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About the park

Cottonwood Canyon opened in September 2013.

The 8,000 acre state park is the second largest in Oregon, after Silver Falls in the Willamette Valley. This part of the John Day territory is illustrated with remarkable canyons, muscular hills, and sweeping sage-covered views.

The park is mostly undeveloped with:

– A small 21 site primitive campground (water close by; no electricity; vault toilets); max site length is 75 feet

– Group and hiker/biker camping options

– Day use area with a shade and picnic shelter, Welcome Center, flush restrooms and self-guiding interpretive displays around old barn.

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.

40 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2010 4:01 am

    Oregon is my new home. Mary and I moved here on 10 Dec 2009, after 50+ years of living in Tucson. One of the reasons we chose Oregon for our retirement is the whole coast is in public ownership.

    Then I found out about Oregon’s park a year program. Wow! What a wonderful contrast from Arizona’s state park system, which is virtually shutting down.

    Within our first two months in Oregon we hiked the Ten Falls Trail in Silver Falls. Double wow! Then from Ona Beach to Seal Rock and back. I also heard Doug Crispin’s amazing account of the restoration of the historic Thompson Mill at OSU’s Academy of Lifelong Learning. Last week Mary and I took pictures of Roosevelt elk and other creatures at the new Beaver Creek Park. I can hardly wait to see Cottonwood.

    Oregon’s cornucopia of wonderful wild and historic places, … held in trust for future generations …, is stunning. Why can’t every state do this? Who do I hug in thanks for providing such great programs in my new home state? I wish I moved here a long time ago, before I retired.

    The park a year program should become a permanent part of Oregon’s policies. Every Oregonian should be issued a symbolic ownership deed, showing that each of us owns the treasures within the state park system, particularly school children, who will benefit from living in a state with the natural and historic resources preserved so well.

    Oregon State Parks make me want to live forever. So far, so good. 🙂

    • Christine Murtha permalink
      May 12, 2010 2:28 pm


      As part of the Murtha clan (whose property this used to be), I hope you will enjoy the wonders of the area. This is however, not for the faint of heart as it is high desert area and rather scrubby (not full of a lot of trees as most parks you would think). It does offer fantastic waterways and there are plenty of animals to view. I hope you will enjoy the area as much as the family has.

      • Jennifer permalink
        October 16, 2011 5:11 pm

        Christine I agree. I am Mary Chambers Murthas grand daughter and I have very fond memories of the ranch. It is rough but beautiful. I can’t wait to see what they have done with it.

      • Gail permalink
        September 23, 2014 9:42 pm

        I’m in Olympia WA and this area has been on my radar for a long time. I can’t wait till we can come visit. Hopefully, this October.

    • May 13, 2010 9:08 pm

      Welcome to Oregon. Really like the idea of issuing some sort of ownership certificate to Oregonians (especially kids). Beaver Creek will open as our new park this fall, as you probably already know. The best day to go out and play in Oregon is … today (we get to say stuff like that because it’s always true). Look forward to seeing your photos.

      • Stacy Livermore permalink
        January 8, 2011 2:38 am

        Christine, THANK YOU for posting that this is “not for the faint of heart!” I was gnashing my teeth at a meeting of horse people last night when I heard a couple of comments about “how much can we ride because it’s so hot over there in the summer??” (Uh…ride early in the morning, and late in the evening. Avoid July and August. That gives you at least 6 months of late spring and early fall to play with.) Another question was “will there be trees??” (Uh, no. Bring a dining canopy, sunblock, and be prepared to sweat.)
        I grew up in Pendleton, lived in La Grande in college and after that for 10 years, and LOVE the high and dry. Friends and I go to Corncob Ranch every year over near Spray and LOVE the riding offered there. Sagebrush, Juniper, pine, wheatgrass and rye, rabbit brush, and so on are beautiful to me. Driving down through Cottonwood Canyon on the way over and back we are always marvelling and saying “oh that’s so beautiful!!” Hay Canyon is amazing as well.
        Anyway, if you want lush, green, shady forests, please look on the West side of the Cascades! If you want wide open spaces, huge canyons, unlimited views, challenges in weather and terrain, then this section of Eastern Oregon will offer it.

  2. May 15, 2010 8:04 pm


    Thanks. I’m pretty sure I’m going to enjoy Cottonwood. From the on line pictures I’ve seen, the open vistas will be worth driving over to see. Maybe I’ll find a rattler or two to remind me of my yard in Arizona’s Rincon Valley (SE of Tucson). I’m going to look for that ol’ swimmin’ hole, too.

