Between 1900 and 1911, the central Oregon town of Shaniko was the largest wool-shipping center in the country, and it claims to have been the site of the last range war between cattle ranchers and sheepherders. However, when the railroad line from the Columbia River down to Bend bypassed Shaniko, the town fell on hard times. Eventually, when a flood washed out the railroad spur into town, Shaniko nearly ceased to exist. Today the false-fronted buildings and wooden sidewalks make this Oregon's favorite and liveliest ghost town. Antiques shops and a historic hotel make for a fun excursion or overnight getaway.
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, 32651 Ore. 19, Kimberly, OR 97848 (tel. 541/987-2333; www.nps.gov/joda), consisting of three individual units separated by as much as 85 miles, preserves a 40-million-year fossil record indicating that this region was once a tropical or subtropical forest. From tiny seeds to extinct relatives of rhinoceroses and elephants, an amazing array of plants and animals has been preserved in one of the world's most extensive and unbroken fossil records.
To see fossil leaves, twigs, branches, and nuts in their natural state, visit the Clarno Unit (tel. 541/763-2203), 23 miles southeast of Shaniko and U.S. 97. Here ancient mudflows inundated a forest, and today these ancient mudflows appear as eroding cliffs. At the base of these cliffs, a .25-mile trail leads past numerous fossils. From the Clarno Unit, it is an 85-mile drive on Ore. 218 and Ore. 19 to the national monument's Sheep Rock Unit, which is the site of the monument's Thomas Condon Paleontology Center and the James Cant Ranch House historical museum. Here you can get a close-up look at numerous fossils and sometimes watch a paleontologist at work. In summer the paleontology center is open daily from 9am to 5:30pm; spring and fall, it's open daily from 9am to 5pm, and in winter it's open daily from 9am to 4pm (closed holidays Thanksgiving to Presidents' Day). The James Cant Ranch House museum is open Monday through Thursday from 9am to 4pm. Just north of the visitor center you'll pass Blue Basin, where there's an interpretive trail.
From the Sheep Rock Unit, the monument's Painted Hills Unit (tel. 541/462-3961), along the John Day River 9 miles northwest of Mitchell, is another 30 miles west on U.S. 26. You won't see any fossils here, but you will see strikingly colored rounded hills that are favorites of photographers. The weathering of volcanic ash under different climatic conditions created the bands of color on these hills.
Although you can't collect fossils in the national monument, you can dig them up behind Wheeler High School in the small town of Fossil, 20 miles east of the monument's Clarno Unit. If you want to turn a visit to the John Day Fossil Beds into a learning vacation, check out the classes, workshops, field trips, and multiday adventure trips of the Oregon Paleo Lands Institute, 333 W. Fourth St., Fossil (tel. 541/763-4480; www.paleolands.org). The institute's Field Center also has museum exhibits on geology and paleontology. Call for hours. Eleven miles north of Madras, off U.S. 97, you can also dig thundereggs (geodes) at Richardson's Rock Ranch, 6683 NE Hay Creek Road, Metolius (tel. 541/475-2680; www.richardsonrockranch.com). They charge by the pound and will cut your thundereggs for you.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.