Difficulty II-III
Length Miles
Flow Range 1200 - 6000 CFS
Flow Rate as of: 1 hour ago 86.6 [CFS]
Reach Info Last Updated 01/05/2020 5:38 pm

River Description

The John Day is one of the great river trips of the West which takes you down one of our nation's longest undammed rivers. Designated a Wild and Scenic River the 70 mile section from Clarno to Cottonwood passes through remote canyon country with great camping and spectacular scenic vistas. This section is closed to jet boat use at all times (areas upstream and downstream are open to jet boats from October to April). Good weather and dependable flows make May and June the most popular time to float the river. Lower flows, hot weather, and canyon winds tend to keep folks away in summer but you can still get down the river in an inflatable kayak or canoe.

The river has less challenging rapids than nearby rivers like the Deschutes or Grande Ronde but the spectacular scenery makes this a great river trip with opportunities for hiking and exploring the canyons. Two named rapids are Clarno Rapid and Basalt Rapids. Clarno is 5 miles from the put-in and rates class III/IV with some big waves and a hole to avoid at high flows and rocks to navigate at lower flows. As long as you are paying attention, the rapid is easy to scout from river left. Marking the entrance to the canyons where you leave the ranch land, Basalt Rapids is class II. Most of the ranch country comes in the first few miles but there are parcels of private land along the length of the river.

The river is popular for fishing with the largest populations of wild spring chinook salmon and summer steelhead remaining in the Columbia River system. Smallmouth bass and channel catfish are non-native but support a vibrant fishery in the lower river.

Logistics: It's a good idea to bring plenty of water on the trip. The river water contains suspended sediment, algae, bacteria, and agricultural chemicals but there are a few springs along the way.Group size is limited to 16 people. Fire pans are required and no fires of any kind are allowed from June 1 to October 1. You will also need a toilet system to carry out your waste. Permits are required and must be obtained in advance for the primary boating season of May 20–July 10.  Trips outside the primary season may obtain permits at the launch site. Check out the BLM John Day web page for information on this run including current regulations. The BLM also publishes the John Day Recreation Guide which has detailed river maps. These maps are helpful as they clearly note public lands including the Wilderness Study Areas that provide the highest quality opportunities for off-river hikes and exploration.

Rapid Descriptions

Upper Clarno

Class - III Mile - -104.8

Clarno Rapid starts with an upper section followed by the slightly more challenging lower section. Even at high flows you can eddy out between the two sections.

Lower Clarno

Class - IV Mile - -104.5

The lower section of Clarno Rapid is the most challenging drop on the run. At high flows you can find a clean line between a good-sized hole on the left and the big wave train down the middle. At lower flows you will need to thread your way through the rocks. It's easy to scout from river left.

Basalt Rapids

Class - II+ Mile - -92.9

There is a straightforward line down the middle or you can sneak to the left between a large boulder and the left bank.


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john a shultz
3 years ago

This is a great stretch of canyon: a true gem. We ran it between 2500-3000k, second week of June, 2017 over five days. Great current at that level and fish were still caught. There were some rough upstream breezes on most days, especially later in the afternoon. Everyone says that you can't drink the water and that you have to bring all of it. Not true. With alum crystal settling techniques (like they use in the Grand Canyon), a carbon filter on your water purification device, and a few drops of iodine, you are good to go. None of our 16 guys had any gut issues, and the water tasted fine. Hammocking can be done, but can be a bit challenging at a couple of camps. Enjoy!

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11 years ago

Ran this section the first week of June. The level was 3800 cfs which was a very nice level. The first day we had very strong upriver winds all day but the rest of the trip we only had intermittent winds mostly late in the day. One day after pulling into camp we ended up getting about three hours of moderate rain, we were sitting under the canopy enjoying a cocktail and a 20 foot section of the columnar basalt on the opposite side of the river fell off the wall broke into three pieces and into the river. Wow! How often do you get to see that? Also observed many Big Horn Seep. This is a must do trip if you have done this one before. If your looking for white-water you will be disappointed. If your looking for an awesome five day scenery trip then the John Day is for you.

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12 years ago

This is a nice run @ 3700.

Gage Descriptions

The following are recommended minimum flow levels:

  • Drift boats- 800cfs
  • Inflatable rafts- 500cfs
  • Canoes- 300cfs
  • Inflatable kayaks- 200cfs

(Clarno Rapid (III-IV) can be unrunable at low water; scout left, portage on either side, line right. Canoeists floating at levels above 2,500 cfs should have whitewater experience and carry floatation bags.)

Directions Description

There are several shuttle services in the area. You can locate these by contacting the BLM or inquire locally in the town of Fossil where you can find a small grocery and general store for last minute provisions.

Date Flow Result Factor  
2018-05-26 n/a Fatality Cold Water Read More



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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 navigability Study Initiated (OR)

Jason Robertson

Oregon's Division of State Lands notified American Whitewater that they are initiating a formal navigability study on the John Day River from Tumwater Falls (approximately River Mile 10) to Kimberly (approximately River Mile 184).
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Wolf in Sheep's Clothing Bill Dies in Oregon

Jason Robertson

Shoofly Rapid

SB928, a bill that would have provided reduced access and more restrictions on use than a designation of legal navigability on <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Oregon's John Day River, was defeated this week. American Whitewater is one of dozens of organizations that expressed concern that the bill would harm access for our members, boaters, fishermen, and the public on this popular float river.


Thomas O'Keefe


Paul Martzen


Matt Muir


Revision #Revision DateAuthorComment
1202984 01/03/14 Thomas O'Keefe river permit edit
1214093 01/05/20 Thomas O'Keefe updated image position
1199352 02/27/11 Thomas O'Keefe copy edits
1199476 03/03/11 Thomas O'Keefe copy edits
1199477 03/03/11 Thomas O'Keefe copy edit
1200811 11/17/11 Paul Martzen updated permit info
1192823 05/27/08 n/a n/a
1195695 07/27/09 Thomas O'Keefe
1199108 01/09/11 Thomas O'Keefe permit