Difficulty II
Length 47 Miles
Flow Range 1500 - 12000 CFS
Flow Rate as of: 26 minutes ago 86.6 [CFS]
Reach Info Last Updated 06/04/2019 7:33 pm

River Description

The full run is a multiday trip through cattle country and farmland, but there are also isolated stretches through a scenic, high-desert canyon. The highlights are three class II rapids (described below) and some excellent Eastern Oregon desert scenery, which includes the same colorful geologic formations that make up the nearby Painted Hills of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Don't under estimate the rapids! The cost of a mistake on this remote river can be great.

Season: There are no dams on the river (but there are diversions for irrigation); flow is mostly dependent on snowmelt in the Blue and, to a lesser extent, Ochoco Mountains. The runoff generally peaks in April and May. Flow can drop to less than 1,000 cfs by July. It should be noted that bass fishers flock to the river in May and into June.

Regs/Permits/Etc.: Check the Prineville BLM website for current requirements.  As of 2011 the BLM has implemented a permit system with limits on the number of daily launches.

Directions to the Putin: If approaching from the north, take Oregon Highway 19 to Fossil. Continue south 19 miles and turn right (just past the Service Creek Trading Post) onto Oregon Highway 207. Continue 0.3 of a mile to the launch at the Donnelly Service Creek River Access Park. If approaching from the west, from Mitchell drive north on Oregon Highway 207 for 25 miles. The launch is just beyond the bridge over the John Day.

Directions to the Takeout: From Fossil, drive west on Oregon Highway 218 for 19 miles. The Clarno take-out is on the right (downstream side) of the bridge on the east bank. If youÂre coming from the west and are planning to leave a shuttle vehicle at the take-out on the way in, approach Clarno via Highway 218 from Antelope.

Alternatives: An Alternate putin is Muleshoe Recreation Area about two-and-a-half miles upstream from Service Creek. A day trip can be made from Service Creek to Twickenham Bridge (120.16562W 44.73665N). The highlight is Shoofly/Russo Rapid. Access Twickenham from the south by Girds Creek Road from Oregon Highway 207 13.9 miles west of Service Creek, or access Twickenham from the north via Rowe Creek Road from Oregon Highway 19 ten miles northwest of Service Creek. The BLM has made some improvements in recent years (including adding a vault toilet) to this access point. Access is also available farther downstream between river mile 137 and 138 at Priest Hole (120.27082W 44.73909N). To reach Priest Hole drive west from the Twickenham Bridge for eight miles on South Twickenham Road. This road becomes rugged and the last couple of miles aren't recommened for cars. A new access point, Lower Burnt Ranch, near river mile 131. The ramp is steep and the approach is not recommended for cars.   

The Rapids

All are class II.

Shoofly/Russo Rapid (120.09089W 44.76267N) is just above river mile 150 as the river turns to the left. Land at the top of the turn on the right if you're going to scout. There are some standing waves and holes toward left; but most of it could be avoided by holding right. The current goes into the cliff near the bottom at left. There can be a small, but nice, wave train along the bottom at the cliff if the flow is right.

Fossil Rapid (120.2508W 44.74783N) is just above river mile 132. It's a short drop that can be rocky. The current goes headlong into a cliff at bottom right.

Burnt Ranch Rapid (120.35569W 44.74133N) is above river mile 132. The river takes a hard left and then turns right after the rapid begins. Land on the sandy beach on the left to scout. For a straight line through the rapid, set up close to the large rock near river center at the rapid's top. (Canoe's that take a line just to the left of the rock seem to take on less water.)  

Books: At least two guides describe the run in some detail: Soggy Sneakers, A Guide to Oregon Rivers, Willamette Kayak & Canoe Club (ISBN 0-89886-330-9), and Oregon River Tours, John Garren (ISBN 0-941887-01-4). Soggy Sneakers, is geared toward kayakers and canoeists. Garren's book contains a river log (logged in a raft). A book that is hard to find, John Day River Drift and Historical Guide, by Arthur Campbell (ISBN 0-936608-11-0), is dated but contains a log and much history.

NOTE: The coordinates used on this page were field verified in 2002 with a 12-channel Garmin e-Trex.

Rapid Descriptions


Gage Descriptions

Recommended level varies with source. Window of agreement is about 1500 to 8000 cfs. Some run it as low as 1000, but it will be very rocky; some run up to bank-full at about 12,000 cfs.

Directions Description

We have no additional detail on this route. Use the map below to calculate how to arrive to the main town from your zipcode.

Date Flow Result Factor  
2001-07-14 n/a Fatality Other Read More



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Oregon Wilderness and Wild Scenic Bills Re-Introduced

Thomas O'Keefe

Earlier today, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) re-introduced a set of wilderness bill including the Oregon Treasures Act, legislation that would protect the Chetco River, Molalla River, Rogue River, and Horse Heaven and Cathedral Rock sections along the John Day River.

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Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven Wilderness on the John Day

Megan Hooker

In 2011, Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkely reintroduced legislation to create the Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven Wilderness Areas in Eastern Oregon. If passed, the legislation would protect almost 18,000 acres as wilderness near the John Day River, including four miles along the river. This week, American Whitewater sent a letter of thanks to Wyden and Merkely for their efforts to protect the area. 


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New Permit System for John Day now online (OR)

Thomas O'Keefe

A new online reservation system is now in place for permits to boat the John Day River. Capacity limits have now been established for the Service Creek to Clarno segment and Clarno to Cottonwood segment. The permits are being released on a first-come first-serve basis and are being released in two batches (Mar 1 and May 1).

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John Day River Found Navigable! (OR)

Thomas O'Keefe

Earlier this week the Oregon State Land Board declared the John Day River a state-owned navigable waterway. While this is good news for recreational users, it could add new fuel to efforts to pass a statewide solution to navigabiliity that could turn out to be a bad deal for all who use Oregon's rivers.
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Oregon Moves Forward with New Navigability Study

Jason Robertson

American Whitewater has learned that Oregon is moving forward on determining whether the John Day River is navigable. The timing of this announcement is important as it comes on the heels of an effort by a handful of legislators to do an end run on the navigability issue under Senate Bill 293, and on the heels of the successful navigability determination on the Sandy.

Kent Johnson


Kent Johnson


Thomas O'Keefe


Revision #Revision DateAuthorComment
1198114 09/01/10 Kent Johnson Updated
1191312 06/10/02 Kent Johnson n/a
1199351 02/27/11 Thomas O'Keefe copy edit
1199107 01/09/11 Thomas O'Keefe permit
1199110 01/09/11 Thomas O'Keefe permit
1199109 01/09/11 Thomas O'Keefe permit
1198796 11/28/10 Kent Johnson
1198799 11/28/10 Kent Johnson
1202983 01/03/14 Thomas O'Keefe permit edits
1212669 06/04/19 Thomas O'Keefe updated image position