John Day Wilderness (Proposed)
Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 194-198.
A spectacular river, linking equally spectacular cliffs, canyons, habitats, and scenery.
Location: Jefferson, Gilliam, Grant, Sherman, Wasco, and Wheeler Counties, 16 miles west of Condon (Lower Canyon unit); 15 miles southwest of Fossil (Spring Basin unit); clustered about 10 miles north of Mitchell (Sutton Mountain vicinity units: Sutton Mountain, Coyote Canyon, Dead Dog, and Painted Hills); clustered about 15 miles northwest of Dayville (upper river units: Big Cliff, Branson Creek, Hog Ridge, and Sheep Rock)
Size: 313 square miles (200,083 acres)
Terrain: Flat river bottoms, vertical cliffs, steep canyons, and gentle plateaus
Elevation Range: 560-5,012 feet
Managing Agencies: Prineville District BLM, National Park Service
Agency Wilderness Status: 81,299-acre BLM wilderness study area; 39,978 acres recommended; 38,940 acres no recommendation
Recreation Maps: North and South Halves BLM Lower John Day River; North Half BLM Upper John Day River; both Prineville District BLM
These ten wild places are connected by the federal- and state-protected wild and scenic John Day River. The units are Big Cliff, Branson Creek, Coyote Canyon, Dead Dog, Hog Ridge, Lower Canyon, Painted Hills, Spring Basin, Sutton Mountain, and Sheep Rock.
The protected river corridor averages just 1/2 mile in width and is inadequate to fully protect this highly scenic and naturally diverse region. Three very small areas (Clarno, Painted Hills, and Sheep Rock) along the river comprise the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, managed by the National Park Service. All are unique and are worth visiting (contact NPS for more information).
Because of its seasonal snowpack and water diversions for irrigation, the streamflow in the Lower Canyon unit varies from an average of 10,000 cubic feet per second in the spring runoff to a mere 100 cubic feet per second in the late summer. The stark contrast of sheer wildness beside severely degraded landscapes is common.
Basalt defines the John Day Basin. It is everywhere in varied colors, textures, and forms. Several rare and endemic plant species are found in the basin on undisturbed lands, especially on the numerous unusual soil types.
The Oregon Biodiversity Project has identified two conservation opportunity areas in the basin: Clarno and Picture Gorge. Both were recognized as important corridors for migration of salmon and steelhead and as important habitat for the declining redband trout.
California bighorn sheep can be found in many of the units, and could he reintroduced into the rest. Other wildlife of note includes both golden and bald eagles, prairie falcon, tree and cliff swallows, long-eared owl, Canada geese, duck, red-winged blackbird, beaver, and mink. Other fish species include northern squawfish, brown bullheads, rainbow trout, and smallmouth bass.
Lower Canyon Unit
Deep river canyons, often 1,000 and occasionally 1,600 feet deep, characterize this unit. The reddish brown Columbia River basalt dominates the view from the river. Above the canyons are rolling hills and plateaus. This unit is actually in the Columbia Basin ecoregion.
Lush riparian vegetation can be found in many of the numerous side can- yons that enter the river. Species include chokecherry, red-osier dogwood, mock orange, poison ivy, wild rose, blackberry, and water birch. Scattered juniper are also present on the slopes that are mainly bluebunch wheatgrass or big sage- brush/Idaho fescue communities.
Spring Basin Unit
The high points that give views of the John Day Basin are well worth the climb. Numerous canyons, both large and small, offer great solitude and scenery. Besides the wildlife common in the Lower Canyon unit, bobcats, meadowlarks, and mountain bluebirds are in abundance. The area is an excellent example of palouse grassland, with outstanding stands of bluebunch wheatgrass and sage- brush steppe. (Palouse is the name botanists and ecologists give to the kind of grassland that grows on loess—a windblown deposit of fine-grained calcareous silt or clay—common to eastern Washington where the Palouse Indians once lived. The grassland is extremely rare because most of it was on gentle enough slope to grow wheat, and the loess soil grows lots of wheat.)
Sutton Mountain Vicinity Units
Sutton Mountain has an abrupt and colorful 2,000-foot precipice on the west and a gently sloping plateau to the east. The units are uplifted basalt formations on top of the same ash layer as the Painted Hills unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Numerous high points offer outstanding views. Cascades and waterfalls (including one 60 feet high) are present when water is running in the spring.
Vegetation is predominantly sagebrush steppe with some Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine in the canyons and juniper scattered across the slopes. The hedgehog cactus makes for a nice spring display. Paleontological resources are also present.
Upper River Units
BLM discounted these units because of the lack of river frontage and/or public access. The Big Cliff unit has a 3,200-foot elevation change in 2.5 miles. This unit is very rugged and has very pretty reddish brown cliffs as well. The units are covered with scattered juniper, an occasional pine, and stands of mountain mahogany. Big sagebrush and Idaho fescue are common in the open areas, along with Sandberg's bluegrass. Mule deer are common, and the rare wolverine can be found here.