The John Day is the longest free-flowing river in Oregon, and one of the longest in the United States. The John Day, which runs 280 miles from its headwaters in the Blue Mountains to its confluence with the Columbia, is our longest rafting trip. Its a good trip to choose if you are looking for a scenic float and mild whitewater.
In 1988 Congress designated 148 miles of the main John Day (including the sections we float) as well as 101 miles of the north and south forks as National Wild and Scenic Rivers. The John Day watershed supports one of the largest remaining populations of wild Chinook salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin, and is known for its excellent bass fishing. A wide variety of bird life may be found here, as well.
We offer trips on both the Upper and the Lower John Day. Either section is ideal for a scenic float, and they may be combined to create an nine day journey. The upper segment of the John Day is the calmer of the two, and the few rapids encountered are quite mild. This leaves us with ample time to relax, sunbathe, fish, and take in the passing scenery. Our Lower John Day trip begins with a few class III rapids, but thereafter few rapids are encountered, and most of those are quite mild. This makes the lower run a relaxing float as well.
Although close to Portland, the John Day's lower reaches are little traveled, holiday weekends aside. As a result we often have the colorful scenery and sunshine all to ourselves.
The Tenino Indians lived along the lower stretches of the waterway. Over 150 sites on both stream-banks have yielded artifacts and other signs of habitation.
In 1861 gold was found up nearby Canyon Creek as well as along Griffin Creek, just southwest of Baker. The thousands of miners and prospectors who arrived at Griffin Creek held a formal meeting and named their settlement Auburn. Overnight, Auburn grew to briefly become the largest town in the state, before disappearing again in 1903.
Clarno (our put-in point for lower canyon trips) was never a large town. It was named for Andrew Clarno, who settled there in 1866 and ran one of the first post offices in the county. His son, Charles, ran a ferry close to where the Clarno Bridge was built in 1897. The younger Clarno, an enterprising man with a love of steamboats, constructed a miniature riverboat, the J.D. Queen. The Queen was 40 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 10 feet tall. She navigated as a ferry and pleasure craft on a ten mile stretch of water near the town of Clarno.
First Morning: Upper Canyon and Combo Trips
We meet at 8:00 AM on the date your trip begins at the Service Creek boat ramp, near the junction of Highways 19 and 207, in Service Creek, Oregon. Service Creek is roughly 250 miles southeast of Portland. (Please have your breakfast before our meeting time.) Here you will meet our Lead guide and crew. After a brief orientation you will pack your things into our river bags, and park your vehicles nearby. (Our shuttle service will transport your car to our take-out.) We'll then conduct a safety briefing, which will include instruction on paddle and rowing techniques as needed. We’re normally on our way downstream by mid-morning.
First Morning: Lower Canyon Trip
We'll meet at 8:00 AM at the BLM Boat Launch Area at Clarno, where Oregon Highway 218 crosses the John Day River. Clarno is roughly 165 miles southeast of Portland. (Please have your breakfast before our meeting time.) Here you will meet our Lead guide and crew. After a brief orientation you will pack your things into our river bags, and park your vehicles nearby. (Our shuttle service will transport your car to our take-out.) We'll then conduct a safety briefing, which will include instruction on paddle and rowing techniques as needed. We’re typically on our way downstream by mid-morning.
On the River
Each day is a bit different. But a typical day on the river begins with freshly brewed coffee around 7 AM, and breakfast by 8 AM. After breakfast we’ll pack our bags and load the boats. Then, after a brief orientation to the day’s adventures, we’ll head downstream.
We’re on the river an average of three to four hours per day. Along the way we stop for a riverside picnic lunch. We may also stop to explore historic sites. We usually arrive in camp by mid to late afternoon, and while the guides prepare hors d’oeuvres and dinner, you’ll have time to explore, read, or nap. (There are a few good hikes, but for the most part hiking opportunities are limited.)
Last Day: Upper Canyon Trip
We typically arrive at Clarno bridge, our take-out point, between 2:00 and 3:30 P. M. Your car will be waiting for you there, and once you've unpacked your river bags, you will be on your way.
Last Day: Lower Canyon and Combo Trips
We plan to arrive at Cottonwood bridge, our take-out point, between 2:30 and 3:30 P. M. Your car will be waiting for you there, and once you've unpacked your river bags, you will be free to be on your way.
- The services of our professional guides and staff.
- Transportation of your vehicle for put-in to take-out.
- All meals, from lunch on the first day through lunch on the last. Our menu is delicious, varied, and hearty. Meals are freshly prepared by our guides from the highest quality ingredients. Juice and water are available at each meal. Coffee, tea, and cocoa are available at dinner and breakfast, and complementary wine is served with some dinners. Special dietary needs may be accommodated with advance notice. We also provide cups, plates, and silverware.
- Durable, professional quality rafts and river running equipment, including U.S. Coast Guard Approved lifejackets.
- Waterproof river bags and boxes for your personal gear.
- Camp chairs.
