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John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno

John Day + Blue Mountains Area, Oregon

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John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno

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  • The Service Creek Boat Launch and Campground.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • Vault toilets at the Service Creek Boat Launch and Campground.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • Parking at the Service Creek Boat Launch and Campground.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • Boater registration.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • A riverside site at the Service Creek Boat Launch and Campground.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • The Service Creek Campground.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • The view from the campground.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • The Service Creek boat ramp.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • The boat ramp is rocky; four-wheel drive isn't necessary, but it will help.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • A flotilla launches at the Service Creek boat ramp.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • Pushing off to float the John Day River, Service Creek to Clarno.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • John Day River just below Service Creek.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • This section of the John Day River is easy, relaxed boating at most flows.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • Dramatic basalt formations along the banks of the John Day River.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • Recapping the day beside the campfire along the John Day River.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • Enjoying a riverside camp along the John Day River.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • Strange and imposing basalt formations along the riverbank.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • Some of the camps are broad and quite roomy.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • A large camp on the John Day River.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • Looking downstream toward camp on the John Day River.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • Plenty of flat water on this trip makes this a great stretch for those learning to row.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • Strange and imposing basalt formations along the riverbank.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • It is worth remembering Cathedral Rock; there are a few official campsites near this landmark, and none below.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • A close-up of the basalt formation in Cathedral Rock.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • The John Day River is challenged by plenty of agricultural runoff from livestock and conventional farming chemicals contributing to its poor water quality. - John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • Pumps like this take a significant portion of the river flow later in the summer; unfortunately, due to inefficiencies, much of the water ends up evaporating before it reaches the intended crop.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • Bovines have annihilated this section of riverbank along the John Day River.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • A nearly full moon rises above a tranquil section of the John Day River.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • Few trees can survive the arid exposure on the surrounding ridges.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • A camp on a boulder bar downriver from the official campsites; camping below the high water mark is legal on Oregon rivers.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • The Big Dipper soars above a camp on the John Day River.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • The final miles before the take-out at Clarno.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • The final miles before the take-out at Clarno.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • The bridge at Clarno.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • The Clarno take-out.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • The boat ramp at Clarno is a popular put-in for the float down to Cottonwood.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
  • Parking at the Clarno boat ramp.- John Day River: Service Creek to Clarno
Overview + Weather
Pros: 
Less crowded than other sections. Family-friendly float. Several section options. Great bass fishing.
Cons: 
Excessive summer heat. Agricultural pollution. No campsites in the final 10 miles.
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Region:
John Day + Blue Mountains Area, OR
Access: 
Vehicle
Average Gradient: 
8.00 ft/mi (1.52 m/km)
Route Characteristics: Character:
Continuous, Remote, River
Pets allowed: 
Yes, with restrictions
Number of days: 
3
Gauge URL: 
https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/uv?14046500
Overall difficulty: 
II
Most difficult rapid: 
II
Year round: 
Yes
Parking Pass: 
None
Permit required: 
Yes
Permit reservation URL: 
https://www.blm.gov/or/permit/
Permit self-issue on site: 
No
Preferable Season(s):
Summer, Spring
Prone to wood: 
No
Put-in location (lat, long coordinates): 
44.793175, -120.001346
Suitable for:
Rafts, Kayaks, Inflatable Kayaks
Shuttle required: 
Yes
Take-out location (lat, long coordinates): 
44.916139, -120.469166
Total Distance: 
48.00 mi (77.25 km)
Typically multi-day: 
Yes
Current Local Weather:

Notable Hazards + River Information

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Adventure Description

Adventure Description

Team

The John Day River is one of Oregon’s most scenic and enticing multi-day floats, and because it flows undammed for 281 miles to join the Columbia River, there are several different sections one can choose to float depending on time, water levels, and the desired scenery. The segment for which the John Day is best known is the scenic 70-mile stretch that leads from the town of Clarno down to the boat ramp near Cottonwood Canyon State Park; while beautiful, this stretch is a commitment both in terms of time and resources. Low water levels and upstream winds can make a 70-mile trip a little daunting; fortunately there are plenty of shorter options for those who are still hungry to experience this beautiful Eastern Oregon waterway.

The river segment that leaves from the town of Service Creek and continues down to Clarno is just such an alternative. Like the longer section, it has a Wild and Scenic designation. And at 47 miles, this section is doable in three days. Two days isn’t out of the question at higher flows, and four days may be more appropriate when water levels are low (and the phenomenal bass fishing heats up). Technically this is an easier stretch of water to float; there are a few Class II rapids that become slightly more pushy at high flows, but nothing on this segment approaches the difficulty of Clarno Rapids (Class III) in the segment below Clarno. Best of all, boaters will still get some exposure to the classic basalt cliff formations for which the John Day River is known. These formations rise up from the river with a vertical prominence, towering over camps, pools and riffles, and the fluid origins of these rock formations are obvious in magnificently warped basalt columns. Look for big horn sheep in the upper stretches of this segment along with elk, mule deer, bear. In the water, Chinook salmon and steelhead run straight up from the Columbia in cooler seasons, and the hot summers, when water temperatures are positively tepid, belong to bass. If you’re lucky, you may spot a river otter as well.

In general, this is a very friendly float to plan for, though some consideration should be given to floating distances and camp objectives. Boaters should be aware that there are almost no official campsites in the final 11 miles of this float, a reality that might help shape the distance decisions that are made earlier in the trip. Private land lines both sides of the river in this portion, so camping options are few. Oregon law allows boaters to overnight below the high-water mark, but river flows, stones, and marshlands may eliminate options that appear viable on a map. There may be good options for you depending on your trip size and the flexibility of participants, but the safer choice is to plan on a long float on the final day.

This section of the John Day River is also much more agricultural. You’ll see more private land along the banks of the river, more crops, and more livestock. In some cases you’ll be able to spot places where livestock has taken a great toll on the riverbank, denuding it of vegetation and transforming it into mud and excrement. This, combined with the abundant chemical agricultural runoff, means that some caution should be exercised as you interact with the water. Always bring all of the water that you need on the river; filters may take care of giardia and e.coli, but no filter can remove pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizer.

Note that there are several less developed boat ramps along this segment that offer boaters alternatives for distances. The tradeoff is that the roads accessing these ramps may be long and dusty. Twickenham Boat Launch is about 10 miles downstream from Service Creek and has paved access; Priest Hole has a boat ramp about 10 miles below Twickenham; and boat access is available at Burnt Ranch (river mile 132.8). It is hard to beat the convenience of Service Creek, however: Service Creek Campground is located adjacent to the boat ramp, and the Service Creek store, restaurant, and shuttle service is located less than a mile up Highway 19.

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