John Day River – Cottonwood to McDonald Crossing

This year we decided to pursue a different route on the John Day. Instead of doing a run from Service Creek to Clarno or Clarno to Cottonwood, we would do from Thirtymile Creek to McDonald Crossing. This gave us a similar distance as Service Creek to Cottonwood, while at the same time providing a paddle with a bit less white water.

Like last time, we utilized SOT (Sit On Top) kayaks for this trip, in this case the venerable Ocean Kayak Trident 13 Angler model was used.


Since a large part of this trip has already been reviewed in our John Day River – Service Creek to Cottonwood Review, I will primarily focus in on the portion of the trip from Cottonwood Bridge to McDonald Crossing.

Cottonwood Bridge at RM 39.7 is the put-in. You are drifting through relatively open dessert canyons, occasionally passing basalt cliffs , a few ranches, stretches with Jeep trail access alternate with stretches that have no road access at all. This section is comparable to the last 5 to 10 miles of the Clarno-Cottonwood stretch.


At low water level none of the few rapids exceed class I and even at significantly higher levels they should be straightforward. Respecting the few fences and ‘No Trespassing’ signs still leaves you with plenty opportunities to camp . At RM 20.7 you are crossing the McDonald ford of the Barlow cutoff of the Oregon Trail. River left, an Oregon Trail monument one quarter of a mile up the dirt road can be visited, but remember staying on the public road since the owner of the surrounding ranch had fishermen arrested for crossing the line.

The Oregon State Parks division has recently put in restroom facilities at McDonald Crossing and a parking area. This came about after the controversial navagability study that ruled the river was in fact navigable and the State of Oregon owned all land to the high water mark.

Fishing can be excellent along this stretch of river and very little traffic is seen. Although we saw people getting ready to put in at Cottonwood Bridge when we  stopped mid morning, we saw no boats on this stretch of river at all during the 20 mile paddle to McDonald Crossing.

For more photos of paddling the John Day River CLICK HERE


9 Responses to John Day River – Cottonwood to McDonald Crossing

  1. James says:

    How many hours would it take to travel from Cottonwood to McDonald (20 miles) at the end of April with spring flows (~5,500cfs)?

  2. David Pauli says:

    Are you aware of any shuttle company servicing this area?

    • admin says:

      I memory serves me correctly, the only shuttle you can get requires you to stop at Cottonwood. So, this requires a bit more advanced planning!

  3. Rob Wilcox says:

    Do you access McDonald from the east or west?

  4. Rob Wilcox says:

    Do you know if there is access driving from the west on McDonald Ferry Ln?

  5. David Dent says:

    Shuttle for Cottonwood – McDonald Crossing (541) 763-4884

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