Maybe because it runs through the quietest county in the state, rugged Wheeler County, but a John Day River trip from Service Creek to Clarno has long been one of the best-kept recreation secrets in the state.
The secret began getting out in earnest a few years back, though, and more traffic on the section prompted the Bureau of Land Management, which manages usage on the river, to adopt a limited entry program. But the limit — eight groups of at most 16 people per launch site daily — is relatively liberal and shouldn't keep persistent people from getting on the river, especially if they are flexible on dates.
The floating "season" on the John Day is short, at least for those who prefer to wear shorts while rafting and not polar fleece. The preponderance of rafts and drift boats are on the river from early May (when it's still possible to wake to frost) to late June (when weather can range from 100 in the afternoon to 40 late at night).
The John Day River is one of America's great undammed rivers. It's generally quiet, especially compared to its sister river to the west, the Deschutes, which carnival-like section above and below Maupin can draw thousands of thrill-seekers a day and becomes an I-5 of rafts. Outside of Burnt Ranch Rapids — which can cause some issues in lower water, but is a breeze at higher levels — there are no rapids of note between Service Creek and Clarno. But what the John Day lacks in excitement, it makes up for in scenic wonder, rejuvenating solitude and oftentimes, especially in lower water conditions, world-class bass fishing.
Being undammed and without flow regulation, the John Day water level fluctuates, sometimes substantially even on a daily basis. The big spring runoff levels can sometimes wane to hardly navigable by early June during drought years. This year, the June rains have helped make the 2020 season a relatively long one.
The Service Creek to Clarno run is the most popular section of the river. The store at Service Creek is a great place for last-minute cooler items, or a last restaurant meal before camping. The 47-mile trek from the state park at Service Creek to the bridge at Clarno — between Antelope and Fossil — showcases massive canyons of sage, wild grass, riverside ag country and amazing basalt outcrops. Usually taken in three days, the trip moves along intermittent agriculture and ranch lands before moving into the midsection shortly after going under the Twickenham bridge.
The middle stretch has many excellent campgrounds for first and second nights. Many groups make it a four-day trip and float short on the second or third day … or stay in camp all day as a layover.
The last 10 miles of the trip return to ag land or otherwise private property with essentially no camping. So give yourself plenty of time for the last stretch.
For more information on the John Day River and the permit process, check https://www.blm.gov/or/permit/.
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