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Head East to Go West

Road trip to charming Prairie City
Painted Hills unit, John Day Fossil Beds. Photo by Camilla Mortensen.
Painted Hills unit, John Day Fossil Beds. Photo by Camilla Mortensen.

“For their anniversary I got my parents a room for a couple nights at the hotel in Prairie City,” my friend James told me last summer. I thought he was kidding. “Oh, so they are going to stay at the ‘Little Hotel on the Prairie’?” I joked.

Prairie City is a town of 1,100, and it really is on a prairie, about 17 miles outside of John Day, Ore., a short drive from the scenic Strawberry Mountains and about a six-hour drive from Eugene. It’s one of those drives that has grown rare these days — where you can go for long stretches with no cell phone reception. 

It turns out that the joke was on me. The more than 100-year-old nine-room Hotel Prairie is cozy and sweet with all the amenities — from wireless access to a masseuse. It sits in downtown Prairie City with two coffee shops and an antique store nearby. 

Getting to Prairie City is half the fun for those of us who like a good road trip. From Eugene head out Hwy. 126. On the way out, I like to go the old McKenzie Pass route (only open for a couple months in the summer) and stop at Proxy Falls and the Dee Wright Observatory along the way. On the way back I stick to the Santiam Pass so I can stop at Sahalie Falls and the less known but equally dramatic Koosah Falls just down the road for photos and to gape at the thundering water. 

Eastern and Central Oregon have a far more “Western” feel than Eugene’s wet and rainy west side of the Cascades. In the summer it’s hot and dry, but if you go after October, be prepared for snow along the route.

Sisters isn’t quite the halfway point, but its convenient downtown public bathroom, the kombucha on tap and gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian treats at Angeline’s Bakery and Café are worth a stop. The meat-atarians among you will easily find burgers and such while wandering down the main drag through town and enjoying Sisters’ hokey but adorable Western theme. 

Next is Redmond, and my inner child is always filled with glee to see the reindeer grazing at Reindeer Ranch/Operation Santa Claus just off the road. Route 26 then takes you to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument where the Painted Hills Unit never ceases to amaze. A dirt road on the left off the highway seems to lead out to nothing but desolate ranches and past irrigated fields, but drive past the clearly marked turn-off and the visitors center, and suddenly the hills come alive with hues of bright reds, oranges and even whites and greens so vivid that any idiot with an iPhone can take a gorgeous photo.

The rest of the spread-out John Day Fossil Bed units (Clarno and Sheep Rock) are worth a stop too, either on your way to Prairie City or your way back in. Despite the dirt roads, the units are all drivable in good weather, but it’s a heck of a drive to do all three. When the federal government gets funded again, the National Park Service, which runs the monument, has good directions and distance estimates on its website.

A less well-known pit stop is the Mascall Formation Overlook on the right-hand side of Route 26. It’s basically a parking lot (with a bathroom and recycling) and a short walk to a fantastic overlook with views of the John Day Valley and Picture Gorge. I usually throw a couple stops in along the way to Prairie City, sometimes just to smell the pungent juniper that never fails to put me in the mood for a sip of Oregon-made Crater Lake Gin, made with wild juniper berries.

By the time you hit Prairie City, your aesthetic sense might be sated, but the town bills itself as the “Gateway to Strawberry Wilderness,” where hikes, waterfalls, bald eagles and bighorn sheep await. Or you can just do what I did after the long drive — sit by a river with a book in one hand and gin and tonic in the other.

For info on Prairie City, Hotel Prairie and other nearby bed and breakfasts, go to www.prairiecityoregon.com.