Big new Oregon park opens near Wasco on the John Day River

Video: Cottonwood Canyon State Park

Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin

Opening this weekend as the second-largest state park in Oregon, Cottonwood Canyon State Park along the John Day River could be the largest in a couple of years.

Oregon State Parks has applied to the Bureau of Land Management to lease more than 10,100 acres of public land adjacent to the new, 8,000-plus-acre state park, BLM officials said this week. That creates the potential for an 18,000-acre state park. Silver Falls State Park near Salem is currently the largest state park in Oregon, with just more than 9,000 acres.

“This could turn eventually into the largest state park if all goes as planned,” said Chris Havel, Oregon State Parks spokesman.

Cottonwood Canyon is starting with camping sites along the river and about a dozen miles of trials, but could eventually include more than 40 miles of trails and hike-in camping, if Oregon State Parks achieves its vision.

The rugged park would contrast the groomed lawns of state parks elsewhere around Oregon, said Chip Faver, BLM field manger in Prineville.

“This is going to be a much more primitive park experience and much more representative of the region,” he said.

Oregon State Parks turned in its lease application to the BLM last winter and the agreement could be up for public review next year. Finalizing the deal would likely take another year after that, said Anna Smith, project lead for the BLM. She said State Parks wouldn't pay to lease the land, but it would assume the costs of building and maintaining trails on it. State Parks and the BLM agree to allow public access from the park onto the nearby BLM land.

Oregon State Parks held an opening ceremony for the park Wednesday and the park opens to the public Saturday.

Cottonwood Canyon State Park features an eight-mile stretch of the river flanked by large, rocky cliffs, Havel said.

“It's typical for the John Day area,” he said, “but it is quite unique compared to what we have in the rest of the park system.”

State Parks has more than 250 parks around Oregon. Prominent state parks in Central Oregon include Pilot Butte State Park in Bend, Smith Rock State Park near Terrebonne and La Pine State Park along the Deschutes River near La Pine.

Cottonwood Canyon is a 2-hour, 45-minute drive from Bend. The park includes what has been J.S. Burres State Park, a take-out for boaters on the John Day River since 1964.

The new park is named after the Cottonwood Canyon along the river and lies between Wasco in Sherman County and Condon in Gilliam County. The river represents the line between the two counties. The new park will be a good thing for Sherman County, said County Judge Gary Thompson.

“It could bring quite a few visitors,” he said.

Gilliam County Judge Steve Shaffer shares Thompson's excitement about the park and visitors it may draw.

“We do feel we are going to reap some economic benefits to it,” he said.

The park offers beautiful views of the John Day River, which Shaffer said visitors can discover by foot or on a mountain bike.

“You'll be able to be a long ways from any (other) single individual if you so choose to do so,” he said.

Using funds from lottery ticket sales, Havel said State Parks purchased the former ranchland for $7.9 million and then spent $5.3 million to transform it into a state park. But the state agency didn't buy directly from the Murtha family, which sold the ranch. Instead it took the help of a third party to secure the land.

The family decided it wanted to sell the ranch, which lies on both sides of the John Day River, about five years ago, Havel said. State Parks was interested in making the purchase but didn't have the asking price, nearly $8 million, available to do so. The Western Rivers Conservancy, a Portland-based nonprofit conservation group, bought the land and then sold it to the state in four segments. Havel said the group sold the land to the state for as much as it paid the family for it.

Danny Palmerlee, spokesman for the Western Rivers Conservancy, did not return voicemails left this week at the group's office in Portland.

Construction at Cottonwood Canyon State Park began last year. The first phase of the park is now complete and the park will be open this weekend to its first visitors.

“It will really cater to people who like to fish, hike or bicycle,” Havel said.

So far park amenities are focused near where Oregon Highway 206, which links Wasco and Condon, crosses the John Day River. There is a 21-site car campground, a group tent camp for up to 25 people and a camp for hikers and cyclists with seven sites. The camps have running water and vault toilets. There is also the start of a trail system, which about a dozen miles ready for hiking so far. Future development will include a campground for horseback riders and hike-in camping spots. Cottonwood Canyon will be open for hunting, as long as the animals are in season. The park has elk, deer and upland birds, particularly chukar.

The next phase, which could be done in 2015, would include building a welcome center and cabins, at the new park, according to the State Parks lease application for public lands around Cottonwood Canyon.