Thursday, May 19, 2011

Scenic Byways

"Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything." - Charles Kuralt

There is something to be said for traveling the back roads and seeing all the things the interstate passes by. The best part is all the wildlife, which is quite abundant on the quiet stretches of highway in Eastern Oregon. You can drive for miles without even passing another car. Fast food restaurants are a foreign entity. This is, in all aspects, truly getting away from it all.

As we were preparing to leave the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, a huge dilemma needed to be solved. Where do we go now? Do we head towards home, traveling a route we have never been before? Do we keep heading east, and just see where the road takes us? Much like trying to decide what to have for dinner, my husband and I were both a bit wishy washy and couldn’t come to an agreement. We just kept looking at each other saying “What do you want to do?” neither one wanting to be completely responsible for the decision.

Lucky for us, there was an information desk, staffed with a friendly-looking volunteer. We both walked up, studying the glass encased map on the desk, and asked the volunteer what we should see next.

“Have you been to the Painted Hills Unit?”

“Yup, first thing this morning.”

Sage and I returning from out hike at The Painted Hills
“Have you driven The Loop?”

“Yup, just got finished. That is how we got here.”

Along the John Day River
“Have you been over to the Cant Ranch?”

“Yes, that’s where we had lunch.”

Cant Ranch with Sheep Rock in the background.
At this point, looking a little flustered, she called over the Park Ranger on Duty. He walked over smiling and eager to help. We tried to explain our problem. We had an RV with an almost-full tank of gas. Eventually, we would need to head back to the Portland area, but as we both have an all-encompassing photography habit, we were looking for other things to see while on this side of the mountains.

Jon and his camera

“Is there anything to see between here and John Day?” we asked.

“No, just a bunch of ranches. Not really very scenic.”

At this point, he gave us a suggested route north to I-84 and said there was a great wind farm along the way. In fact, he sounded very enthusiastic about the windmills. Oh, and you could see several Cascades peaks along the way, on a clear day. We thanked him for his help, and went back out to the RV, still unsure of what we would do. Windmills didn’t seem entirely exciting to either of us. It was fairly overcast and we weren’t sure it would be clear enough to actually see all the mountains. Besides, neither one of us were completely ready to start heading west again. At least that we could agree to.

By chance, I had picked up an Oregon Scenic Byways brochure in the lobby of the museum, thinking it might be helpful in planning a future trip. I started thumbing through the magazine, mostly out of frustration because we were burning daylight, and when you are a photographer, there is no more precious commodity. Then the answer was staring me right in the face, a map of the “Journey Through Time” scenic byway, of which, between this trip and our previous visit to the area, we had driven almost half of already. Could we finish it today? It went all the way through John Day and up to Baker City. Could we finish it before dark today? Let’s give it a try. Neither one of us had any better ideas, and this seemed to be doable.

We drove through more ranch country (and yes, a half million more cows were present) to John Day, the Strawberry Mountains appearing in the background. Even though the ranger had warned us this area wasn’t very scenic, we all thought it was beautiful, mostly because it was so different from what we see every day at home. I guess when you see nothing but old barns and cattle every day, it does get a little old and you lose appreciation of what you are viewing. Much like Portlanders when the sun is out for weeks at a time and you see Mt. Hood every day, you forget what a wonder it is. (Yes, sunny days on end do happen in Portland. I vaguely remember it from last summer. Or was it the year before?)

Strawberry Mountain

Odessa posing next to a wagon wheel.
From John Day, we started the climb up into the Blue Mountains, which are still covered in a good amount of snow. After we descended into the valley below, we made a stop in the town of Sumpter, where we found the pot of gold, minus the rainbow. 

Where is the rainbow??
We made it to Baker City (and the official end of the scenic byway), and were faced once again with the familiar “Now What?” scenario. It was time to fill the gas tank and decide what to do next, the logical choice probably being to find a RV park to camp for the night and head home in the morning. However, no one has ever accused us of being logical people.

“We are only about 68 miles from Hell’s Canyon. The GPS says it only takes an hour and a half to get there. Wanna go for it?” the husband says after returning from paying for gas. Surely someone planted this thought in his head.

“Sure, let’s go for it. You think there is somewhere to camp up there for the night? There is still a lot of snow up in the mountains.” I replied.

“Oh, I am sure there is. Let’s do it!”

“Okay, let’s go.”

Jon drove like a man on a mission. We are going to make it to Hell’s Canyon, well, come hell or high water. There would be minimal stops. We had to make our destination. Though, we did stop to get a few pictures of the sun setting behind the mountains. Other than that, it was Hell’s Canyon or Bust.

Sunset on the mountains

One thing to remember: GPS lies. I don’t know what kind of algorithm they use to calculate driving time, but by my account, it took us a lot more than an hour and a half to finally drive to the “recreation area”, where mercifully, there was a campground. By this point, the whining from the children (yes, just the children) had begun from the seats of the dinette, coloring books no longer entertaining them, and starvation setting in, much like the pioneers before us.

It was pitch dark. I knew there was a river nearby just because I could hear it. Well, that, and I saw a sign pointing to a boat launch. To be honest, other than that, I had little to no idea where exactly we were except that Idaho might be across that river I heard, and we had to be at least close to Hell’s Canyon. In fact, I hadn’t even realized that we had passed into the Mountain Time zone until we turned on the TV and Saturday Night Live was on, at 9:30. It’s official, we were in the Twilight Zone. Or, we were still on Pacific Time, the TV station was from Idaho and on Mountain Time, where everything comes on an hour earlier in their world.

We turned the TV off, not really wanting to watch anything, having had turned it on just because we were curious if we could get any kind of signal there, and turned in for the night. With the way today had turned out, and having to eventually head for home tomorrow, we were all looking forward to the next phase of our adventure.
Note: The Scenic Byways Driving Guide is an excellent resource. I am already planning a couple of other adventures based on this FREE resource. You can request your own copy from ODOT or view it on the ODOT website and save a tree.

Our route on Saturday. That's a lot of miles!
Map courtesy of ODOT

Driving the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway:

Below are some great websites for planning your own adventure on the scenic byway:


  1. Another great post. I love how you guys leave yourselves open to a little serendipity and let things happen, which can be really amazing.

  2. Sounds like so much fun!

  3. thanks for letting me travel with you again :*)