    You and your family are to be commended for helping provide another park for Oregon. Current and future generations owe the Murtha’s a debt of gratitude, as we all do to Oregon State Parks and the political leaders with the foresight to fund acquisitions.

  3. Kim McCarrel permalink
    May 23, 2010 6:47 pm

    I’m very interested in the idea of establishing a horse camp in this beautiful area. Please put me on your email list to be notified of meetings, etc. Thank you!

  4. David Hudson permalink
    July 13, 2010 1:40 pm

    Looking forward to the next set of public meetings and learning about the economic impact this will have on the Condon area. This park will enhance our tourism offerings including the museum complex and historic hotel. Keep up the good work!

  5. Melissa Farrier permalink
    July 21, 2010 3:43 pm

    Wonderful! We can use a few more developed horse camping sites in this area, so please put a horse camp in the plan. I’ll be glad to offer insights from an equestrian point of view, contact me any time for comments.

  6. Ramona Steinberg permalink
    August 20, 2010 2:13 pm

    I love the rugged landscapes of this area with the beautiful John Day River running through it. I would love to be able to ride my horse there and have a place to camp. Please keep my informed.

  7. Debbie York permalink
    August 24, 2010 10:42 pm

    I, too, would love to ride my horse(s) in this area. Please consider a horse camp and keep me informed.

  8. Jenny Webster permalink
    August 25, 2010 1:42 am

    Interested in an equestrian camp at this new park. I understand this will be a primitive camp if developed. I would suggest making the staging area large enough for several “large size PU and trailers” of the 55′ plus size. Many people have larger trailers hauling several horses whom camp primitivily with tents. Also, there are those that have large LQ trailers that camp at trail heads. Save the State of Oregon some money by making a large area that will accomodate several types of equestrian campers. A suggestion for your development engineers is Todd Creek near the Sisters. A wonderful trail head with a large open area for any size rig. There are some corrals around the perimiter, but that wouldn’t be necessary. Hi-lining would be find. The main requirement is “room” to park and turn. The rest is up to the camper. Most of us can Hi-line or set up a moveable corral. I would love to visit and ride the John Day area. Hope your plans will work for equestrians!

  9. Jean Gregor permalink
    August 25, 2010 1:40 pm

    They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and as Oregonians we are fortunate in deed to behold such diverse beauty in our state. I look forward to time spent in this area viewing its beauty from my favorite mode of transportation, my horse. Making provision for a horse camp would be greatly appreciated.

  10. Jodi Knutson permalink
    August 29, 2010 3:56 pm

    I also love to explore Oregon by horseback. I would love a horse camp in this area. I lived in John Day for a short time and this is some of my very favorite riding area. What beauty is in the high desert! Not everyone sees it since it is dry and can have harsh weather conditions. You just need to plan your trip for the weather time you prefer and come prepared for changing conditions and you can enjoy it any time of year. The high desert with a wonderful river running through it is great. Thank you to the Murtha family for donating it.

    I will make sure my entire family comes there for camping and riding.

  11. Marcia Higgins permalink
    September 14, 2010 4:33 pm

    I truly hope that the planners for this park, are not the same folks that did the L.L.Stub Stewart state Park. When my husband and I went for a visit the week it opened, I cried all the way home. This beautiful forested area had been bulldozed, cement pads poured, and shrubs had been planted between the camp sites. It was horrible. The tent sites were placed in an open field, with nothing between the sites. The fire pits at the cabins were placed too close to the edge of a bluff, so that to put wood in your fire, you had to turn your back to the bluff, and just a few steps back, and down you went. This isn’t a camp ground, it is a very poorly engineered R.V. park. To think that taxpayer money went to fund this park is unbelievable. It was evident that someone who had never done much camping, had a hand in the design. Bulldozing several acres of trees might have made it easier to build, but it made Oregon’s first new State Park in several years an embarrassment. Please don’t make that same mistakes.

    • September 14, 2010 4:50 pm

      I have forwarded your concerns to the planning team, and to the park manager at Stub Stewart. The terrain at Stub made campground engineering and construction very difficult, and very young trees (10 years old, I think?) from a small area had to be cleared to create roads and sites level enough for camping (and to put in power and water/sewer systems). It will take time, patience, and constant care for the new plantings, but the campground will mature. Fortunately, the vast majority of Stub’s 1,600 acres and 15 miles of trail required much less earth-moving, and I hope you enjoy that part of the park.

