Calling all residents of Portland, Oregon: do you know that you live mere miles from one of the best water trails in the United States?
The Columbia River, which is the largest moving body of water in the Pacific Northwest, originates in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. It flows northwest then south, finally turning west to form most of the border between Washington and Oregon before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. It’s more than 1,200 miles long. It collects the water from a drainage basin the size of France. And it flows right through the city of Portland, Oregon.
The last 146 miles of the river flow freely—meaning they’re not dammed—and have recently been named the Lower Columbia River Water Trail by the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, a Portland-based nonprofit devoted to “protecting and restoring ecosystems and enhancing clean water for current and future generations of fish, wildlife, and people.” Part of that mission? Informing Oregonians that the Columbia boasts world-class recreational opportunities—right in their own backyards.
Kayakers, canoers, rafters, and other boaters are free to put in and take out at any park or public dock along the river, and lots of recreationalists enjoy day paddles. But an increasing number of recreationalists are choosing to travel the whole length of the lower Columbia, beginning at Beacon Rock (just west of the Bonneville Dam) and paddling through the Columbia River Gorge toward Portland and Vancouver. From there the river turns northwest toward the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge, then ends at Fort Clatsop near Astoria, which was the winter encampment for Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery from December 1805 to March 1806. Depending on weather, wind, and group fitness, the 146 miles can take anywhere from 4 to 10 days.
Camping is available at riverside campgrounds and uninhabited islands, and the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership has compiled a handy guide of campsites and other resources. They even list the animals that paddlers are likely to encounter, including salmon, sea lions, eagles, and other sea birds.
All boaters need seasonally appropriate equipment (including personal flotation devices for everyone in the party), proper training in self-rescue, and accurate weather forecasts, of course. But no permits are required, and boaters are encouraged to utilize the river year-round. And while the warmer temperatures of the summer months make the river crowded during June, July, and August, experts suggest scheduling trips in the shoulder season—April-May and/or September-October—for mild temperatures and decreased boat traffic. Just watch out for the tug boats hauling barges, which always have the right of way.
For more information about the Lower Columbia River Water Trail, check out The Lewis and Clark Columbia River Water Trail: A Guide For Paddlers, Hikers, and Other Explorers, by Keith Hay.