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Rivers and Canyons

The John Day River is the longest free-flowing river in Oregon. Much of it is designated as Wild and Scenic. From its North Fork headwaters high in the Elkhorn Mountains, the river makes a 55-mile run through rugged canyons and landscapes, including the North Fork of the John Day Wilderness, where it is designated as a Wild and Scenic River for 28 miles. The river’s longest Wild and Scenic stretch extends from Service Creek to Tumwater Falls—a total of 147.5 miles—one of the longest Wild and Scenic river streteches in the West.

The run down the John Day includes several significant rapids. Rafters, floaters, and kayakers should check local river conditions before putting in.


Most of this canyon, like the North Fork Canyon, is truly remote, (don’t expect cell phone service or easy road access) and lives up to the Wild and Scenic designation. The canyons expose extraordinary views of geology, wildlife, and landscapes. 

The Donnelly put-in near Service Creek is a popular put-in for a float to Twickenham, Clarno, or the long, 4- 5 day trip to Cottonwood.


Links to outfitters and additional river information are at the bottom of the page. Here are a few places you can see and experience the river without floating it.

Picture Gorge

The John Day River carved the deep—but short canyon of Picture Gorge through a faulted uplift of Columbia River basalts. The canyon is known as Picture Gorge for the Native American petroglyphs and pictographs found on its walls.


John Day Fossil Beds, Sheep Rock

Sheep Rock, just east of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument headquarters, is a high ridge carved from the colorful rocks of the Turtle Cove Formation and Haystack Formation, and capped by Columbia River basalt. If you look closely, you can see a fault that cuts through it’s face.


The North Fork joins the main-stem (combined middle Fork and South Fork) at Kimberly, creating sufficient flow to float the river in the spring. From Kimberly to Service Creek, most of the John day’s canyon has been carved through Columbia River basalt flows.


Donnelly/Service Creek

A small, primitive camping area marks a wide place of quiet water before the river makes a plunge through another rugged basalt-rimmed gorge.



The river emerges from its basaltic confines into a broad, fertile valley with ranches and beautiful views of colored outcrops and painted hills. Watch for bright yellow blooms of prickly pear and red blooms of hedgehog cactus on open slopes in late-May.


From Twickenham to Clarno, the river cuts through a rugged landscape of ancient and very extinct volcanoes. Some 45 million years ago, a forest of ancestral citrus, banana, and palm trees grew on the volcanic slopes. The tattered remnants of these volcanos form steep cliffs along the John day for most of this section. The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument’s Clarno Unit, near the Clarno take out, offers a short interpretive trail to examine fossils and the ancient volcanic debris flows.



Accessible on Oregon Highway 19, Cottonwood put-in is at the end of a long trip through a deep and rugged Columbia-River-basalt canyon.


And if you wish to float the river, check river conditions and permitting requirements through the BLM, and contact one of the well qualified local outfitters, or rent rafts and arrange for shuttle service with these local businesses:


Mah Hah Outfitters, Fossil, Oregon. (Float and Fishing Trips)


Service Creek Stage Stop: Raft/kayak Rentals, Shuttle Service


BLM’s John Day River

For river infomration, including info about permits, river flows, and a guide to rapids, visit the BLM’s river site:

Oregon Paleo Lands  
Institute Center

2024 Summer Hours

Thursday - Sunday 


*we will be closed

one hour for lunch

Want to Volunteer?

The Paleo Lands Center invites you, to meet the public and school groups at our educational hub of the John Day Basin. Volunteers can serve as Board Members, Advisors, Center helpers and docents and help share exciting natural history exhibits, brochures, and books with visitors and schools.
Please Contact the Center at

541-763-4480 or for details


Road and Weather Conditions


*Please call or email if you would like to schedule your school group for a visit during the week. Thank you!


Contact Information

333 West Fourth Street

Post Office Box 104

Fossil, OR 97830
Phone: (541) 763-4480




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