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Oregon's US 26 between OR 7 and OR 19

 


The 66 miles of US 26 between OR 7 in Austin Junction, Oregon and OR 19 at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is extremely scenic. It can be a quiet drive as well, as the highway goes through some of the quieter parts of Oregon. In this case, US 26 works its way across Grant County in eastern Oregon. Also part of the John Day Highway (State Highway No. 5 in the inventory of the Oregon Department of Transportation) and the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway, US 26 passes by striking vistas of the nearby Strawberry Mountains and follows the John Day River for much of this stretch of highway towards the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The John Day River is the longest free-flowing river in Oregon, known for its steelhead and smallmouth bass fishing as well as rafting in this arid climate, so it is welcome sight for travelers along US 26.

US 26 does go through a few towns along the way. Most notable is John Day, once known for cattle drives that made their way down the main street. While the cattle now make their way from Point A to Point B through other methods, you can learn about a different part of John Day's history by visiting the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site, which was an apothecary, general store and community center for Chinese immigrants who came to John Day for work. The highway passes by a few more small towns along the way, namely Prairie City, Mount Vernon and Dayville. The highway began its life as part of the old The Dalles-Boise Military Road, which had its start in the 1860s as a means to build roads across Oregon for military use along with plans of selling land grants. As the U.S. Highway system came about in 1926, the highway became known as US 28, until when US 26 was routed over the highway in 1952, which it has been ever since.

Let's take a scenic drive along US 26. I had a glorious late October day in which to explore the road. I think you'll like what you'll see...

Turning west onto US 26 from OR 7 in Austin Junction, the first place you'll pass by is the Austin House. The Austin House was built and opened in 1959 as a café and store for travelers passing through the area. The State of Oregon had recently completed construction on OR 7 through to its junction with US 26 around the time the restaurant was opened. The United States Forest Service issued a "Special Use Permit", which enabled the business to be built and established within the boundary of the Malheur National Forest.


It was a little icy on the road that morning.

But even while the highway had not yet defrosted for the day, the scenery and the surrounding trees were simply remarkable. 

Dixie Pass Summit, at an elevation of 5277 feet above sea level. I believe this is the highest elevation for US 26 in Oregon. Even the town of Government Camp at the base of Mount Hood isn't even this high up in elevation. This was also the highest point for the original Sumpter Valley Railroad, and there is an interpretive trail for the old railroad located near this pass.


West of the Dixie Pass, the highway becomes less icy. There is also an old alignment of US 26 in the valley below to the left of this photo.

The Strawberry Mountains have come into view. The mountain range contains some of the highest mountains in the Blue Mountains of Oregon, and the highest peak is Strawberry Mountain at 9.038 feet above sea level. 

The Strawberry Mountains have a commanding cross-section of the landscape ahead. US 26 sticks to the valley floor and generally follows the John Day River on the way to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

There is a pull-off on the way down the hill where you can get out of your car, stretch your legs and admire the surrounding scenery.



There's also an information kiosk at the pull-off shaped like a covered wago.

While you may find this area lacking in people, you will certainly find cattle grazing.

Back on the road as we descend towards the valley of the John Day River.

The Strawberry Mountains really set a scenic backdrop for US 26 from here all the way to Prairie City.



Into the valley...

Prairie City is situated at the upper end of the John Day Valley, sitting on the edge of a vast grassland, surrounded by the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness on one side and layers of ancient lava rock on the other.

Prairie City grew out of the former mining camp of Dixie, which was situated a short distance up Dixie Creek. Prairie City was the western terminus of the Sumpter Valley Railroad, which extended over Dixie Summit and then to Baker City. The railroad had passenger train service until 1937 and, freight service until 1947, when the line was abandoned. Prairie City boasts a number of historic stone buildings and the Dewitt Museum in the former Railroad Depot.

Leaving Prairie City, you come across old barns and lots of pastureland along US 26.

Plus the Strawberry Mountains are in view again.

US 26 crosses Indian Creek.



