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Fossil, Oregon

Named for its treasures underground, Fossil, Ore., is worth a stop for budding paleontologists and hungry travelers.

Fossil digging behind the high school in Fossil, Ore., image
Photo caption
Behind Wheeler High School, members of the Estenson family dig for ancient treasures.

Signs warn drivers to watch out for crossing quail, but strutting birds aren’t Fossil’s only distractions. Set in the colorful foothills of the Cascades east of Mount Hood, the town lies on the 286-mile Journey Through Time Scenic Byway and offers good reason to stop. Under it lies a trove of fossilized flora and fauna. Area code is 541.

  • Thirty-three million years ago, the rocky beds behind Wheeler High School were at the bottom of a shallow lake. From May 1 through the end of October, visitors pay $5 to dig for fossils, including needles, leaves, and branches of ancient trees, and the occasional salamander. Amateur paleontologists get to keep as many fossil finds as they can carry in two hands. 763-4303,
  • The new Oregon Paleo Lands Institute Field Center brings Oregon’s past to life with exhibits such as a 12-foot replica skeleton of a plesiosaur, the “tiger of the Cretaceous seas.” The center also leads outings to the sagebrush deserts and multihued geologic features of the nearby 14,000-acre John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. 763-4480,
  • Fifth-generation ranchers run Wilson Ranches Retreat Bed & Breakfast, where the rooms are clean and cool and the beds covered in rustic quilts. The ever-changing breakfast might include spiced cider, maple bars, eggs, and bacon—or ham, sausage, or steak—and should keep you full past lunchtime. 763-2227,
  • Big Timber Family Restaurant serves rich and bracing chili, berry pies, and huge breakfast platters graced with a choice of breads that includes fresh hazelnut loaves. 763-4328.
  • Housed in a worn, regal brick building, Fossil General Mercantile dates to 1883. In addition to selling groceries and hardware, it displays such treasures as vintage quilts and an antique cash register. 763-4617.

Photography by Don Frank

This article was first published in September 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.