What to know before you raft the John Day River

What to know before you raft the John Day River

The John Day River

There are many great whitewater rivers in the United States, but few compare to the John Day River. It is one of those places that you need to see for yourself.

John Day River

This article will explore some things about this great waterway that runs through a land of high desert plains and rugged mountain ranges.

There are smallmouth bass fishing opportunities, and the John Day River has plenty of whitewater rapids which can be challenging at high water.

What to know before you go

The John Day River starts in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. It flows 284 miles northwest and empties into the Columbia River. The John Day River is one of the longest free-flowing rivers in North America.

Trips start near the small historic town of Clarno, located in Eastern Oregon. There isn’t much out there, so make sure you come prepared with all your food and gear.

You can start a little higher up at the Service Creek Boat launch as well. In the Summer months, this section can have low water and can make the float a little bumpy. Most groups take out at Cottonwood bridge boat ramp.

John Day River:Cottonwood bridge

Fires in Firepans Only

  • Ground fires and rock fire rings are not allowed when fires are permitted.
  • A metal firepan must be used to fully contain the fire and ash.
  • Wood, charcoal, and driftwood can all be used for fire. Dead or living standing plants can not be cut or gathered. 
  • Take campfire residue with you.

Leave no trace camping 

  • Take all garbage from the river gorge. 
  • Pack out all food scraps to help keep insects and critters to a minimum. 
  • Do not bury trash or toilet paper. 
  • Strain all dish/wastewater through a screen to remove food particles, and pack them out. 
  • Scatter dishwater for a distance of at least 200 feet from the river to minimize impacts.
  • If the river flows are above 500 CFS, pee in the river.
  • At flows below 500 CFS, urinate at least 200 ft. away from camp.
  • Have a water-tight, reusable toilet system.

Permits for the John Day River

To boat the John Day National Wild and Scenic River between Service Creek and Tumwater Falls, you must have an online boating license year-round.

It is first come first serve, so you will want to book your trip in advance.

The history of the John Day River

The John Day River has a long and eventful history. The first people to explore and use the John Day River were the Native Americans, who considered it a sacred place.

The Tenino Indians were also residents of the Columbia and John Day Rivers. Over 150 sites have produced artifacts and other signs of habitation.

Settlers move into the John day river basin

White settlers first discovered the river in 1811. The gold rush of 1851 brought many people to the area, and the John Day River quickly became one of the most important transportation routes in the region.

What you will find along the John Day River

Today, many farms surround the river all the way to the mouth, and most of it is private property.

The John Day River is also known for its steelhead and smallmouth bass. Both fish species are throughout the river.

The area is home to some unique wildlife, including nesting peregrine falcons, great blue herons, bald eagles, and more. It is common to see a mule deer in the Fall and hunting brings plenty of visitors in November.

The geology of the John Day River

The John Day River was formed by lava flows over thousands of years which created a unique topography. A series of volcanic eruptions blocked the river and created lava dams, forcing the flow to shift around them.

This resulted in an interconnected series of basins that were the eventual birthplace of the John Day River.

You should plan time to visit the John Day Fossil Beds or the Painted Hills. The scenic views and wildlife viewing are breathtaking.

 How to prepare for a trip down the John Day River

May through July has the best water flows and is a good time to plan your trip, but April at high water can provide some thrills!

Plan on spending 4 days on the river, and some take it slower and make it 5. The John Day River has nice sandy beaches and meadows to camp on.

This is a semi-arid climate, with hot and dry summers being the norm in the high desert. However, even in May and June, chilly and windy weather may occur, so pack accordingly.

Anywhere between 2,000-and 6,000 CFS is an average flow suitable for rafts. Just beware that some of the rapids can be treacherous to run and high levels.

How to pack for bad weather

Consider layers of clothing for both cold and hot weather. You may add or remove layers as needed.

The first layer should be long underwear such as polypropylene, and the second layer(s) should be made of polyester fleece (or wool).

The outer layer consists of a rain jacket and rain pants.

What to pack for sunny trips

Bring shorts made of synthetic fabric, as well as a hat to keep the sun off your face.

What to expect on your whitewater rafting trip down the John day river

The first Class III rapid you will hit is Clarno Rapid. It comes up quickly after a couple of Class II Rapids. Pull off on the left bank to scout it.

The Basalt Rapids (Class II) are a series of rapids that end with a basalt cliff on the left bank of the river.

The rest of the trip is fairly slow as it meanders through the canyon. On hot days, these slow areas are a prime locations for swimming!

Book a trip on the John Day River

Well, what are you waiting for? Let us help you book a trip on this amazing river!

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