North Fork John Day Wilderness - Resources & History




There are two distinct vegetation divisions in the Baldy Unit of the North Fork John Day Wilderness, the forested uplands on the lower slopes, and subalpine ridgetop areas along the eastern boundary. The forested lower slopes are dominated by Douglas-fir, western larch, white fir, lodgepole pine, and Engelmann spruce. The subalpine forest, above 6000', is dominated by whitebark pine, subalpine fir, and lodgepole pine. Much of the subalpine area is characterized by open slopes, rock slides, stunted trees, low shrubs, and herbaceous plants.




The Elkhorn argillite formation is the predominant sedimentary rock in the upper drainage; it also includes small bodies of limestone, tuffs, and conglomerates. Glacial till, with its mixed layers of fine sand and large boulders, can also be seen in the upper drainage. Many of these rock units have been metamorphosed, faulted, and folded producing a variety of shapes and colors. Layers of ash (probably from Mt. Mazama) 7-14" thick can be found in places. Visitors who travel on the Peavy trail will notice first hand recent natural debris flows from side drainages that occurred after the Sloans Ridge fire of 1996.


The John Day is the only undammed major river basin in the state, and the North Fork John Day River supports the largest and most important run of anadromous fish within this Basin. The North Fork and its tributaries support an estimated 70% of the total spring chinook salmon run and 43% of the summer steelhead run within the subbasin. This is the largest spawning population of wild spring chinook and summer steelhead in the Columbia River system. The genetic integrity of the runs is unique compared to the majority of Columbia River Basin anadromous fish runs, which are supplemented by hatchery fish or were established from non-native stocks. The upper North Fork John Day River is thought to have one of the few remaining healthy bull trout populations in the state. According to fish biologists, there is a high probability that redband trout also is present in conjunction with rainbow trout in the North Fork John Day River. Upcoming surveys planned for this river will verify their existence and population distribution.


Wildlife is diverse, and in general, excellent habitat exists in the North Fork John Day Wilderness. The river drainage serves as a major migration route for big-game species, such as Rocky Mountain elk and mule deer which summer in the area. Documented sightings of Rocky Mountain goats, black bear, cougar, bobcat, and wolverines have been made. By the number and frequency of sightings, it is thought that both there are moderate numbers of black bear and bobcat. Less is known about resident cougars and wolverines; populations most likely are low.

The amount of dead and dying trees due to insect infestations and recent fires have created very good habitat for a variety of woodpeckers and great gray owls. The burned areas also provide a diversity of habitat which is excellent for foraging deer and elk. The pileated woodpecker (an indicator species of old-growth habitat), goshawks, and great gray owls are known to utilize the area, as well as small mammals such as mink and beaver. It is probable that river otter also reside here. Riparian conditions are very good. The natural wet meadows in this area are near pristine, and provide high quality habitat for big-game, hawks, owls, and small mammals.

Prehistory and History

The North Fork John Day River corridor was used in prehistoric and (written) historic times by the southern Plateau Indians. In particular, ancestors of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) are said to have used this area extensively in prehistoric times for hunting, fishing, camping, root digging and berry picking.

Gold mining was the primary activity which first brought substantial numbers of people to the Blue Mountains in the 1860's, and evidence of this "gold rush" still exists along the river. Evidence of this history includes various structures for habitation and use, mines, prospect holes, and other related developments. Other minerals such as silver, copper, lead, zinc, chromite and manganese were produced in small quantities.


One of the most dramatic, and perhaps wildest, aspects of this wilderness is its actively evolving, fire dependent ecosystem. The North Fork John Day Wilderness is located within the larger Elkhorn Fire Management Area, and the area's fire plan allows for the use of Prescribed or Managed Fire under certain circumstances. The visitor will see a landscape shaped by natural processes, most noticeably fires that have recently burned in the area. The Sloans Ridge Fire of 1996 burned 7300 acres of the Baldy, Bull, and North Fork John Day drainages within the Wilderness, and the Crawfish Prescribed Naural Fire, burned 516 acres around Crawfish Lake in 1995. Visitors have the opportunity to experience first hand natural vegetative recovery in a fire dependent ecosystem.