Approaching John Day, the largest town in Grant County, Oregon.

Although the population of John Day is small, it is a metropolis by Grant County standards. The town of John Day and the John Day River were named after a man from Virginia by the name of John Day who was employed by the Pacific Fur Company that founded Astoria, Oregon.

US 395 is approaching from the south, and you can take US 395 to reach the county seat of Grant County at Canyon City, or go further south to Burns in Harney County, Oregon, the state of California or the metropolitan area of Reno, Nevada.

US 26's junction with US 395 in John Day.

The Kam Wah Chung and Company was a Chinese-owned grocery, dry goods store, and clinic in John Day's Chinatown. Built as a trading post along The Dalles Military Road in about 1866-1867, the store also provided a gathering place for the Chinese community. Established in 1871 as a contractor of Chinese labor, The Kam Wah Chung and Company operated during the height of Grant County’s influx of Chinese miners and laborers between 1870-1910. It is now home of the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site, which offers an interpretive center and museum tours on a seasonal basis throughout the year. You can learn more about Kam Wah Chung by watching a documentary produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting.

US 26 and US 395 run concurrently between John Day and Mount Vernon.

Mount Vernon, Oregon. The town was named after a black stallion that was owned by an early settler as opposed to George Washington's home in northern Virginia. US 395 splits off to the north on its way to Pendleton, the Tri-Cities of Washington State and Spokane.

US 26 westbound continues along the John Day River Valley towards Dayville.

The Strawberry Mountains are ahead, or perhaps these are the Ochoco Mountains that US 26 encounters further to the west. Upon further review, this may be the Aldrich Mountains in front of us.

US 26 crosses the John Day River.

The occasional farm lines the highway.

The terrain looks perfect for grazing, which I believe is the main contributor to agriculture in this semi-arid landscape.

Plus you'll see the occasional barn as well.

Still journeying through time on the US 26 portion of the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway.

One thing I really enjoyed about taking this stretch of road was the endless scenery. The views are certainly scenic along US 26 throughout Oregon.

Elk crossing.

A nice straightaway.

With a sweeping curve thrown in.

Entering Dayville, Oregon, the eastern gateway to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

Downtown Dayville.

Already past Dayville. I can start to see a few mesas in the distance.

The last pockets of farmland before the John Day Fossil Beds.

Mascall Overlook, which is part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The Mascall Formation came about around 15 million years ago following volcanic events that took place in this area.

US 26 crossing the Cottonwood Creek.

View of the Picture Gorge from the Mascall Overlook. Both US 26 and the John Day River make their way through the narrow Picture Gorge.

Starting to approach the mesas atop the Picture Gorge on US 26.

US 26 crosses the Rattlesnake Creek.

Entering the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and the Picture Gorge. The John Day River carved the deep, but short canyon of Picture Gorge through a faulted uplift of Columbia River basalt. 

The canyon we are about to enter is known as Picture Gorge for the Native American petroglyphs and pictographs found on its walls. I did not see any pictographs as I was passing through the gorge (I probably needed a better look), but it is an incredible drive through the canyon.

US 26 hugs the canyon walls of the Picture Gorge.


The John Day River is to our right.

US 26 comes to a junction with OR 19 up ahead.



And here ends this part of the journey. US 26 continues west along the Ochoco Highway towards Mitchell, the Painted Hills, Prineville, Portland and the Oregon Coast at Cannon Beach. If you take OR 19 north from here, you continue on through the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and along the John Day Highway section of the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway to the towns of Fossil and Spray, eventually ending the route at I-84 in Arlington, Oregon.


How to Get There:



Sources and Links:
Northwest Travel and Life - Hit the Road in Eastern Oregon
Travel Oregon - 7 Wonders Road Trip: Bend to John Day
Travel Oregon - Journey Through Time Scenic Byway
TripCheck - Journey Through Time Scenic Byway
Oregon Historic and Scenic Highway Program - Description of Historic and Scenic Highways
ORoads - US Route 28

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