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John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge

John Day + Blue Mountains Area, Oregon

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John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge

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  • The boat ramp at Clarno.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • The bridge at clarno.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • Clarno Rapids, Class III.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • Clarno Rapids, Class III- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • A typical large campsite.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • Basalt canyon walls on the John Day River.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • Columnar basalt.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • No day is dreary when you're on the river.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • - John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • Canada geese gathered together to better protect their nests.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • A dragon fly grounded by rain waits for a sunbreak and dry wings.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • Lupine.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • Lupine.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • Juniper berries- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • Juniper bark.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • A canyon wall by moonlight.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • Bass fishing improves below at flows below 2000 cfs.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • - John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • A typical larger camp.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • Hoot owl rock.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • Bighorn sheep scrambling down to the river for water.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • Campfires are illegal on the John Day River after June 1.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • The full moon rising above a ridge near the end of the float.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • The Palisades.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • - John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • Cottonwood Bridge.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • The boat ramp at Cottonwood Bridge.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • Regulations and a self-registration station.  A permit is necessary to float Clarno to Cottonwood.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • An RV park may be a better option for your waste disposal.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
  • There are no garbage services at Cottonwood Bridge.- John Day River: Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
Overview + Weather
Pros: 
Incredible geology. Wildlife. Some beautiful camps. Non-technical float.
Cons: 
Low flows by mid-summer. Heavy use. Some questionable camps.
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Region:
John Day + Blue Mountains Area, OR
Gauge URL: 
http://waterdata.usgs.gov/usa/nwis/uv?14046500
Overall difficulty: 
III
II
III
Parking Pass: 
Not Required
Preferable Season(s):
Spring, Summer
Put-in location (lat, long coordinates): 
Clarno
Suitable for:
Kayaks, Rafts, Commercial Outfitters, Stand-Up Paddleboards
Take-out location (lat, long coordinates): 
Cottonwood Bridge
Total Distance: 
70.00 mi (112.65 km)
Current Local Weather:

Notable Hazards + River Information

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Adventure Description

Adventure Description

Team

The John Day River is the longest undammed river in Oregon and one of the longest in the United States. From its headwaters to its convergence with the Columbia River just east of the John Day Dam, this river stretches for 281 miles through Central Oregon’s arid environment, and 147 miles of the river are protected as Wild and Scenic. 

Much of the John Day’s flow originates at the 9,000-foot level, where Strawberry Mountain snowmelt forms the headwaters of the river.  Flows diminish significantly by mid-summer after the primary melt and once regional irrigation demands begin in earnest.  Low flows can limit floating possibilities to all but the smallest watercraft.  May and June are thus the most popular months to float the John Day River.  Though the flows were just fine for our trip at the end of May, at 1,900 cfs the water was already down to levels more consistent with mid-June floats.  

Between Clarno and Cottonwood there are 92 campsites shown on the John Day Recreation Guide published by the BLM.  Most of these sites are obvious and obviously good; others would require a great deal of imagination and flexibility from users, either because of size, flows, or vegetation.  We’ve tried to indicate where more workable campsites exist.  Campsites are first-come, first-served, which means you may find yourself cruising the banks at the end of a long day looking for a place to camp, especially during the river’s more popular months. Also note that the campsite selection is thin in the ten miles leading up to the Cottonwood Bridge take-out.  Because the few springs along this section of river are intermittent and the river itself receives such heavy agricultural use, you may want to carry your own drinking water if you have that option.

There is really only one significant named rapid on this stretch, Clarno Rapid.  This Class III rapid caused some trouble for a few canoes that launched at the same time as our trip.  There is a great scout and portage option on river left just above the rapid.  Aside from Clarno Rapid, the river is consistently Class II when there is any whitewater at all.

The many splendid features that make this river one of Oregon’s great floating opportunities are really too plentiful to detail.  Our highlights: watching Oregon’s geological history unfolding around us in the form of elaborate basalt formations, rushing to start a fire (only legal before June 1) as black clouds rumbled above us, floating by clusters of wary bighorn sheep as they nimbly negotiated the riverside scree, applauding a cloud cluster’s almost choreographed performance around a rising moon, listening to children’s coyote howls echoing down the canyon, and then to the close imitation erupting back at us from a nearby but invisible roaming pack. 

For permits and seasonal regulations for this and other segments of the John Day River, check the BLM website.

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Updates, Tips + Comments

Field Guide + River Map

Field Guide + River Map

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Location + Directions

Location + Directions

Nearby Camping + Lodging

(2 within a 30 mile radius)

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(3 within a 30 mile radius)

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