Oregon Hwy 26 is one of Oregon’s most picturesque drives. As it winds west to east across the center of the state, it winds through deep gorges, crosses ancient volcanic mountain ranges and steep river valleys. Between these harsh, but beautiful vistas are lush fields with grazing cattle and small towns, each with its own unique personality.
When we were still working and had limited time for vacations, we often left home in the evening of the last day of work so we could feel like we were on vacation. If we waited until the next morning, it would always take too much time to do all of the last minute packing and it would seem like the first day of vacation was half over before it started. When we retired we continued this practice of starting our trips in the evening.
We make the trip from Redmond to Montana every year so we try to find new routes to take. There are few paved roads across Oregon so it is a challenge . This year, because of the heat we wanted to get to the cool of the mountains for our campsites as soon as possible. Oregon Hwy 26 over the Ochoco Divide and then north on Hwy 7 looked like the perfect solution.
The travel time from Redmond to the Ochoco Divide is a perfect distance for the afternoon drive from Redmond to a campground for the night. We have described the Ochoco Divide Campground in a previous post.
The drive from Ochoco Divide to Hwy 7 and then Baker City is a fascinating tour through Oregon’s geology. The landscape has been shaped by plate tectonics and millions of years of volcanic activity. Colorful rock formations at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument preserve a record of plant and animal evolution, changing climate, and past ecosystems that span over 40 million years.
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is composed of 3 separate units. Two of them are along Hwy 26, Painted Hills Unit and Sheep Rock Unit. We did not have the time to stop at the Painted Hills Unit on this trip, but we did visit the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center at the Sheep Rock Unit just a mile north on Hwy 19 for an hour and could have spent the whole day there. It is a museum dedicated to the Cenozoic Period or the Age of Mammals. Fossils from all three units of the park, as well as those from other federal lands in the area, are on display for visitors to see up close.
Back on Hwy 26 we came to Picture Gorge which was formed slowly 16 million years ago by repeated layers of lava flow 17 times with approximately 8,000 years between each flow. The river slowly cut down through the layers and cut the steep gorge.
After Picture Gorge the highway opens onto rich valleys with towns and farmland before heading back up into mountains of Malheur National Forest. At the junction of Hwy 26 and Hwy 7 we headed north on Hwy 7 to avoid a wildfire to the east. Hwy 7 took us past Bates State Park and Sumpter, OR to Phillips Lake where we spent the night at Union Creek Forest Service Campground. It is one of the largest forest service campground in Eastern Oregon. It is nestled on the northern shore of Phillips Reservoir in a mature Ponderosa pine grove. We will talk about that campground in another blog post.
If you are visiting the Northwest don’t miss the drive across Oregon on Hwy 26. It is one of the more scenic drives you can take off the turnpike. Be sure to allow time to dawdle though. Google says it can be done in 3 hours and 40 minutes, but you will want to take at least 2 or 3 days to be able to stop and visits places along the way.