Oregon Photo Guide | Top Oregon Hiking & Photography Destinations

John Day River Basin

John Day is both a name for a city and a river in Eastern Oregon.  The city of John Day is the largest in Grant County, Oregon, albeit with a population of 1,850 residents.  painted hillsHowever, it is the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape of John Day that makes up for its size. There are countless outdoor recreation activities, from fishing, hiking, backpacking, camping, cross-country skiing, horseback riding, hunting, photography, and scenic driving to name a few.  There are three primary settings that encompass the recreational and picturesque qualities of the John Day area.  They are the John Day River Basin, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and the barns and ranches that still stand from the early days of Eastern Oregon’s pioneer roots.  As such, the John Day River Basin is a top destination in Oregon for outdoor recreation and photography.

The city of John Day was named for the nearby John Day River.  But who was John Day for which so many sites share his name?  John Day was a Virginian member of the 1811 Astor Expedition.  john day riverHe was part of the overland expedition to the mouth of the Columbia River to set up a fur trading post that left from St. Louis, Missouri.  John Day wandered lost and starving in this part of Oregon in the winter of 1811-1812.  Only John and his partner Ramsey Crooks made it to the Columbia River.  The Native American Mah-hah River was later given his name.  It is this river that meanders through and alongside the John Day River Basin that is the highlight of the natural landscape.  The John Day River flows into the mighty Columbia River and runs 284 miles in northeastern Oregon.  Undammed along its entire length, the river is the third longest free-flowing river in the contiguous United States.

The main branch of the John Day River begins in the snow-clad Strawberry Mountains in eastern Grant County. The North Fork continues on the western slope of the Elkhorn Mountains in northeastern Grant County. Some of the finest wilderness scenery from the river is a 39 mile segment of the North Fork John Day River which has been designated as a Wild and Scenic River.  north fork john day wildernessSpecifically, The North Fork John Day Wilderness along the North Fork John Day River Trail deep in Oregon’s Blue Mountain gold rush country is prime backpacking country. The 25 mile-long hiking trail follows the John Day River downstream through a rimrock canyon featuring forests of douglas fir and lodge pole pines, rocky outcroppings, wildflower meadows, and the remains of decaying log cabins of Oregon’s gold rush pioneers.  The John Day River is navigable by raft, and the portions of white water and slow drift make it popular for white water rafting and leisure tubing in the calm portions.  Fishing is top-rated with wild steelhead and Chinook salmon populating its waters.

A few of the most popular hiking and backcountry camping areas in the John Day River Basin are Sutton Mountain, Spring Basin Wilderness Area, Horse Heaven, and Cathedral Rock.  The Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) has worked for decades to restore and protect these areas due to their critical habitat for fish and wildlife.  They have also been working for years to have Congress designate the lands as protected wilderness areas, with success so far; Spring Basin Wilderness Area was designated as such in 2009.  These locations showcase the beauty and allure of the John Day River Basin with vast expanses of high desert, sage-brush plains, rocky outcroppings, and craggy peaks.  Sutton Mountain makes for an excellent extension of a trip to the Painted Hills as it forms part of the eastern backdrop of the Painted Hills Unit.  The view from the top of Sutton Mountain includes the Painted Hills, the Cascades from Jefferson to Adams, and the surrounding John Day juniper and sagebrush-filled landscape.  Reaching the summit of Sutton Mountain is a moderate hike, with a round trip distance of approximately 5 miles and elevation gain of 1,600 feet.

Highly recommended adventurous campsites along the John Day River that are accessible by both boat and vehicle can be found at the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) sites just north of the Painted Hills Unit.  burnt ranch roadThe areas are called Lower Burnt Ranch, Burnt Ranch, and Priest Hole.  The drive along Burnt Ranch Road, north of the Painted Hills Unit, is a bumpy rock and gravel trek through amazing canyons and rocky outcroppings and is an exceptionally scenic drive.

