When you ask outdoorsy Portland locals where they’re headed on a summer day, chances are good they’ll answer, “The Willamette” (pronounced “will-AM-it”). The river, which bisects the city into east and west sides, is a virtual aquatic playground: Kayakers glide toward pockets of wildlife, fishers cast for migrating Chinook salmon and swimmers splash near the banks.
It wasn’t always so. “We had some pretty low points near the end of the 20th century,” says Suzi Cloutier, the water quality program coordinator at Willamette Riverkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to safeguarding the river’s health.
But cleanup efforts and the city’s “Big Pipe,” a $1.4 billion project completed in 2011 that diverts runoff, have paid big dividends. “I see beaver, otter, even deer swimming across,” says Cloutier. “It’s cleaner than people can imagine.”
Swimming in the Willamette
When summertime heats up in Portland, cooling off is as easy as heading to one of the city’s many riverfront beaches or docks for a refreshing dip — many of which were built by Human Access Project, a local nonprofit creating beaches, cleaning up shorelines and paving pathways to the river.
Anyone is welcome to enjoy Portland’s beaches and docks, including:
- Poet’s Beach
- Audrey McCall Beach
- Tom McCall Bowl Beach (located at Waterfront Park)
- Docks along the Eastbank Esplanade
(Make sure to check out the Human Access Project’s swimming safety guidelines before making a splash in the Willamette River).
Stand-Up Paddleboarding on the Willamette
To experience the Willamette’s resurgent vitality close-up, head to Next Adventure, which offers stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), kayaking and kayak fishing lessons. Guided tours also visit waters near Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, a haven for more than 100 species of birds. On the west side, Portland Kayak Company‘s convenient location (just one block from Willamette Park’s put in) makes going for a leisurely paddle a breeze, or head less than a half-mile down the road where SUP-focused Gorge Performance stands ready to outfit your next paddleboard adventure by offering multi-day rentals and a wide variety of boards for everyone from beginner to professional river racer.
Boat Tours on the Willamette
For an abridged tour, travel the river at breakneck speeds with Willamette Jetboat Excursions, whose 1,000-horsepower vessels perform figure eights from OMSI to Willamette Falls, soaking passengers along the way. If you’d like to go at a more leisurely pace, pack a picnic basket and be the pilot of your own private boat tour with a rented electric Duffy boat from Portland Electric Boat Company (no experience necessary!). Discover more Portland boat tours.
The Big Float
But no river outing celebrates the Willamette like The Big Float. Each July, the splash part attracts upward of 2,000 inner-tubers for a lazy day on the river, complete with a music barge, food carts and a beer garden. The event is a floating billboard declaring it’s not only safe to go in the water — it’s also a blast.