(Photos by J. Maus/BikePortland)
This is the second in a series of four posts on riding in eastern Oregon with the support of Treo Bike Tours. Our journey began yesterday with a ride from Wasco to Condon highlighted by a stop at Cottonwood Canyon State Park.
At nearly 280 miles, the John Day River is one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the United States. On Saturday our group explored about 30 miles of the river’s gorgeous valleys and bends while its secrets and charms unfolded all around us.
Our journey began 36 miles north of the river in the historic town of Hardman. A former freight stop for wagon caravans in the 1800s that boasted several hundred residents at its peak, Hardman now has less than a dozen.
After being dropped off by the Treo Bike Tours shuttle bus, we headed south on the Heppner-Spray Highway (207). The cool and shadowy canyons of the Umatilla Forest were a stark contrast to the unrelenting heat of the wheat fields of Wasco we were dropped into the day before.
After a spirited descent through the forest, a few of the riders in the group opted for a longcut onto Kahler Basin Road. It was a planned detour off the highway that took us through canyons and meadows right out of a western movie.
We emerged back onto the highway at the sweet little town of Spray (pop. 160) and then met back up with the other riders — and drinks and snacks awaiting in the Treo shuttle bus — a few miles east. We got back on our bikes and onto the “Journey Through Time” scenic byway. For the next 30 miles we would pedal alongside the John Day River in awe of its vastness and unspoiled beauty.
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a major attraction in these parts and our 65-mile route would culminate smack dab in the middle of it. Since the 1860s, thanks to a frontier minister named Thomas Condon, scientists have been pulling fossils out of these valleys. Some of them date to 55 million years ago when the dry parched brush we saw on Saturday was a lush rainforest teaming with large plants and animals.
Our ride ended in the parking lot of the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, a gleaming museum and active research center that rises on the side of the highway just opposite a famous canyon known Sheep Rock. Our host, Treo Bike Tours, had arranged for us to visit the museum to get a better sense of what we just rode through. Educational opportunities are a new feature of Treo owner Phil Carlson’s trips. Instead of simply bicycling, Carlson maps out routes that include experiences intended to give riders a deeper connection to the land, people, and culture of eastern Oregon.
After our lunch on the lawn of the historic Cant Ranch house, we watched scientists at work in the museum cleaning fossils of ancient horses and turtles. Then we wandered through the museum’s life-like dioramas that depicted different epochs of the valley.
With the sun still blaring, our next priority was to take a dip in the river. Satisfied and refreshed from lunch, we hopped aboard the Treo bus which took us back up to Kimberley and the Thomas Family Orchards. The drive back up the John Day Highway offered a chance to take in the views from the opposite direction and from the comforts of the bus.
The river access at Thomas Orchards in Kimberly was fantastic, and the fresh fruit and ripe cherries waiting for us when we got out were like icing on the cake.
Thanks for following along on day two of our eastern Oregon trip with Treo Bike Tours. Tomorrow we’ll venture north to the Columbia River Gorge with a stop along the Oregon Trail and a new agriculture museum in Boardman.