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Skip's Trailhead: Cottonwood Canyon

SPECTACULAR VIEWS from the Pinnacle Trail greet visitors hiking in the new Cottonwood Canyon State Park.

Skip Tschanz photo
SPECTACULAR VIEWS from the Pinnacle Trail greet visitors hiking in the new Cottonwood Canyon State Park.

Everything about Cottonwood Canyon State Park is impressive.

At 252 miles, the John Day River is the second-longest undammed river in the lower 48 states. It is also one of the most productive steelhead fisheries in Oregon. The canyon is home to the largest California bighorn sheep herds in Oregon. The basalt flows came from Idaho and Nevada 15 million years ago and are 4.5 miles deep.


Cottonwood Canyon State Park.

But until recently this canyon was owned by the Murtha family and was off limits to you and me. Recently, Western River Conservancy purchased the land and then resold it to Oregon State Parks and Recreation for $7.86 million. Oregon parks has now invested another 5 million into the infrastructure.


Barn at Cottonwood Canyon offers an interpretive information about the land’s past.

At the visitor area there are restrooms with running water, a sheltered picnic area and an information building. The old barn has been retrofitted and has an interpretive walk about the land’s past. There are 21 primitive campsites and another seven for hikers and cyclists.


SPECTACULAR VIEWS along the shore of the John Day River greet visitors to the new Cottonwood Canyon State Park.

At the present there are 16 miles of trails in Cottonwood Canyon. The two longest ones are The Pinnacle Trail and Lost Corral Trail; they are both 4.3 miles one way. One of the shorter trails, Sage Steppe Trail is just four tenths of a mile long, but when we took it we saw a herd of pronghorn antelope drifting over a nearby ridge.

The Pinnacle Trail is an old ranch road that has been turned into an easy walking path that follows the north side of the river. With a pair of waders, fly rod and the proper lure you can catch anything from a rainbow trout, to a small-mouth bass to that fighting mass of muscle called a steelhead. In spring and early fall it is also home to one of the best Chinook runs in Oregon.

If you are more of a land-oriented person, you have good chance to spot an occasional Rocky Mountain Elk, Bighorn sheep, coyote and mule deer.

For bird watchers this is a special paradise. Bald and golden eagles call this canyon home as do falcons, kestrels and red-tailed hawks. Summer time brings swifts, chukars, quail and orioles.

Don’t forget your camera either. The contrast between the deep blue of the river, the steel gray basalt and golden grasslands makes for awe-inspiring pictures. Come next spring, the earth tones of fall will be replaced by Ireland-green grass and an artist’s pallet of spring wildflowers.

This land is a throwback to the past. It’s wild, remote, and breathtakingly beautiful, and has absolutely zero cell phone coverage. Sturdy hiking boots are recommended if you plan on following one of the longer trails into the canyon. This is also one of those places where you should have extra water, knife, first aid kit, fire starter and matches. A good pair of binoculars is a bonus.

To find Cottonwood State Park take I-84 east to Biggs Junction, follow Oregon Highway 97 to Wasco and then head east on Oregon 206 for 12 miles. Cottonwood Canyon State Park is where 206 crosses the John Day River.

Just a few words to the wise. Western rattlesnakes call Cottonwood Canyon home. So do ticks and other critters.

Watch where you are stepping and leave the snakes alone. They will go away, I promise.

Check your clothing often and brush any ticks off. Take a shower when you get home. You will be fine, I promise.


grassyknoll 4 years, 5 months ago

The John Day is the third longest undammed river in the lower 48 states, after the Yellowstone and Salmon Rivers


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