About the park
The 8,000 acre state park is the second largest in Oregon, after Silver Falls in the Willamette Valley. This part if the John Day territory is illustrated with remarkable canyons, muscular hills, and sweeping sage-covered views. The park is mostly undeveloped. It was a ranch before being sold first to the Western Rivers Conservancy in 2008, and then by that nonprofit to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department from 2009-2011.
We kept the old jeep roads — to use them as trails — and a barn, but the rest was swept away to make room for a small, rustic campground and picnic shelter.
This place is rugged and fierce. Yes, there are snakes and ticks. And bighorn sheep and elk. And delicate damselflies and lumbering beetles. The riverside plant communities need some TLC, and it will take years to beat back the weeds and expand the remnant hardwood forest that was always rare, but is now even more so. Until then, there’s very little shade, and aside from the John Day River, very little water. The weather can be extreme — blazing in the summer and bitter in the winter — and the furthest reaches of the park are for the most hardy, most independent adventurer.
But it is a state park, which means we’ve designed it with families in mind. The areas closest to the main entrance off Highway 206 are easy to reach, and easy to use. If you just want a taste — just a sample — of adventure, it’s there for you. A picnic lunch, a night in your tent, a mile or two on the trail — you don’t need a guide, or back-country credentials for these simple pleasures.
That line, from “simple and easy” to “rugged and challenging,” starts at the park entrance and ends eight miles downstream, at the far end of the park. You choose how deep you want to go, and when you’ve finished with Cottonwood, remember you’ve just barely walked through the front door to the John Day territory experience, and much, much more awaits your exploration beyond the park.