pine Cafe, Oregon

Little Pine Cafe, Oregon

If you want to find more great places to go this summer with kids, head to Delicious Baby’s Photo Friday.