Know Before You Go

photo showing landscape with river running through it

Permit Requirements

An online permit from Recreation.gov 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. For further information please visit the John Day River Recreation.gov sites for Day Use and Overnight Permits.

A self-issued paper permit, found at the appropriate launch kiosks, is required to boat:

  • Within Priest Hole Recreation Site from River Mile 136.5–137.5 (if floating further, an online permit is required)
  • The North Fork of the John Day between Dale and Monument (toilet and fire pan required)

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 River and Service Creek on the Main Stem of the John Day River

Group Size and Stay Limits

  • Regardless of the number of permits obtained, groups can have no more than 16 people
  • The stay limit is 14 days
  • In Segments 1A & 1B the group size limit is 4 from Sep. 1- Nov. 30, and the stay limit is 1 night per segment year round
  • Group size and stay limits are in place to help protect the resource and to be considerate of others seeking solitude. Please pay respect to other boaters and to the river by remaining within these limits.
Water Flow

Without dams to control water levels, flows on the John Day River fluctuate in relation to snowpack and rainfall. When planning a trip, it is helpful to consider the long-term water level forecast and the historical average flows available on the Summary Hydrograph.

Prior whitewater boating skills are necessary to navigate all sections of the John Day River. The difficulty of rapids and the time necessary to boat each section varies wildly with water level. At low flows, the river alternates from technical and rocky to long pools with no current. You may only be able to make 1-2 miles per hour. Pack light and be prepared to drag or line boats. Higher flows allow for easier miles (3-6 miles per hour) depending on wind. Keep current water levels and weather forecasts in mind when trip planning, and please bring the proper craft for those conditions.

Recommended minimum flow levels are

  • Drift boats: 1000cfs
  • Inflatable rafts: 600cfs
  • Canoes: 300cfs (float bags recommended)
  • Inflatable kayaks: 200cfs

The most popular multi-day float trips are

  • Service Creek to Clarno: Class II-III, 48 miles, 3-5 days (average of 3 days)
  • Clarno to Cottonwood: Class II-IV (Clarno Rapid III-IV),70 miles, 4-10 days (average of 5 days)

*Clarno Rapid (III-IV) can be unrunnable at low water; scout left, portage on either side, line right. Days needed per trip is highly flow and craft dependent.

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. Children 12 and younger must wear a PFD at all times while riding in a boat.
  • Carry safety gear. Oregon State Marine Board also requires each boat to carry a whistle, and the BLM recommends that each group carry a throw rope, first aid kit, repair kit, spare oars/paddles, spare PFD, and a pump.
  • It’s always a good idea to carry the “ten essentials” including a map and a form of communications that work in a remote environment.
  • Pro tip: Make sure boats and equipment are secure. On a free-flowing river the water can spike without warning. Tie boats up with solid knots and anchor points and envision where the boat would swing if flows came up. The wind is known to carry away unsecured gear such as: PFDs, cooler covers, and sometimes boats. Clip it in, strap it down.

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

On the John Day River, an Oregon Waterway Access Permit is not needed when boating during the High Season (between Service Creek and Tumwater falls from May 1-July 15, and between Cottonwood Bridge (Burres) and Tumwater Falls from September 1-November 30). Since use fees are collected during High Season the following exemption applies, “A person/outfitter guides​ operating a boat on a federally designated wild and scenic river for which a separate fee system is in place.​”

When boating during Low Season on the Wild and Scenic section of the John Day or any time of year in the non-Wild and Scenic stretches, a Waterway Access Permit is required.

For more information please visit the Oregon State Marine Board website.