Visitor’s Guide
to the John Day River Basin

See for yourself the rugged allure of the John Day River Basin, with its vast expanses of windswept high desert, endless mountains, and picturesque meandering rivers.
Within a few hours drive of Bend lies a scenic wonderland of big sky and stunning geography. The John Day River Basin offers day hikes, backcountry rambling, river rafting, fishing, and hunting. This visitor’s guide highlights some of our favorite John Day adventures, with the hope that you will use these as a starting point for your own adventures.


Cottonwood Canyon Riparian Soundscape

Cottonwood Canyon Riparian Soundscape


Terry Butler, 2018 Volunteer of the Year

Terry Butler, 2018 Volunteer of the Year

“If I have to pick a favorite place in Oregon’s high desert, it would be Sutton Mountain, but I’m excited about all of the Wilderness Study Areas,” says Terry, adding, “Each is a gem to explore, and I hope they all get protection someday… I love the scale of the physical beauty of the desert.”


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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Safety Tips

Following these suggestions will help you travel safely through the high desert of eastern Oregon and enjoy fragile places responsibly.   

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Where to Stay


Primitive camping can be found throughout the National Forest lands. If you’re looking to camp with a few more amenities, we’ve listed a few of our favorite campgrounds in the area below.  


Camping in Cottonwood Canyon State ParkCottonwood Canyon State Park

15 miles from Wasco, Oregon on Highway 206

This beautiful 8,000-acre park offers 21 primitive sites for tents and self-contained RVs, and seven hiker/biker camp with seven sites that are available first-come, first-served basis. Please note: This park was established 2013; some online mapping services may not show the park name or location, and older reference materials will not have it listed.

Season: year-round.




Mitchell City Park

Downtown Mitchell, Oregon

Located along Bridge Creek, this park offers various tent camping possibilities, as well as four RV spots, on a soft grass lawn. Within walking distance of the restaurants and other amenities, this well-maintained park is frequented by cyclists. Contact (541) 462-3121 with questions.

Season: year-round.


Shelton Wayside Park and Campground

13 miles southeast of Fossil, Oregon on Highway 19

This open, ponderosa-filled park offers 34 sites, ranging in size from small to huge. Bring cash to pay for your site via an “iron ranger.” No reservations, no hook-ups or sewer for RVs and trailers. Contact (541) 763-2010.

Season: mid-April to mid-October




The Oregon Hotel

108 E Main St, Mitchell OR

Simple dorms and rooms, some with shared bathrooms, in a quaint 1930s hotel that serves free breakfast. 

Learn more at or call (541) 462-3027.


The Painted Hills Vacation Rentals


These three cheery cottages set admidst beautiful gardens can be rented individually or together for larger groups.

Learn more at or call (541) 462-3921.


Service Creek Lodge

At the junction of Highways 19 and 207

Learn more at or call (541) 468-3331.



The Skyhook Motel

101 US-26, Mitchell, OR

Learn more at or call (541) 462-3569.


Hyatt House Bed and Breakfast

828 Main Street, Fossil

Learn more at or call (541) 763-2151


Wilson Family Ranches Retreat


Learn more at or call (541) 763-2227.


Spoke’n Hostel

300 US-26, Mitchell

This is a beautifully rustic donation-based hostel for cyclists and adventurers. 

Learn more at or call (541) 462-3333.


Bridge Creek Flora Inn

828 Main St. Fossil

Call (541) 763-2355.


Hotel Condon

202 S. Main Street, Condon, OR

Learn more at or call (541) 384-4624.


Where to Eat

Painted Hills Pastry, 204 West Main Street, Mitchell

Route 26 Espresso, junction of Highway 207 and Highway 26, Mitchell

Tiger Town Brewing Co., 108 W Main St, Mitchell

Cross Rifle BBQ Bar and Grill, 415 1st Street, Fossil

Country Flowers, 201 S Main Street, Condon


Hikes and Other Activities

To see how we define hike difficulty, please see our Hike Difficulty Ratings.

Spring Basin

This hike is best enjoyed with a plant identification guide in hand.

Hike It

Cregg Large

Black Canyon

You're likely to see wildlife and guaranteed to enjoy the scenery.

Hike It

Devlin Holloway

Sutton Mountain

Come all ye sun seekers and peak baggers!

Hike It

GP Martin

volunteers rafting on the John Day River

Float the Lower John Day River

With fewer rapids than the nearby Deschutes and Grand Ronde rivers, the Clarno to Cottonwood stretch of the John Day River offers a more leisurely float with scenic views of tall canyons, native wildlife, and—if you’re lucky—Native American pictographs. While the water is relatively flat, be prepared for one Class IV rapid (Lower Clarno rapid) at mile 104. Another excellent choice is the stretch that takes you between Cathedral Rock on the west bank and the Spring Basin Wilderness Area on the east bank.

Get a Permit

Go Fossil-Hunting on Sutton Mountain

Many people trek to the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds to see its brightly colored paleosols (the exposed fossil soils buried within volcanic deposits), but few people know that Sutton Mountain also boasts an abundance of these painted formations. Layer upon layer of ash, lava, and volcanic mud trapped ancient plants and animals, preserving them for millennia. Over time, erosion has revealed these ancient fossils and sediments, creating a diverse, beautiful geological story dating back as far back as 40 million years. To experience this marvel without the crowds, take a trip to the western slope of Sutton Mountain or visit Stovepipe Springs, a unique, vivid-colored clay formation. The Oregon Paleo Lands Institute, based in Fossil, can provide more information.

Learn More
cyclist looking at Painted Hills

Ride the Painted Hills Scenic Bikeway

Bike through millions of years of history stacked up in neatly stratified ribbons of tan, black, and red in the Painted Hills, check out the cragginess of Sutton Mountain, and enjoy the cool breeze coming off the John Day River as you ride between the small communities of Fossil, Service Creek, Spray, Kimberly, Mitchell and the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The full loop is 161 miles, with out and back options, too. You can start and end your ride in any of the communities on the bikeway. As Travel Oregon notes, "The moment you leave town, you’ll savor the solitude—it’s just you, your bicycle and the glorious views."

Ride On

Land Manager Contact Info 
Bureau of Land Management – Prineville District Office
Dennis Teitzel
District Manager
3050 N.E. 3rd Street
Prineville, OR 97754
Phone: (541) 416-6700