John Day River

Oregon, USA

John Day River Guide

The John Day River in Oregon, renowned for its scenic beauty and rich geological history, is one of the longest undammed rivers in the contiguous United States. Flowing through a diverse landscape of rugged mountains, rolling hills, and deep canyons, it offers an amazing fishing or multi-day float trip.

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This guide was written by Kyle Drake, of Arrowhead River Adventures. Arrowhead runs guided rafting and fishing trips on the John Day River in the spring. They also run trips on the Deschutes River in central Oregon and the Rogue River in southern Oregon. Learn more about Arrowhead River Adventures here.

About The John Day

The mainstem of the John Day River has seven segments starting from Kimberly and continuing to Tumwater Falls. As the river flows these segments are:

  • 4: Kimberly to Service Creek 
  • 3A: Service Creek to Twickenham
  • 3B: Twickenham to Clarno
  • 2A: Clarno to Thirtymile
  • 2B: Thirtymile to Cottonwood
  • 1A: Cottonwood to Starvation Lane
  • 1B: Starvation Lane to Tumwater Falls

This guide covers river sections 4, 3A, and 3B. Within these sections, there are some additional access points, which allow for day trips or linking the sections together as a multi-day expedition.

An online permit is required to boat between Service Creek and Tumwater Falls and is available on Recreation.gov. The highest demand for permits coincides with spring runoff and thus the controlled permit season is May 1 through July 15. Additional permit launch limitations exist from September 1 through November 30 for segment 1 only. Half of all permits are released 4 months prior to a given launch, with the other half released 1 month prior. Otherwise, permits are unlimited but still required for entry.

Spring and early-summer flows can range between below 300 CFS to well above 10,000 CFS. Flows are dependent primarily on snowpack and secondarily on weather conditions in central and eastern Oregon. Raftable flows range from 1000 CFS to 10,000 CFS. Flows around 4,000 CFS leaves most camps above the river level and relatively fast drift speeds. Here is a link to the river gauge.

River Segment Four

North Fork confluence to Highway 207 bridge.

Mile 184.5 – River Segment 4

The confluence of the John Day River and the North Fork of the John Day River is the start of segment 4. Segment 4 continues downriver to Service Creek at River mile 156.9 where segment 3A begins.

Mile 184 – Kimberly, OR

River Right. The town of Kimberly, located at the intersection of Oregon Route 19 and Oregon Route 402 as well as the confluence of the John Day and the North Fork John Day rivers. Limited services are available here especially after 5:00 pm.

Mile 178.2 – Shady Grove Picnic Site

River Right. Shade trees, picnic tables, vault toilet. Road and River access. No camping. No boat ramp.

Mile 171 – Spray Riverfront Park

River Right. Simple municipal campground with vault toilets, campsites, picnic tables, shade, potable water, and a boat launch. Great for prepping and rigging a trip. Great swimming, floating, and fishing. No RV hookups. A very reasonable fee, bring small bills to pay for camping.

Mile 171 – Spray, OR

“The City by the River” Spray does not offer much in terms of services but is one of the best options in the immediate area. Between the Lone Elk Marketplace and the Riverfront Park, you can establish a temporary base of operations for launching or taking off the river. Lone Elk Marketplace has diesel or unleaded, a small grocery selection, bulk ice, and a simple diner-style menu. Best accessed from Riverfront Park if floating by, otherwise, very easy to see everything from your vehicle.

Mile 162.1 – Wooden Bridge Boat Ramp

River Right. Basic gravel boat ramp. No toilet. No camping. If you floated under the wooden bridge you missed the boat ramp.

Mile 162 – Wooden Bridge

The name says it all. Private bridge.

Mile 159.25 – Muleshoe Boat Ramp

River Right. Gravel boat ramp with access to Muleshoe Campground. Vault toilets and BLM fee campground with 6 sites. Picnic tables. Juniper tree shade.

Mile 157.2 – Service Creek Boat Ramp

River Right. Wide cobble bar boat ramp, vault toilet, walk-in fee camp sites, and large parking lot where vehicles get staged to be shuttled. There is a permit dropbox on the BLM informational sign. Service Creeek is the launch for segment 3A. Service Creek Stage Stop is just up the road for any last-minute additions or food.

Service Creek Stage Stop

Diner-style menu. Small inventory of fishing tackle, PFDs, straps, beer, and various other sundries that you might need. They are also a good resource for local services, shuttle information, and the river level. Worth stopping in and buying something.

River Segment 3A

Highway 207 Bridge to Twickenham Boat Ramp.

Mile 156.9 – Highway 207 Bridge

Start of segment 3A.

II
Mile 150.35 – ShooFly Rapid

Class II. Boat scout from the slack water on the river right side. Ride the fun waves down the main current, just left of center. Towards the end of the rapid the current pushes into the cliff.

II
Mile 149.35 – Tap Horn Rapid

Class II. With sufficient water, float wherever you want, at lower flows try to stay just right of center in the deepest water and hope to not get stuck on a shallow rock.

Mile 146.6 – Goose Point

River Right. The river does a big “S” turn around this feature.

Mile 146.6 – Goose Point Lunch Spot

River Right Private property. Stay below the high water line. Good spot for lunch or a leg stretch because the next several miles have no public land along the river.

Mile 144.1 – Twickenham Boat Ramp

River Left. Private property, public easement. No camping. No lunching. This ramp can be used for river access only. There is a vault toilet here.

River Segment 3B

Twickenham Boat Ramp to Clarno Boat Ramp.

Mile 144.1 – Twickenham Bridge

Concrete bridge. You can’t miss it. This is the beginning of Segment 3B.

