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John Wayne graffiti? We (might have) found evidence of the Duke in the wilderness

John Wayne and Katerine Hepburn starred in "Rooster Cogburn", which was filmed in Central Oregon.
John Wayne graffiti? We (might have) found evidence of the Duke in the wilderness

Did John Wayne leave his mark in the Central Oregon wilderness? Maybe – check out what I found!

by Leon Pantenburg

My hometown of Bend, Oregon is popular for virtually anything related to the outdoors, and is a popular setting for filming movies.


This little valley is one of my favorite dayhike areas.

Naturally, local legends abound about the stars and their local interactions. One of the legends I’ve heard for more than 15 years is that John Wayne may have scratched his name on a rock in one of my favorite dayhike areas, near Sparks Lake on the Cascades Lakes highway.

I’ve been sorta looking for the site for quite a while. If I think about it when I’m in the area, I’ll look around different rocks. But last week, I stumbled across what may be the legendary graffiti.

Anyway, the story goes that Wayne was in the area during the filming of Rooster Cogburn in 1975. The film was shot in Deschutes County, west of Bend (for the mountain scenes), and on the Deschutes and Rogue Rivers for the whitewater rapids in the river scenes. Smith Rock State Park was a setting as well; the Rockhard/Smith Rock Climbing Guides building at the park entrance was originally built as a set for the movie, where it was portrayed as “Kate’s Saloon”.

Sometime during that time period, Wayne must have wandered down into the valley and scratched his name on a basalt rock.

According to a 1975  New York Times movie review:

“For John Wayne, who has the title role, “Rooster Cogburn” is a continuation of the part he played in “True Grit,” the film for which he was awarded his first (and fully deserved) Oscar. For Katharine Hepburn the film recalls her marvelous characterization opposite Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen.” The role of Eula Goodnight, the pastor’s spinsterish Bible-quoting daughter in “Rooster Cogburn,” is a lighthearted spin-off of the earlier role, but the important word here is lighthearted, not spin-off.

“Miss Hepburn has been too long glum in her recent films. It’s good to see her looking as if she were having a lark for a change. Good causes (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”) and art (“The Trojan Women”) are all well and good, but too much of that sort of thing can get even a good woman down.

john wayne rooster photo

John Wayne was in Central Oregon in 1975 shooting ‘Rooster Cogburn.”

“In “Rooster Cogburn,” Miss Hepburn has a roaring good time—so convincingly that you come to accept the movie on its own terms. It’s a cheerful, throwaway Western, featuring two stars of the grand tradition who respond to each other with verve that makes the years disappear.”

Hepburn, according to local legend, stayed near Elk Lake Resort, southwest of Bend, during the shooting. Her limo driver had orders to stop at Sparks Lake first thing in the morning so Hepburn could take a swim.

Several notable films have been made in Central Oregon, according to hubpages.com,  including:

The Postman (1997). Kevin Costner stars in this epic movie that failed as badly as “Dances With Wolves” succeeded. Shot near the gorgeous Smith Rock near Terrebonne, Oregon (between Redmond and Madras), the rock formations, clear blue sky and endless landscape set a magnificent scene for the end-of-the-world, second Civil War story.

Rooster Cogburn (1975). There area must have looked a lot different than present day, when John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn came to Central Oregon in 1974 to shoot this film. Reviewers say this is one of the best movies to showcase the magnificent talents of these two actors in the twilights of their careers. Based on the novel, “True Grit.”

The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975). This Disney film, starring Tim Conway and Don Knotts, was shot in Bend. The duo is hilarious as a pair of crooks, who get thwarted by a “gang” of misfit children.

Anyway, I was doing some product photos, and needed a nice backdrop. And, I was field testing a shirt that is reported to ward off mosquitoes. I could find the bugs and scenery in the same area.

I set up my tripod, walked around a rock, and came across the “J Wayne was here.”

Nothing makes me mad faster than to find graffiti in the wilderness. Even though I had looked for the scratches for years, and could imagine John Wayne standing where I was, I  wasn’t impressed. I hope his name being there doesn’t inspire others to add theirs.

Here’s my bottom line: Wilderness is incredible beyond belief. Leaving evidence of your being there is wrong.

It doesn’t matter if you are the Duke!
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View Comments (4)


  1. Xenolith

    09/04/2015 at 17:11

    If John Wayne had wanted to carve his name on Lincoln’s nose at Mount Rushmore, I’d go for a commemorative closeup picture of that, and the hell with the rest of it.
    What he meant to Americans was far more significant than ANY President before or since, and I for one would be honored to hold the privacy curtain so that that icon of a TRUE American could crap in the woods.

  2. James

    07/29/2015 at 21:28

    The J obviously goes with the letters you can see to the right of it and Wayne, who doesn’t know how to write his own name, came along many years later and made his own mark.

  3. Leon

    07/23/2015 at 18:20

    You gotta wonder if some high school kid was trying to pull a fast one. Makes a fun local legend, though. i was really surprised I found it, after hearing about it for so long.

  4. Peter Bindon

    07/23/2015 at 16:29

    Seems like the ‘J’ and the ‘WAYNE’ were done at different times judging by the weathering of the letters and using different techniques. Interesting that whoever wrote it didn’t know which way an ‘N’ faced!

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Leon's Blog

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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