      For Cottonwood, we are hearing this message loud and clear. This is a naturally rough landscape. The camping will be very basic. The trails (re-used jeep roads, for the most part) will be designed to take you to the best views. We hope the park will give you a chance to see how Oregonians live and work the land here.

      • Marcia Higgins permalink
        September 20, 2010 4:12 pm

        Thank you for taking time to read my concerns. My husband and I have been camping in Oregon for a long time. We have tried just about every kind of camping. We had a Pop-up, Hybrid trailer, and now are back to tent camping. We found that we didn’t need ovens, microwaves, or T.V.’s. In the last two years that we have gotten back to real camping, we have had more fun with our family, sitting around the camp fire, talking and telling” scary stories” than we ever did watching a movie in our trailer. I’m hoping that we can have the same type of fun at Cottonwood canyon.
        Good Camping,
        Marcia Higgins

    • Z.B. permalink
      June 19, 2013 5:26 pm

      My husband and I have had our two quarter horses at the fine horse camp at Stub Steward Park. We, too, like primitive camping, but we LOVE Stub Stewart. We found everything we needed there and more. The proximity to the Banks Vernonia Trail provides hours of riding.

  12. Linda Nolte permalink
    November 11, 2010 3:58 pm

    Having a horse camp and trails for equestrians would be a magnificent way to showcase more of Oregon’s rugged beauty. The dozens of horse groups in Oregon would be proud to visit, brag about, and even volunteer at Cottonwood Canyon. This would draw horse folks and their families and friends to a “new” area in Oregon. These equestrian visitors will bring with them good press, monies to spend on camping fees, food, gasoline, and other necessities which will also spur the economy is the areas enroute/near Cottonwood Canyon. This will be good for all concerned. Ideally the trails in this area will remain non-motorized to enhance its natural ambience.

  13. Marcia Higgins permalink
    November 12, 2010 4:44 pm

    I have noted that several people have requested that Cottonwood canyon be equestrian friendly. I have never camped at a park that had places especially for horses, so I have a few concerns. Are horse campers required to remove their horse waste, and clean the stalls? Do they police the trails and clean up after the horses like people with dogs (should) clean up after their dogs?? (Might need a bigger bag ; ) I have always loved horses, and can think of nothing better than a quite ride through the forest. I totally agree that the trails should remain non-motorized. There are several campground that I refuse to use due to the noise, smell and recklessness of ATV enthusiast. Not to mention the toll they take on the environment.(Sorry, wrong soap box) I would welcome horses to Cottonwood canyon, as long as I was assured that I wouldn’t have to deal with horse poop, inconsiderate dog people are bad enough. I would hope that the horse campers would all be like the ones that Linda describes.

    • Stacy Livermore permalink
      January 8, 2011 2:57 am

      Hi Marcia,
      I am assuming that horse camping here will be like most equestrian camping areas where horse manure is removed daily from the corrals or camping areas by the owners/riders and then wheelbarrowed to a large composting area. Many riders will get off their horses and kick horse manure off the trail as they ride, but in this very dry climate, horse manure will dry out quickly. Most likely it will resemble the clumps of grass that come out of your lawn mower, only much drier, and it will bio-degrade very quickly. Dog manure tends to have a much stronger odor, and stepping in it is less than pleasant. Horse manure may smell when it is “fresh” but it loses it’s odor quickly in a dry enviroment, and if you step in it, it comes off a shoe or boot easily as you walk. Sorry for the graphic information, but perhaps it will help?
      As a member of Oregon Equestrian Trails, I’d like to assure you that the vast majority of back country trail riders are knowledgeable, ethical, and concerned about the environment. We practice Leave No Trace ethics as much as possible, and work hard to keep trails open for all users. We participate in litter clean ups on trail systems all voer the state, rebuild trails that have been damaged by run-off or other erosion, and cut fallen logs off of trails so all users may pass freely. Please feel free to find out more at Hope to see you at Cottonwood Canyon! If we ever meet up, I’d love to take you for a ride. Stacy Livermore and “Sonny” and “Shiloh”