Mile 141.5 – Rowe Creek

This is a good landmark. Rowe Creek (often dry) comes in on the right (North). Private land.

II
Mile 139 – Homestead Rapid

Class II. Scout at low water, as the right side line pushes hard into protruding rock prow with little room to maneuver.

Mile 137.5 – Priest Hole Boat Ramp

River Left. Mediocre boat ramp. On the drop after high water events this ramp is exceptionally muddy. If the cobble bar down stream is accessible, it is the better choice for put-in/take-out. Dispersed camping in the area often attracts travel trailer and other RV campers. Vault toilet up the hill.

Mile 137.25 – Priest Hole Cobble Bar Ramp

River Left. Unofficial, but most commonly used river access for launching or taking off. This is dry most of the year. Potential future development may remove access to this section of the bar in the future.

Mile 134.75 – Byrd’s Point

River Right. Prominent basalt feature with no access from the river. Primarily used as a landmark when on the water or when driving in the surrounding area.

Mile 134.7 – Byrd’s Boulder (Unofficial)

Intriguing Basalt island in the middle of the river.

III
Mile 132.4 – Burnt Ranch Rapid

Class III. Pull in at Burnt Ranch Camp to scout from the left. At medium and high water levels there are many options to get through here as most rocks are covered and this rapid becomes a series of waves. At low water a center line becomes obvious, and most other routes are too shallow.

Mile 131.7 – Lower Burnt Ranch Boat Ramp

River Left. At lower water this becomes the preferred alternative launch to Priest Hole as Burnt Ranch becomes unboatable. Overall, not a great place to launch from.

Mile 124 – Coffin Rock

River Right. This rock is way off the river on the right. Visible from quite a way upstream and for a while after you pass it downstream. Also known as Lyle Lovett Rock.

Mile 123.7 – Bass Cove

River Right. This can be a fun topwater fishing location.

Mile 123.1 – Another Camp

River Left. Long, low, gently sloped cobble bar with spaced junipers in a large, flat field. Multiple options exist on the left between the next 3 sites.

Mile 122.9 – Juniper Glade Camp

River Left. A large campsite at the upstream end of a large cobble bar. Good camping among the open juniper glade.

Mile 122.8 – Cobble Terraces Camp

River Left. Long mixed sand/willow/cobble bar w/multi-level juniper benches.

Mile 122.75 – Basalt Pocket Eddy Camp

River Right. In a pocket eddy formed by an upstream basalt outcrop. Upstream of a long cobble bar.

Mile 122.55 – Busy Camp

River Left. Small camp when the water is below 2000 cfs. When the river is busy, this is a good option. If it’s not busy, pass this site.

Mile 122.35 – Water Cave Camp

River Right. In a large eddy across from an undercut basalt cliff aka Water Cave. Moderate shade. Lunkers hide in the depths here, but watch out for Cliff Swallow droppings from above.

Mile 121.1 – Huff-n-Puff Camp

River Right. Steep carry to a bench with shade. Easy to pass this site by.

Mile 120.9 – Dry Meadow Camp

River Left. Popular camp with good shade along the river. A vary large, flat open meadow extends from camp to the bottom of the hills to the south.

Mile 120.5 – Oregon Camp

River Right. Very tall spaced junipers on a pleasantly grassy bench. Catch eddy down stream of basalt outcropping that dives into river. On Oregon State land. 

Mile 119.46 – Cathedral View Camp

River Right. A sometimes slippery (muddy) landing leads to a secluded feeling camp among jumipers. Land downstream of the boulder jetty that marks private land. No land access to Cathedral Rock from this camp

Mile 119.38 – Cathedral Rock Camp 1

River Left. An obvious impacted campsite. The first of 2 camp sites with a tent bench above the cobble kitchen beach. Very large and popular with access to Cathedral Rock. Sometimes the impacts of cattle grazing is evident in the juniper tent sites.

Mile 119.3 – Cathedral Rock Camp 2

River Left. An obvious impacted campsite. The second of 2 camp sites with a tent bench above the cobble kitchen beach. Very large and popular with access to Cathedral Rock. Sometimes the impacts of cattle grazing is evident in the juniper tent sites. These sites can easily be shared with a third (maybe fourth) group if all other local sites are taken.

Mile 119.2 – Not So Secret Camp

River Right. Just across and downriver from the main Cathedral Rock camps. Good for small to medium sized groups or groups that don’t mind spreading out their tent sites a little more. Groover may have to be hiked a ways to get cover.

Cathedral Rock

River Left. Stunning basalt formation that changes character as you float past. Tall columnar basalt ,ake up the northeast side of the feature, while the southeast is broken and terraced. To reach the summit, hike up (travel west) the grassy hills on the south side of the monolith. Once you get cliffed out, traverse a user defined trail on talus to a saddle. Pick your way through the benched topography to the summit.

Mile 116.1 – Almost Last Chance Camp

River Right. Cobble bar for boaters wanting to get an early start towards Clarno Boat Ramp.

Mile 115.5 – Big Boulder

Big boulder. It is just over 6 miles to the take-out from here.

Mile 115.0 – Pumphouse Eddy

Large Eddy that can be good for fishing.

Mile 144.25 – Last Chance Camp

Absolute last-chance camp. No shade

Mile 109.1 – Clarno Boat Ramp

River Right. Frequently congested during high-use season. Please communicate with other users to minimize conflict and keep the ramp shuffle moving. You can also load and unload boats under the bridge. This is the end of section 3B and the start of section 2A. If your car was shuttled but not in the Clarno Parking Lot: cross the bridge and follow the dirt road north for a quarter mile to the overflow lot.