Average Gradient
11.00 ft/mi (2.08 m/km)
Most difficult rapid
Class III
70.00 mi (112.65 km)
Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.

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.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)


Parking Pass

Not Required

Motors Allowed



Incredible geology. Wildlife. Some beautiful camps. Non-technical float.


Low flows by mid-summer. Heavy use. Some questionable camps.

Put-in location (lat, long coordinates)


Take-out location (lat, long coordinates)

Cottonwood Bridge


Backcountry camping
Bird watching

Typically multi-day


Shuttle required


Overall difficulty


Route Characteristics: Character

Open (Non

Suitable for

Stand-Up Paddleboards

Permit required


Permit self-issue on site



Nearby Adventures

Tygh Valley + Lower Deschutes, Oregon
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Nearby Lodging + Camping


My wife and I had a great float trip on the Clarno to Cottonwood section (2A) at 5000 cfs, 5/3/2021 to 5/7/2021. The drift speed was 4 to 5 MPH, so it was a fast trip, with great weather and very few people seen.

I highly recommend to pick up a copy of the official BLM river guidebook "John Day River Recreation Guide" as it has excellent topo maps, with important rapids and campsite locations marked.

Since the guide also listed the river campsite coordinates, I scanned those in, converted them to GPS waypoints, and posted them on Github at https://github.com/jremington/JohnDayRiverWaypoints

The file is named JD_campsites_named.txt, which you can download for free. Change the file extension from .txt to .gpx for easy uploading to the GPS device of your choice (I use Android and GaiaGPS).

Note: there are obvious errors in some of the waypoints as published, possibly as high as 100 meters, and possibly on the wrong river bank. I verified the input and scanned coordinates for a few of those and determined that these were not scan or transcription errors. So, use them as a rough guide!

Happy floating!
This year the water flows were incredibly low. When we started the trip it was running at 700 cfs, which is close to as low as you can get and still have enough clearance in a canoe. The upside was that there were fewer people on the river and the bass were incredibly active, constantly jumping out of the water in front of us as we made our way downriver. We also had a juvenile rattlesnake in one camp this year, which was a rare occurrence on this stretch of the river (beware of juveniles because they release more venom than adults if you get bitten). Overall the trip was amazing. So much wildlife as usual, especially the bighorn sheep. A few sightings of golden eagles and bald eagles. Nothing beats having numerous days without cell reception to unwind and camp under the stars. Overall I was also incredibly impressed how well boaters keep to leave no trace on this stretch of river!
Doing this trip by canoe (rather than raft or drift boat) was incredible. There are enough small rapids along the way to keep it interesting. The flow has to be right, as it was on our trip. The canyon lining the river is fun to explore while camping, there were numerous camp spots and all were incredible. This was a trip to remember. The only downside was having it come to an end.
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