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John Day River

JOHN DAY WILD AND SCENIC RIVER

The John Day River basin drains nearly 8,100 square miles of central and northeast Oregon. Absent of dams for 281 miles, the John Day is the second longest free-flowing river in the continental United States and the longest undammed tributary of the Columbia. Elevations range from 265 feet at the confluence with the Columbia River to over 9,000 feet at the headwaters in the Strawberry Mountain Range.

The John Day River system is fortunate to have designation under two important river preservation programs: the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the Oregon Scenic Waterways Act. Together, these two acts, one a federal program and one a state program, provide the best protection available today for the natural, scenic, and recreational values of our river environments.

The John Day is still carving its way through the basalt layers of old volcanic flows that cover large parts of northern Oregon, creating a canyon as much as 1600 feet deep. The now exposed geologic layers provide memorable scenery. The river and its canyons offer unmatched habitat for many native fish including wild steelhead, Chinook salmon, bull trout, westslope cutthroat, and interior redband. Wildlife found along the river's corridor include mule deer, elk, and black bear, along with peregrine falcons and bald eagles.

The John Day River provides a variety of recreation opportunities throughout the year, from white-water rafting in late spring through mid-summer, to fishing in the fall. Other recreation opportunities include hunting, sightseeing, horseback riding, hiking and camping.

HOW TO GET A BOATER PERMIT

An online launch permit is required to boat all river segments year-round on the mainstem John Day River downstream of Spray.

Beginning in 2020, the BLM will return to limited permits on the Wild and Scenic section (Service Creek to Tumwater Falls) from May 1 – July 15.

Limited entry permits will be available beginning March 4, 2020 at 7 AM on the Recreation.gov website. Half of the limited permits for each day of the peak season (May 1 – July 15) will be available for reservation on March 4 at 7 AM PT, and the remaining permits will be available on May 1 at 7 AM PT.

The recreation fee will be $20 per group of up to 16 people, for an overnight trip (plus a $6 transaction fee per permit). Day trips are $10 per group and also require the $6 transaction fee. Permit fees are non-refundable.

To get a permit to boat between Service Creek and Tumwater Falls from May 1 – July 15:

Step 1 - Go to www.Recreation.gov at any time to Sign Up for a Customer Account.

Step 2 - Type John Day River Permit in the search bar and select Overnight or Day Trip.

Step 3 - Follow the instructions to Check Availability and reserve a permit.

Step 4 - Print your permit and present it at the launch point with a photo ID.

Step 5 - At the launch point, tear off the Boater Registration Form at the bottom of your printed permit and deposit it in the boater registration box. Keep the main part of the permit with you on the trip.

Permit exceptions: Permits are not required at Cottonwood Canyon State Park to float 1/4 mile between J.S. Burres (Cottonwood Bridge) and Lone Tree Campground. At Priest Hole, visitors wishing to take the one-mile trip solely within the Priest Hole Recreation Area may obtain a no cost self-issue permit at Priest Hole.

Please note: To boat outside of the limited sections and dates, no cost permits are still required downstream of Spray, and are available at www.blm.gov/or/permit. To boat the mainstem upstream of Spray or the North Fork John Day, no cost permits are available at www.blm.gov/or/permit and at launch sites.

To get a permit to boat outside of the limited sections and dates:

Step 1 - Go to www.blm.gov/or/permit at any time to create a Customer Account.

Step 2 - Follow the instructions to Apply for a Permit.

Step 3 - Confirm your permit online between 10 and 30 days before your trip (we will send you two reminder notices). If not confirmed 10 days prior to the launch date, the reservation will automatically cancel. If you reserve your permit 10 days or less before your trip, you may confirm and print your permit immediately. If not confirmed 1 day prior to the launch date, the reservation will automatically cancel and you’ll need to get a new permit if you still plan to do the trip. 

Step 4 - Print your permit and present it at the launch point with a photo ID.

Step 5 - At the launch point, tear off the Boater Registration Form at the bottom of your printed permit and deposit it in the boater registration box. Keep the main part of the permit with you on the trip.

WATER FLOW

The John Day River has no dams to control water flow; therefore flow levels fluctuate widely in relation to snow pack and rainfall. When planning a trip, it is helpful to consider the Short Term or Long Term Flow Forecasts, which are updated regularly.

Short term forecast info is available at: www.nwrfc.noaa.gov/river/station/flowplot/flowplot.cgi?SERO3
Long term flow forecast info can be found at: www.nwrfc.noaa.gov/stp/station/stpplot/stpplot.cgi?SERO3

The difficulty of rapids varies with river flow level. Prior whitewater boating skills are necessary to navigate all sections of the river. Clarno Rapid (III-IV) can be unrunnable 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.

Recommended minimum flow levels are

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

CONTACT US

Prineville District BLM
3050 NE 3rd Street
Prineville, OR 97754
(541) 416-6700
Contact us by email:  blm_or_pr_mail@blm.gov