With 8,000 acres of rugged terrain — vertical cliffs carved by the John Day River, deep canyons and rocky grasslands stretching for miles around — a trip to Cottonwood Canyon State Park in Eastern Oregon is like traveling back in time.
Located about two hours from Portland (50 minutes southeast of The Dalles), Cottonwood is Oregon’s newest and second largest State Park. Since opening in 2013 it’s become one of the best hidden basecamps for exploring this breathtaking part of the state, dubbed the John Day River Territory.
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is 45 miles south, which includes the Painted Hills in Mitchell, another 55 minutes south.
At Cottonwood, visitors can camp (21 primitive sites, first-come, first-served), or just use the day-use site for premier river adventuring along 14 miles of the wild John Day River — one of the nation’s longest free-flowing river systems.
A boat launch makes it easy to raft, kayak or take out a canoe or drift boat; swimming and fishing are also top-notch. “Small-mouth bass were introduced in 1970s, and there’s a steelhead run in the fall,” says Tom Peterson, the park manager who lives on site. “The water’s warm; it’s a fantastic fishery. The numbers are huge. If I had a younger kid and wanted to introduce them to fishing, that would be the place to take them.”
While there’s no cell service here, there are plenty of other ways to while the days away. Trails for hiking and mountain biking follow the river downstream. Wildflowers pop up through the canyon as early as March. Wildlife watching is abundant: Elk, golden eagles, peregrine falcons and a herd of bighorn sheep make their home here. There are also rattlesnakes, which don’t bite unless provoked.
Campers should be sure to bring plenty of water and shade — natural canopies are at a premium because the 300 Cottonwood trees are young, newly planted when the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department acquired the site in 2011 and began restoring it by adding native grasses to combat invasive species.
The state had acquired the land from the private nonprofit Western Rivers Conservancy, which had bought the ranch from the Murtha family in 2008. The family had farmed and ranched there for generations. Today visitors can look around one of the site’s only remaining relics, an old barn with antique tractors, combines and other farm equipment. A welcome center includes displays about the Native American heritage and ranching history of the area, and local schoolchildren visit to learn about geology and the canyonland ecosystem.
Cottonwood has also become a place for Eastern Oregon University students to earn college credit by studying hydrology, botany and archaeology of the region.
With protections by National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the Oregon Scenic Waterways Act, the John Day River is quite a special place, Peterson says: “To gain access to 14 miles of riverfront is a pretty major coup.”