  14. Linda Nolte permalink
    November 12, 2010 4:59 pm

    Marcia, your comments are well understood. Shared non-motorized trail usage has worked pretty well in most areas. There are always issues of inconsiderate folk of all kinds – whether horse, dog, mule, llama, hiking, bicycling. Many of us belong to clubs that volunteer thousands (yes, thousands) of hours of labor and often materials to build, maintain, and police trails. Responsible horse owners keep their horses moving so there are not piles of poop and it scatters. We also go off trail when they pee. We appreciate well-behaved dogs under voice control or on-leash. Most dogs and horses do very nicely together but there is the occasional incident. A friend of mine was recently tossed from her horse and the horse ran in panic after an off-leash dog attacked her horse’s back legs. The owner did not even stick around to help find the runaway horse. It’s a challenge to manage the very very few inconsiderate folk. Horse clubs and horse campers continually preach about “leave no trace” and we scoop our horse manure into the camp bins. Those bins are then emptied by the camp hosts periodically. All of us should pick up our trash and haul it out or put it into trash bins. Many of us haul out our horse manure as well. Additionally we pay a premium price to haul in weed-seed-free hay so that we don’t unintentionally scatter noxious weed seeds into the wilderness. Not sure if hikers, bicyclers, etc. check their shoe treads, vehical treads, etc. to insure not carrying in seeds, etc. but it’s a nice thing to do. Most hikers love to stop and pet the horses and it’s very nice and friendly. I hope none of us leave candy wrappers, etc. and heaven fobid, cigarette stubs, etc. (Just a little factiod… 🙂 horse poop is 90% hay/grass and biodegrades — when scattered — in just a few weeks/days depending on the weather.)

  15. Marcia Higgins permalink
    November 12, 2010 5:36 pm

    Linda, Thanks for the info on horse camping. You and the folks you ride with sound like very responsible campers. In most Oregon parks dogs are to be on a leash. As we all know not everyone follows the rules. Our family has been camping in Oregon for many years, and Washington and Canada before that. As you said there are always a few that make messes the rest of us have to clean up. We have always taught our son and grandson to leave a campsite as clean or cleaner than we found it. Like I said we have never camped in parks with horses, but having horses around will not stop us from visiting a camp ground in the future. You answered my concerns, and passed on some useful information in the process. Happy trails and Happy camping!!!

  16. Julie Gilbert permalink
    November 24, 2010 8:58 pm

    My husband and I love to horse camp and we follow the LNT principles espoused by OET (Oregon Equestrian Trails) and other responsible groups. We have found the equestrian community a friendly, helpful and hard working entity. We would be happy to volunteer at Cottonwood Canyon either early on or later as needs arise. We would definitely visit the area and appreciate the opportunity to do so.
    Thank you.

  17. March 6, 2011 4:26 pm

    I would love to visit the park when its complete around 2013, hopefully earlier. I am a big fan of nature and state parks. Can’t wait…. thanks for this informative post.

  18. Shaun permalink
    May 8, 2011 3:58 pm

    The acquisition of the Murtha Ranch by OSP is one of the most wrong headed boondoggles I’ve ever seen in the John Day basin. Western Rivers Conservancy paid a grossly inflated price for a piece of property that is no different than any other parcel up or downstream, simply because they wanted to jump on the coattails of everyone else vying to attach their name to the John Day. Then they had to find a deep-pocketed, government agency to whom cost is immaterial to bail them out; enter State Parks. An agency that cannot keep up with operations and maintenance on their existing parks but, since they have a pile of lottery dollars, can justify anything with a review appraisal and misleading assessments of natural resource values. Now, we can spend another pile of money trying all sorts of glitzy improvements to attract a few people to validate our original purchase. And while we’re at it, we’ll ignore the fact that we are letting a bunch of spoiled, urbanite fly fisherman tromp all over fall chinook redds, spread noxious weeds up and down the river, and beat trails through the riparian areas. All for the sake of the environment. This purchase and everything that has followed sickens me.

    • May 9, 2011 6:48 pm

      There are many different opinions on this website; we don’t decide which to post based on the nature of the opinion (the only two we haven’t published aren’t really about the park and our effort to plan it). Some of your comments beg for a response, for no reason other than to make sure our readers can form their own opinions based on the complete picture.

      Appraisals are completed according to standards. Finding recently-sold comparable land can be a challenge, but if appraising was as easy as doing math, everyone would do it their own selves.

      We have precious few dollars for purchasing new properties. And there are no guarantees from one budget to the next what kind of money we’ll have to keep the park system advancing in the right direction. When we choose to invest those limited dollars in a project like this, it’s because we see the value in it.

      We aim to create only as much park as we can afford to operate and maintain. That’s why the plan you see here (and we hope you have had time to read it), is so modest. A very small campground for tents, RVs and cabins. Some primitive camps. Trails, many converted from existing roads. Once you’re inside the park, away from the road, most of what you’ll see is what is already there: the river, the canyon, the sage.

