John Day - 3. Clarno to Cottonwood

John Day, Oregon, US


3. Clarno to Cottonwood

Usual Difficulty II-III (for normal flows)

John Day rafting

John Day rafting
Photo by Thomas O'Keefe В© taken 05/25/08 @ 7800 cfs

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
usgs-14046500 1200 - 6000 cfs II-III 00h28m 368 cfs (too low)

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.

Permit Information

For float trips during the primary boating season of May 20–July 10, advance permit reservations are required. Permits can be obtained on a first come, first served basis, starting on March 1 and then again on May 1. Launches are capped at 9 per day.

StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2014-01-03 23:59:20

Rapid Summary

Mile Rapid Name Class Features (Legend)
-104.8Upper ClarnoIIIPhoto
-104.5Lower ClarnoIVPhoto
-92.9Basalt RapidsII+Photo

Rapid Descriptions

Upper Clarno (Class III, Mile -104.8)

Upper Clarno

Upper Clarno
Photo by Thomas O'Keefe В© taken 05/23/08 @ 8000 cfs

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)

Lower Clarno Rapid

Lower Clarno Rapid
Photo by Thomas O'Keefe В© taken 05/23/08 @ 8000 cfs

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)

Basalt Rapids

Basalt Rapids
Photo by Thomas O'Keefe В© taken 05/24/08 @ 8200 cfs

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

User Comments

Users can submit comments.
June 25 2017 (569 days ago)
japanjohn (159282)
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.
June 17 2009 (3499 days ago)
x (1)
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
April 29 2008 (3913 days ago)
x (1)
This is a nice run @ 3700.

Associated News

Associated Projects

  • Conservation System
    The National Landscape Conservation System represents the crown jewels of BLM lands and rivers.