Know Before You Go

photo showing landscape with river running through it

Permit Requirements

An online permit is required year-round to boat within the Wild and Scenic section of the John Day River (Service Creek to Tumwater Falls) for both day and overnight trips. One permit covers your entire group for the full length of the trip and is based on where you enter the Wild and Scenic stretch. To obtain an online permit and for terms and conditions of the permit, please visit Recreation.gov and search for either John Day River Day Use Permits or John Day River Overnight Permits.

A self-issued paper permit is required to boat:

  • Within Priest Hole Recreation Site, to float less than 1 mile (River Mile 136.5–137.5)
  • The North Fork of the John Day between Dale and Monument (toilet and fire pan required)
  • Self-issued permits are located at the launch kiosks.

A permit is not required to boat:

  • Less than 100 yards upstream or downstream of the launch or to cross to the opposite bank
  • The 1/4 mile between Cottonwood Bridge (Burres) and Lone Tree Campground, at Cottonwood Canyon State Park
  • Between Monument on the North Fork of the John Day and Service Creek on the Main Stem of the John Day

Maximum Group Size

  • Group size limits are in place to help protect the resource and to be considerate of others who are seeking solitude. Please pay respect to other boaters and to the river by remaining within these limits.
  • Groups can have no more than 16 people, regardless of the number of permits obtained by the group. This includes babies.
  • Due to sensitive habitat, the group size limit in Segment 1A and 1B (J.S. Burres/Cottonwood Bridge to Tumwater Falls) from September 1-November 30 is 4.

Terms and Conditions of Permit

The Trip Leader must keep the Permit with them at all times while on the John Day River. Photo ID is required for the Trip Leader or Alternate Trip Leader at the launch. This Permit is valid only for the launch segment and launch date for which it is issued.

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 Long Term Flow Forecast, which is updated regularly, and the historical average flow levels available on the Summary Hydrograph (select the 50% exceedence level).

The difficulty of rapids varies with river flow level. Prior whitewater boating skills are necessary to navigate all sections of the river. The most popular multi-day float trips are

  • Service Creek to Clarno: Class II-III - 48 miles, average trip length = 3 days
  • Clarno to Cottonwood: Class II-IV (Clarno Rapid III-IV) - 70 miles, average trip length = 5 days

Recommended minimum flow levels are

  • Drift boats: 1000cfs
  • Inflatable rafts: 600cfs
  • Canoes: 300cfs
  • Inflatable kayaks: 200cfs

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.

Boater Safety

Each year there are boating accidents that could be prevented with a few safety tips. 

  • Boat Sober! Boating under the influence (BUI) laws apply to all watercraft.
  • Set an example and wear your life jacket. Oregon Marine Board regulations require a Type III or V PFD (life preserver) for all persons on a boat. An approved PFD must be worn by all persons in a boat in any section of waters rated Class III or higher, and children 12 and younger must wear a PFD at all times while riding in a boat.
  • Carry safety gear. Oregon State Marine Board requires each boat to carry a whistle and emergency throw rope.
  • The BLM recommends that each group carry a first aid kit, repair kit, extra oars/paddles and a pump for inflatable craft.

Being prepared with the right equipment, experience, and education can help ensure a fun and enjoyable trip.

Motorized Boating

The table shows the type of watercraft and where and when they may be used. Personal watercraft (Jet-Skis and similar boats) are permitted on the John Day River downstream of Tumwater Falls only.

  Non-Motorized Boats Electric Motors
(40 lbs. thrust or less)
Motorized Watercraft
Upstream of Service Creek (Seg 4) Open Open Open
Service Creek to Clarno (Seg 3) Open Open Open Oct 1 - April 30
Clarno to Cottonwood (Seg 2) Open Closed Closed
Cottonwood to Tumwater Falls* (Seg 1) Open Open Oct 1 - April 30 Open Oct 1 - April 30

* John Day (McDonald) Crossing is the last public take-out before Tumwater Falls.

Oregon Waterway Access Permit

Waterway Access Permit Exemption: On the John Day River, no Oregon Waterway Access Permit is needed when boating on limited entry segments and dates: between Service Creek and Tumwater falls from May 1-July 15, and between Cottonwood Bridge (Burres) and Tumwater Falls from September 1-November 30.

When boating outside of limited entry segments and dates, a Waterway Access Permit is required.

The Oregon Waterway Access Permit takes the place of the invasive species permit. However, if a boater has already paid a fee to boat on a federally designated Wild and Scenic River, they are exempt from carrying a Waterway Access Permit.

For more information about the Waterway Access Permit please visit the Oregon State Marine Board website.