      Some parts of the park, especially the bottomlands and riparian areas, are unhealthy now. Our inventory shows too many weeds and too few native woody plants. These areas need help, and most of our effort will be spent on restoration projects. We hope people, like you, who care about the health of the river and riparian areas will volunteer to help us fix it.

      Will people from outside the John Day basin visit? Yes. Will locals visit and enjoy the park? Very much so, based on the comments we’ve been hearing at the public meetings in Moro and Condon over the last year. Those of you who live along the John Day will help other Oregonians appreciate the park.

  19. Marcia Higgins permalink
    May 13, 2011 4:49 am

    When camping in Washington, at one of the larger State parks, I asked where the waste water disposal areas were. I got a look from the Camp host that made me think that I had sprouted a third eye. They had no idea what I was talking about. I asked what we were to do with our gray water from washing dishes, hands, well you know what I mean. They told me to just throw it in the bushes. Yuk.
    California is even worse. I have studied the maps and kept up on the progress of Cottonwood. I am looking forward to bringing our family to this new park and seeing a different part of our beautiful state. Good Camping to all.

  20. Dan Brouchard permalink
    June 26, 2011 4:57 pm

    A nice idea to increase access for the disabled…

  21. David Hudson permalink
    January 1, 2012 5:36 pm

    Will there be any opportunity to advertise local businesses on this web site or another one for the state park? I will have a vacation rental available this Spring, near the park. Thank you.

  22. Jim Fogel permalink
    July 2, 2013 7:50 pm

    Is a portion of the State Park going to be available for hunting? It is a very large tract of land that seems suitable for so many uses.

    • August 2, 2013 7:04 pm

      Yes, hunting is allowed now and will continue to be. There will be a no-hunt bubble around the developed areas of the park.

      • Marcia Higgins permalink
        August 5, 2013 5:23 pm

        How big is this “bubble” ? How will hunting impact horseback riding, hiking and safety ? Will those people hunting be staying at the park, and will they be able to bring their “kill” into the developed area of the park? Explaining to small children, that have never been around hunting, why the bad man killed Bambi’s Mom or Dad, might be a conversation some parents aren’t ready for. Will there be facilities for dressing out their kill? The animals in the area that could be attracted to the offal might cause a problem.

  23. Karen permalink
    June 1, 2014 10:06 pm

    The park is open. I see ads on TV and I am trying to find out what the place is actually like and maps of the trails. I see tons of OLD info online but nothing current. I guess we will go check it out but I think more people would go if you followed up all the hype with what is actually there now as of may 31st 2014. I want to know if you can put in there with a raft, kayak or paddle board and takeout some where down stream and base a day trip there?

    • June 10, 2014 8:13 pm


      Sorry you couldn’t find the information you wanted. We are still working on the FAQ’s and will add this to the list.

      There is no good day trip given the length of the shuttles and the conditions of the roads. Although people do use Starvation Lane and shuttle operators that are on the BLM John Day website.

      If you ever need information you can’t find please call the park at 541-394-0002

  24. Paul Huffman permalink
    November 12, 2014 9:56 pm

    Is there a map of the areas where hunting is allowed? I’ve encountered bird hunters on both sides of the river going upstream over the years. Last month someone was shooting right across the river from me as I was on the West Bank right upstream of the Cottonwood Bridge. Going downstream from Burress, there’s No Shooting signs which makes sense now that there’s camping right across the river and other activity. But I didn’t see any signs farther downstream that remove the restriction. Seems like I’ve seen bird hunters down past the bend as recently as last year.

    I’m a very lame and occasional bird hunter. I just like to watch my dogs work some birds, but I can’t seem to hit anything. So why carry a heavy shotgun I say. Can’t afford an out of state hunting license anyway.

    • November 21, 2014 1:02 am

      We are still actively working on developing the safety zones and how to best share this information. We are in the process of updating the website and we will have a section on hunting. And we posted better signage this year. There should be a “Welcome to Hunt Beyond the Point” downriver on both sides of the river about a mile from the campground and 1.25 miles from JS Burres.

  25. Lynn Wren permalink
    September 23, 2017 6:53 pm

    Thank you Murtha ‘clan’ and family for making this beautiful place available to all through the state park system. And, for keeping your hearts, eyes and communications to all the “strangers” ever present. I so very much appreciate you continue to remain a vocal part of the this landscape. We will be traveling soon to stay a few nights. I am a hiker, mountain biker, tent camper; I welcome the multi-use trails to all but prefer to keep combustion engines in the parking lot. Silence is hard to come by these days.

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