Oregon John Day River

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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 when low flows concentrate fish into the deeper pools. Other recreation opportunities include hunting, sightseeing, horseback riding, hiking and camping.


An online launch permit is required to boat all river segments year-round on the mainstem John Day River downstream of Spray. A launch fee is required for trips entering the Wild and Scenic River section (Service Creek to Tumwater Falls; Segments 1-3) between May 20 and July 10. The fee is $20 per overnight trip per group, or $10 per one-day trip per group. Free on-line permits are also available to boat the mainstem upstream of Spray and the North Fork downstream of Dale. Self-issue permits are available at Priest Hole for visitors wanting to take the one-mile trip solely within the Priest Hole Recreation Area.

  • Step 1 - Go to http://www.blm.gov/or/permit at any time to create a Customer Account.
  • Step 2 - Log-in, Check the calendar for availability and Apply for a permit online.
  • 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 and the launch fee will be forfeited. Last minute reservations: 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 the launch fee will be forfeited. 
  • Step 4 - Print your permit and present it at the launch point with a photo ID.

Currently, all permits are unlimited. Permits for launch dates through April 30th are available beginning January 1st.   Permits for launch dates in May, June and July are available beginning the first Monday in March.


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: http://www.nwrfc.noaa.gov/river/station/flowplot/flowplot.cgi?SERO3
Long term flow forecast info can be found at: http://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 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.

Recommended minimum flow levels are

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


3050 N.E. 3RD ST.
(541) 416-6700
Contact us by email:  blm_or_pr_mail@blm.gov