Where-to: Swim in the John Day Basin

Steve Roelof   Website

Author: Joanna Zhang | Published: July 19, 2021 | Categories: Where-to 

Five fantastic swimming holes on the John Day River

You might not think of heading to the desert when you want to go swimming. That’s quite understandable. While Oregon’s high desert isn’t pulsing with waterfalls and lush temperate rainforests, the dry side of the state is home to beautiful volcanic lakes in mountain calderas and hundreds of miles of waterways, including the mighty John Day River. 

These five spots on the John Day River might forever change your mind about swimming in the desert.  




Bitteroot blooms on north-facing cliffs in western North America.

The Paiute name for bitteroot is kangedya. Traditional Native American uses of the plant included eating the roots, mixed with berries and meat, and using the roots to treat sore throats.



Western Rattlesnake

Western Rattlesnake

Also known as the Great Basin Rattlesnake, these pit vipers have buff-tan coloring and small, oval blotches to blend into their arid surroundings. Small heat-sensing indentations on each side of the snake’s snout detects warm-blooded prey for better striking accuracy in the dark. Source: The Oregon Encyclopedia

Latin name: Crotalus oreganus lutosus


Spring Basin Wilderness

Spring Basin Wilderness

Spring Basin Wilderness

With 10,000 acres of undulating terrain, secluded canyons and spectacular vantages of the John Day Country, Spring Basin is magnificent to explore This public treasure, forever protected as Wilderness, offers a profusion of desert wildflowers in the spring and year-round recreational opportunities for hikers, horseback

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Cottonwood Canyon State Park


Priest Hole Recreation Site

Cottonwood Canyon State Park

Nestled along the banks of the John Day River between Wasco and Condon is Cottonwood Canyon State Park, Oregon’s newest state park. Cottonwood Canyon encompasses 8,000 acres of rugged terrain with canyon walls reaching 1,250 feet deep and rolling hills home to all kinds of desert wildlife, including bighorn sheep and elk. Located on the northern end of the river where the flow is slower, the swimming opportunities here are top-notch, not to mention the boat launch that makes it a breeze to take a kayak, canoe or raft out to explore. 

Cottonwood Canyon State Park website

Overview of ONDA’s work in Cottonwood Canyon State Park

Priest Hole Recreation Site

Deep in the heart of John Day country is Priest Hole Recreation Site, a local favorite for swimming and fishing. The water here is the perfect temperature for swimming and can be an ideal spot to gaze at the impressive Sutton Mountain Wilderness Study Area towering over the river to the south. This site is right in the middle of the John Day Wild and Scenic River, which was designated for its incredible scenery, fish and wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and geological features. Camping at Priest Hole is free, and you can even set up your tent on a gravel bar where you can fall asleep to the sound of the river.

Priest Hole Recreation Site information

Ritter Road Swimming Hole

You may have heard of the popular Ritter Hot Springs, but that’s probably not on anyone’s agenda for this summer full of record-high temperatures (the hot springs are currently closed the public). Just a mile away from the hot springs, at mile marker 10 on Ritter Road, is a swimming hole along the Middle Fork of the John Day River. Ritter Road Swimming Hole is right at a slow-moving part of the river, where the water is an ideal depth for taking a dip. There’s even a cliff jumping spot for the sprightly swimmers among us, albeit one that’s none too high. You’ll find Ritter Road off of Highway 395 between Pendleton and John Day. 

Outdoor Project review of Ritter Road Swimming Hole 

Bridge Creek near Painted Hills

John Day River

Sage Brown

Big Bend Recreation Site

Like the Colorado and the Rio Grande, the John Day River also has its own “Big Bend.” The Big Bend Recreation Site is found a few miles north of the small town of Kimberly, at – you guessed it – a big bend of the John Day River. Given the large turn that the river takes here, the waters flow slowly enough to create a fantastic swimming hole. For those who’d like to stick around for more than a day, five campsites on the northern bank of the river offer incredible views of the John Day and surrounding desert landscape. 

Outdoor Project review of Big Bend Recreation Site

Bridge Creek Swimming Hole

Conveniently located between Highway 26 and Painted Hills National Monument off of Bridge Creek/Burnt Ranch Road is the Bridge Creek campground. This is an excellent place to stop on your way to or from Painted Hills, one of Oregon’s Seven Wonders. Whether you’re spending the night or not, this campground provides access to a lovely swimming spot on Bridge Creek, a 28-mile long tributary of the John Day. 

The Dyrt review of Bridge Creek/Burnt Ranch Campground

How ONDA is Working to Conserve Desert Waters

With yet another hot and dry summer upon us, there’s no question that addressing, mitigating and reversing the effects of climate change and drought needs to be a top priority for everyone. 

ONDA contributes to mitigating the effects of climate change in the high desert in two key ways:  through our riparian restoration program and by advocating for protection for critical desert rivers and streams. 

ONDA restores riparian areas – the green habitat zones along the banks of rivers and streams – by planting native, climate resilient tree species that provide much-needed shade for desert fish and wildlife that depend on cold-water habitat. We are also working to Congressionally protect these waterways, joining Senator Wyden and Senator Merkley to advocate for Wild and Scenic designation for more than 1,000 miles of desert rivers and streams included in their River Democracy Act. This landmark legislation would give these desert rivers and streams the protection they need to keep flowing and serving as lifelines in the high desert, carrying cold snowmelt down from places such as Steens Mountain and the Trout Creek and Pueblo Mountains to desert habitats below.