Rafting The John Day River

Rafting the John Day River

Because the river is undammed, it is important to recognize that the water levels are contingent on snow pack in the Blue Mountains. The prime rafting season is in spring (the months of May and June are typically the peak timeframes folks head out to enjoy the river). There are many options in floating the John Day. Here are some helpful hints and tools to help you plan your trip.

What is the John Day River like?

Unlike other rivers, the John Day is not known for the white water rapids some adventurers seek. There are over 172 miles of floatable water. What does that mean? You can take multi-day trips, provided that there is enough water to move you, your boat, and your gear down the river.

In the summer time the water warms up significantly and moves much slower, making it perfect for swimming and fishing for small mouth bass.

As with any river, great care and caution should be taken when using it. Equipping yourself with the right knowledge and safety tools such as PFDs (life jackets) is highly recommended.

Multi-Day Trips

When looking at multi-day trips, you will want to find out what the CFS (cubic feet per second) is. This number tells you how much water is in the river and helps in assessing how long it will take you to float to your destination. You can check this by going to USGS Water Resources. Service Creek will not rent river equipment for multi-day trips if the river is in flood stages or if the CFS is at 300 or lower. We will rent equipment for day rentals on certain sections of the river if the CFS is 100 or higher.

For multi-day trips, be sure to bring the following equipment:

  1. Life Jackets*
  2. First Aid Kit*
  3. Repair Kit*
  4. Whistle*
  5. Pump for Inflatable Boat*
  6. Extra Paddle*
  7. Ice Chest*
  8. Trash Bags (available at Service Creek store)
  9. Fire Pan (available at Service Creek store)
  10. Toilet (available at Service Creek store)
  11. Firewood (available at Service Creek store)
  12. Drybags (available for rent at Service Creek store)
  13. GPS Device
  14. John Day River Map (available at Service Creek store)
  15. Ice, Beer, Soda, Snacks etc.

* Are items Service Creek provides with river equipment rentals. For more information, see Rafts and Shuttle section of this website.

When planning your multi-day trip, be sure to allot extra time to get to your destination. Afternoon winds and unexpected patch jobs due to hidden rocks can add time to your trip. Be sure to review our policies page before you book your rental.

The most popular multi-day trips (depending on the time of the year) are from Service Creek to Twickenham, Clarno or Cottonwood. Contact us for more information, and recommendations on where to float and when.

Responsible Use of the River

The John Day River has been designated as a “wild and scenic” river which means that residents of the Paleolands area and conservationists have partnered to preserve and protect the river and its tributaries. We ask that every user of the river be conscious of their responsibilities to protecting this truly magnificent treasure by:

  1. Follow all fire regulations. There are times of the year when no open flame is permissible. If fires are permissible, use fire pans approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Be sure to pack out all ashes. Fires are not permitted between June 1st through October 1st.
  2. If you pack it in, pack it out. All trash should be disposed of properly.
  3. Use toilets. Portable toilets approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are required for overnight trips. Using toilets prevents sewage from contaminating the water systems and affecting ecosystems.
  4. Be sure to fill out appropriate river permits that notify the BLM of who is on the river and where they are going to. If an emergency ever arises, this documentation will be critical. Be sure to carry a copy on your float. You will be required to produce this documentation if a representative from a government agency requests it. Failure to do so will result in fines.
  5. Be respectful of other people. Everyone should have an opportunity to enjoy a river like this. Being courteous to folks will help make it a more enjoyable experience for everyone.
  6. Report all illegal or suspicious activity. Help keep the river safe. Contact local or state authorities to report any activity you feel might endanger people or the habitat.
  7. Follow all other laws and guidelines. Several of the boat launches are equipped with bulletin boards that inform users of the river and Paleolands area of what is permissible and not permissible. Take the time to read the information and make sure you understand it.
  8. Let people know about your plans. Unlike many other rivers, the John Day has limited access to communication systems. Cell phones will not work. Letting people know what your plans are, including where you will be floating to and from, your departure and arrival date, date and time you expect to arrive home, number of people in your party, etc., make all the difference in being able to respond to emergency situations.

Bureau of Land Management Information Section

The following information has been taken from the BLM website to help assist in planning trips:

Advance permits are not required to float the John Day River. However, we are encouraging folks NOT to launch on Fridays or Saturdays from Memorial Day weekend through July 4th weekend. Launches and competition for campsites are extremely heavy on these days, but comparably light on other days. When planning your trip, please work around these dates, if you possibly can. We are hoping that voluntary cooperation from users will delay or avoid the need for a permit system.

Water Flows

The John Day River has no dams to control water flow; therefore flow levels fluctuate widely in relation to snow pack and rainfall. When planning a trip, it is a good idea to check flow levels regularly and be prepared to adjust trip dates if necessary.

Current River Flow information is available from the US Geological Survey, or from the River Service Center in Portland, Oregon at (503) 261-9246.

Short Term Flow Forecast and Long Term Flow Forecast is provided by NOAA.

Snow Pack Information

The difficulty of rapids varies with river flow level. Prior whitewater boating skills are necessary to navigate all sections of the river. The most popular multi-day float trips are:

  • Service Creek to Clarno – Class II-III – 48 miles, average trip length = 3 days
  • Clarno to Cottonwood – Class II-IV (Clarno Rapid III-IV) – 70 miles, average trip length = 5 days

Recommended minimum flow levels are:

  • Inflatable rafts- 500cfs
  • Canoes- 300cfs
  • Inflatable kayaks- 200cfs

(Clarno Rapid (III-IV) can be unrunable at low water; scout left, portage on either side, line right. Canoeists floating at levels above 2,500 cfs should have whitewater experience and carry floatation bags.)

Trip Planning

Whenever possible, launching on Fridays and Saturdays from Memorial Day weekend through the end of June should be avoided due to crowded conditions and a lack of available campsites. During this time period, the best days to launch for a less crowded boating experience are Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.

Private land is interspersed with public land in all river sections, so it is essential to carry a good map showing land ownership. Please respect private property by camping and hiking only on BLM lands. Prepare ahead to handle possible emergencies in a remote setting, as road access to the river is extremely limited and cell phone coverage is unavailable. The maximum party size is 16 persons between Service Creek and Cottonwood Bridge. Dogs are allowed and are not counted in party size limits. Due to high fire danger, campfires and charcoal fires are not permitted from June 1st to October 1st each year. Fishing regulations are available from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

All boaters are responsible for complying with the regulations listed in Boating Regulations and Leave No Trace.

BLM Recommended Tools

The John Day Recreation Guide is a wonderful tool that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has created for visitors looking to recreate on the river. Maps are available at Service Creek but sell out quickly. They can also be purchased from the BLM for $5.00.

The Lower Deschutes and John Day Rivers Map is another excellent tool that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has created for visitors looking to recreate on the river. Maps are available at Service Creek but sell out quickly. They can also be purchased from the BLM for $8.00.

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