The road leads to three of the state’s finest BLM camping areas with primitive camp spots.  There is rocky beach access and boat ramps leading to the river. There are no services such as trash pick-up or water; there are vault toilets, however.  john day riverThere are no campfires allowed from June – September at BLM campgrounds and on the BLM land along the John Day River; plan a trip just before or after this timeframe if you would like to have a roaring fire while you camp.  Priest Hole has been known to be a summertime party spot with locals, but these three campgrounds are close together and you can scope them out before settling down and choosing the right one to make camp.  The camping experience at either Lower Burnt Ranch, Burnt Ranch, or Priest Hole is exceptional as there is no finer view than from a tent along the John Day River.

The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is the highlight of the John Day area.  Most notable, the Painted Hills makes up one unit of the overall 14,000 acres of semi-desert shrublands and colorful badlands of the John Day River Basin.  The other units include Sheep Rock and Clarno.  The area became a National Monument in 1975 and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Oregon. the painted hillsThe Painted Hills is noted mostly for its colorful geology made of heavily eroded volcanic ash layers deposited during volatile and ancient times when the area was a river plain with a warm tropical climate.   The hills receive their name from spectacular colors and banded striations that appear hand-painted with an artistic quality that seems almost unnatural and highly surreal.  Over eons of time, the layers of ash formed and became embedded with different mineral compositions, which has led to the incredible bands of color we see today.  There is no finer location to witness an awe-inspiring landscape and countless painters and photographers visit the Painted Hills year-round.  A couple of ways to capture a photograph that is a little different than the rest is during the springtime, where small clusters of yellow flowers dot the hills, and in early wintertime when there is a fresh dusting of white powder.  Right after a rain or thunderstorm is the best time to view the hills as the dampness enriches the saturation of the reds, oranges, and yellows contrasted with black striations.

The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is well-known for its preserved layers of fossil plants and mammals that lived in the region ranging between the late Eocene, about 45 million years ago, and the late Miocene, about 5 million years ago.  Fossils found in the John Day Strata include a wide variety of plants and more than 100 species of mammals, including dogs, cats, saber-toothed tigers, horses, camels, and rodents. The monument features a visitors attraction called the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center located at the Sheep Rock unit.  It is the best place to see fossils at the monument.  Visitors can watch scientists carefully working on fossils from behind a window.  The center features interactive displays, including “touch tables” and microscopes, paintings, murals, and displays illustrating the various regions where the fossils were found and the variety of plant and animal fossils discovered within the monument.

Another highlight of John Day is not a single named destination, but rather the many scattered barns and ranches that trace their roots back to the early pioneering days of Eastern Oregon.  john day ranchA popular route to witness many of these homesteads is by driving the scenic byway, The Journey Through Time, which stretches 286 miles through north central to eastern Oregon.  Beginning in Biggs near the Columbia River, and ending in Baker City in the Blue Mountains.  The byway meanders through ghost towns, homesteads, and old ranching communities dating back to the early settlers of Oregon.  The road takes you to the very small town of Antelope where soon you come to the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds with several walking trails.

Paralleling much of the John Day River, The Journey Through Time route leads to many of the fishing, rafting, and camping locations in the John Day River Basin. john day barnOne of the prettiest portions is the stretch of Highway 19 near the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds which runs from Kimberly to Dayville and highlights the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  The highway runs by Cathedral Rock which is unmistakable given the green, yellow, and brown horizontal of this weathered cliff towering above the John Day River.  Highway 19 takes you to the center of the town of John Day, before passing through the cattle ranches the town is well-known for.  Be on the lookout for old barns, horse ranches, and windmills to photograph along the journey.

The John Day River Basin is a vast portion of Oregon and no single trip can view all of its beauty nor provide all of the bountiful outdoor recreational activities it can offer.  Many generations of Oregonians have made the land their home. It is a land that should be visited frequently and at different seasons of the year.  It is the perfect location for those who wish to drive and those who would like to set out on foot or by boat.  Given the expansive and diverse make-up of the landscape, John Day is a top destination in Oregon for hiking and photography.

For more pictures of the John Day River Basin, please visit www.photographyoregon.com.


Oregon Photo Guide™ features the landscape photography of Michael Skourtes, Portland Oregon photographer and avid outdoorsman. I venture throughout the state searching for the top destinations for Oregon hiking, backpacking, camping, and photography. I share my experiences and photography of Oregon on my guide. I encourage you to explore Oregon and make your own outdoor adventure.

For picture galleries featuring Oregon photography, or to contact me, visit www.photographyoregon.com.

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