Float On: A Guide to Floating Rivers in the Pacific Northwest


The river is calling, and we all must go. Floating the river is as much of a Pacific Northwest pastime as it is a rite of passage. On any given summer day, hordes of floaters embark on a fluid pilgrimage from launch to takeout—and you could be one of them. Just you, an inner tube that burns your thighs after prolonged exposure to the sun, the great outdoors, river water that may or may not have come directly from a glacier 20 minutes prior, and 50 of your closest friendly strangers. Let’s cover some floating basics.

The do’s and don’ts of floating

Do:

  • Wear sunscreen. Skin cancer is a real bummer, so take a few minutes to lather up. For most people, a waterproof SPF 30 will do the trick. Be sure to reapply if you’re going on a particularly long river journey. 
  • Stay hydrated. Some of these floats are long, which means you could be out in the hot sun for hours without water. Unless you want to spend as much time on the toilet dealing with the symptoms of Giardia as you did in an inner tube, skip the river water and bring a bottle of potable H2O.
  • Protect your belongings. If you’re bringing keys, a wallet, and/or a phone (if you float the river but don’t put a photo of it on The Gram, did you even float?), you’ll need a dry bag. You can save a few bucks by opting for a large ziplock bag, but by our calculations, it’s cheaper to get a dry bag than it is to buy a new phone after your ziplock fails and your phone succumbs to water damage.
  • BYOFD. That is, bring your own floatation device. Les Schwab Tire Centers sell sturdy, inexpensive inner tubes that will serve as a noble river steed for many floats to come. Big box stores like Target and Fred Meyer offer everything from individual inner tubes and rafts to blow-up mattresses and floating party islands. Pro tip: Skip the dollar-store floaties (speaking from personal experience).
  • Respect nature. Not to sound like your mom or anything, but the river is a dangerous place. What looks smooth and glassy on the surface can give way to strong and fast-moving undercurrents just below. If you’re not a strong swimmer, wear a life jacket. Never mind the fact it might give you funny tan lines or embarrass you in front of all of your friends. Better safe than dead, they say.

    Don’t:

    • Litter. If there’s one thing that offends our Pacific Northwest sensibilities, it’s a blatant disregard for nature. Locals like living in the PNW because it offers a stunning landscape with an abundance of outdoor activities to occupy your time. Transplants often move here for the same reason. So, keep it green and keep it clean. The best river guests are the ones you can’t tell were ever there in the first place.
    • Get wasted. Hi, dear. It’s your mom again. I hate to be the bearer of this big bag of no fun, but the river is not the right place to showcase your beer-drinking bravado. Aside from being technically illegal, it increases your chances of injury or death. That said, few things stand between champions of the PNW and their local, craft brew. So, if you’re going to drink on the river, please do so responsibly. That means pace yourself, drink lots of water, and, for the love of nature, don’t bring glass bottles.
    • Be arrogant. Maybe you grew up around these parts and you know all the best-kept secret floating spots that haven’t been broadcast all over the internet.com. Sounds cool in theory, but your safest option is to stick to the river path well charted. Rivers are unpredictable and non-linear excursions that can run you into rapids and non-navigable falls. People have gone through rapids on an inner tube and lived to tell the tale, but again, better safe than dead.

    Now that you’re scared of floating, let’s find you a river to float on.

    Where to float in the Pacific Northwest

    Willamette River

    Portland, Oregon

    This urban float lacks the seclusion of nature, but it’s super accessible by TriMet for most city-dwelling folks. Your best bet is to start is Sellwood Riverfront Park and disembark at the Hawthorne boat dock, conveniently located near an abundance of post-float watering holes. 

    Suggestion: End your urban floating excursion with a sandwich and some beer at Bunk Bar.

    Will floating the Willamette cause you to grow an extra toe? Anything’s possible, but it’s far less likely today than it was a few decades ago. 

    Deschutes River

    Bend, Oregon

    Few things scream summer in Bend louder than floating the Deschutes. If you’re in it for the long haul, put in at Riverbend Park above the Old Mill District and enjoy the ride all the way to Drake Park. You can also do a half float by going Old Mill to McKay or McKay to Drake. 

    Bonus: There’s a shuttle that will pick you up in Drake and take you back to Riverbend.

    Double bonus: Now that the requirements for a summer bod have finally been lowered to simply having a body in the summer, you can start your journey with some bottomless steak fries at Red Robin in the Old Mill and end it downtown at Bend Brewing Company with a beer and their legendary nachos. 

    McKenzie River

    Eugene, Oregon

    It might be known as Track Town, USA, but some days in Eugene are just too hot for putting your feet to the pavement. Luckily, the McKenzie River offers a great alternative to sweating without having to go for a run.

    Floaters looking for a shorter, more accessible ride can put in at Harvest Landing and get out at Armitage Park. Those in search of a more leisurely float can make their way east to the small town of Vida and enter the McKenzie at Dorris Park. You’ll definitely want to plan for this float by leaving one car at the starting line and another at the finish.

    Washougal River

    Washougal, Washington

    The Washougal is a great river for a scenic nature float, but it’s also so much more. With neat rock formations that make for excellent sunbathing and calm pools that are safe for swimming, the Washougal is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace.  

    Put in at Mile 3 on Washougal River Road for two miles of restful bliss in the sun as you drift along the winding, forest-lined waterway. No shuttle service or local transit for this one, so be sure to plan ahead with a car at the takeout point.

    Bonus: This river tends to be a lot less crowded with inner tubes than the aforementioned floats.

    Lewis River

    Battle Ground, Washington

    Another quiet float, the East Fork of the Lewis River offers two hours of cruising with a number of swimming holes along the way. Enter the river at Lewisville Regional Park and exit at Daybreak Park. 

    A few words of caution: The Lewis River runs a little faster and colder than others. If you aren’t a confident swimmer, this may not be the float for you. Wear safety gear and, whatever you do, keep right at the fork to avoid a large, fallen tree that blocks the route on the other side.

    Bonus: If you get off the river in the early afternoon, you can make it to “hoppy hour” at Barrel Mountain Brewing. Beers are only $3 from 2–3 p.m.

    Need a place to store your floating gear when you’re done? We gotchu, fam.

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