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Painted Hills

Journey Through Time

Written by Oregon Media

Journey Through Time

A rich and fascinating history runs through this land

From the experiences of the settlers on the Oregon Trail to the rich cultural legacy of many Native American tribes, Eastern Oregon is alive with history. Dozens of museums, interpretive centers, highway markers and heritage sites dot the landscape. Learn more about ranching, agriculture, geology, timber, rodeo, mining and natural history at some of these stops.

Rock of Ages

36 million years ago, the Eastern Oregon landscape was lush and tropical, roamed by mastadons, camels and saber-toothed tigers. Visit the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center near Dayville to learn more. A million years later, a series of volcanic eruptions and flooding laid down ash and soil to create the colorful layers of the Painted Hills. Visit the hills to hike, sightsee and capture amazing photos. Sometime after that, deciduous trees dropped their leaves and branches into a lake near Fossil, which is where you can find those very things today. In the 1860s, Thomas Condon began excavating fossils in the John Day Basin. His work paved the way for the establishment of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Visit each of the monument’s three units: Sheep Rock, Painted Hills and Clarno.

Native Legacy

Long before settlers of European descent arrived, tribes such as the Northern Pauite, Shoshone, Wasco-Wishram, Walla Walla and Bannock populated Eastern Oregon. Visit Tamástslikt Cultural Institute in Pendleton or Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario to explore historic native culture. Just north of Wallowa Lake near Joseph, visit the burial site of Old Chief Joseph, the father of Chief Joseph, the leader of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce Tribe.

Explorers and Settlers

John Day passed by where the mouth of the Mah-hah River meets the Columbia in 1812, en route to the new Pacific Fur Company post in Astoria. Today, the John Day River, popular for fishing, rafting and recreation, bears his name. Immigrants began arriving via the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, some of whom ceased their journey and made Eastern Oregon home. Search for wagon ruts near the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City. Eastern Oregon’s Chinese community is interpreted at Kam Wah Chung Company, which became an important social, medical and religious center in the 1880s in John Day. Ing “Doc” Hay, a Chinese herbalist, established Kam Wah Chung, today a museum and time capsule of the historic Chinese market.

Gold and Timber

Gold was discovered in Sumpter in 1862! Three gold dredges were put into service between 1912 and 1934—one remains today as the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area. Gold brought wealth, and the creation of places like Baker City’s Geiser Grand Hotel, described as the finest hotel between Portland, Oregon and Salt Lake City, Utah. Don’t miss a chance to stay in this beautiful historic hotel, extensively restored to grandeur and reopened in 1993. The timber boom lasted longer than the gold rush. The Sumpter Valley Railroad was built to transport logs to the sawmill in Baker City, and today, tours run for visitors from Memorial Day through September.

Cowboy Culture

Cattle needed rounding up, and cowboys were up to task. To celebrate the western lifestyle, the first Pendleton Round-Up sprang to life in 1910, bringing European and indigenous people together in a shared history. Today the rodeo brings 50,000 people to Pendleton for a full week each September. Catch a rodeo somewhere in Eastern Oregon between May and September. Not rodeo season? Each county has at least one heritage museum, interpreting the history of the region.