Where and when to meet: Upper Canyon and Combo trips
We meet at 8:00 AM on the date your trip begins at the Service Creek boat ramp, near the junction of Highways 19 and 207, in Service Creek, Oregon. Service Creek is roughly 250 miles southeast of Portland.
Where and when to meet: Lower Canyon trip
We meet at 8:00 AM at the BLM boat launch area at Clarno, where Oregon Highway 218 crosses the John Day River. Clarno is roughly 165 miles southeast of Portland.
Getting to and from the river: Upper Canyon and Combo trips
A number of routes are possible. From the east, we recommend that you take I-84 to OR-19, then OR-19 through Fossil to Service Creek. From Portland we suggest that you take I-84 past The Dalles to OR-206, OR-206 to OR-19 at Condon, then OR-19 through Fossil to Service Creek. Or you may take US-26 to Madras, US-197 to OR-293, OR-293 to OR-218, OR-218 to Fossil, and OR-19 to Service Creek. If you will be arriving in by air, fly in to Portland. No public transportation available, so you will need to rent a car. From the Portland airport follow the directions above.
Getting to and from the river: Lower Canyon trip
Several routes are possible. From the east, we suggest you take I-84 to OR-19, OR-19 to Fossil, then OR-218 west to Clarno. From Portland, we suggest you take US-26 to Madras, US-197 to OR-293, OR-293 to OR-218, and OR-218 to Clarno. If you'd rather drive through the Columbia River Gorge, head south on US-197, from the Dalles, or US-97, from Biggs. If you will be arriving in by air, fly in to Portland. No public transportation available, so you will need to rent a car.
Shuttle services are included in the price of your river trip. Reliable drivers will shuttle both your vehicle and O.R.E.’s rig to the take-out. If your party will arrive in more than one vehicle please notify us at least two weeks in advance so appropriate arrangements can be made.
You will need to bring your own clothing and toiletries. You will also need to bring a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad, although if you prefer you can rent them from us instead. (Info here.)
Details, tips, and a complete list of what to bring are found here. You will receive a copy of this information when you sign up for your trip.
|Average daytime high temperature||58||67||75|
|Average nighttime low temperature||31||35||42|
|Average monthly rainfall||1.4"||1.3"||1.0"|
The weather along the John Day River is typically very pleasant. This is a semiarid environment: hot and dry summers are the norm. However, cool and windy weather is a possibility, even in May and June, and clear desert skies often makes for cool evening temperatures.
Chinook salmon are found in the John Day River during the spring but silt laden waters generally make for so-so fishing. at that time. But as river levels drop and the water clears in late May and June the fishing for smallmouth bass is often excellent. You'll need an Oregon fishing license, which is available at many Oregon sporting goods stores or online at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's web site.
We select streamside meadows and beaches for our campsites. Our guides establish a central kitchen and social area, and trip members select spots in the surrounding area to pitch a tent or roll out a sleeping bag. O.R.E. will set up a portable toilet at each camp, which will be located with privacy and convenience in mind. O.R.E. practices minimum impact camping, and the crew will instruct you on the simple steps we follow to protect the environment along the John Day river.
Pre & post trip lodging and camping: Upper Canyon and Combo trips
If you come to Service Creek via The Dalles, Biggs and Condon, consider staying at the historic (and recently renovated) Hotel Condon, about an hour's drive from Service Creek. For reservations phone 800-201-6706. Or stay at one the numerous motels available in The Dalles. If you are coming via Madras or Prineville, stay at one of the numerous motels in Madras, or at the Ochoco Inn in Prineville (541-384-2181). Camping is available at Sheldon State Park on highway 19 between Fossil and Service Creek, or at the Ochoco Divide Forest Service campground on highway 26, between Prineville and Mitchell.
Pre & post trip lodging and camping - Lower Canyon trip
Consider staying at the historic (and recently renovated) Hotel Condon, in Condon, Oregon. For reservations phone 800-201-6706. There are many motels available in The Dalles, Biggs and Madras. Allow two hours to drive from Biggs or The Dalles to Clarno, and at least an hour to get from Madras to Clarno. Camping is available at Shelton State Park on OR-19, 10 miles south of Fossil.
While in the area consider a visit to nearby John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. For more information contact the Monument at 541-987-2333.
Guests sometimes ask whether it is appropriate to tip their guide. Tipping is optional, but if your guide did a great job then feel free to thank him or her with a gratuity. The amount is up to you, but tips between 8% and 20% of trip cost are customary. Gratuities are customarily presented to the Lead Guide, and will be shared equally among all guides on your trip.
- Beautiful desert scenery.
- Mild whitewater makes this our most relaxing multi-day river trip.
- Good to excellent fishing.
- One of America's longest free-flowing rivers.
- Near: Madras, The Dalles
- Trip Length: 4, 5 or 9 days
- Meeting Time: 8:00 AM
- 2020 Season: May 1 - July
- Boat Options: paddle raft, oar raft, row-yourself cataraft, inflatable kayak, stand up paddle board
- Whitewater Rating: II (novice)
- Suggested minimum age: 6