When it comes to boating in the Pacific Northwest, many people first think of Washington or southeast Alaska. As both of them have extensive inland seas with protected saltwater islands and peninsulas to explore, this makes a lot of sense. However, the state of Oregon also has a number of excellent boating opportunities that are well worth the trip. The state’s climate tends to be a little sunnier and warmer in the summer than its neighbors to the north. One important difference between boating in Washington and Alaska versus Oregon is that the boats are either coastal or freshwater. Another interesting difference is that many of the best lakes here are at altitudes of 5,000 feet and higher, and a few of them are even formed as extinct volcanoes. This can mean a more difficult trip to transport a boat, but it also means more isolated and pristine boating once you arrive. Here is a look at some of the best boating lakes and rivers to discover in Oregon.
Boating the Columbia River
There are many reasons to follow the historic footsteps of Lewis and Clark down this large river that serves as the border between Oregon and Washington. There is beauty and ample opportunity for all kinds of boating here, as freighters, sailboats, ski boats, fishing trawlers, and stand-up paddleboards are frequently seen upon the same stretch of river. There are a few important things to know about the Columbia, however, to boat well:
- Winds: The winds here can be fierce, particularly in the regions of the river that form a wide gorge beneath the plateaued banks. The view of cut sandstone is beautiful, but this geologic form causes a huge wind tunnel. Sailors should take note that mid-September to late March has prevailing easterlies, which can gust up to 40 milers per hour, and the spring and summer have westerlies which will die for a portion of every day and require motoring.
- Locks: The Columbia is marked by several dams that require lock passage. The good news with this is that the lock locations are usually great areas to find marinas and other amenities for purchase on a long passage.
- Current: The wider, lower sections of the Columbia only have a current of 1-2 knots, but regions and rainfall can bring it up to six. The good news about river travel is that there is usually a slack or countercurrent region of the river that can make passage less stressful. It is okay to wander toward the riverbanks looking for an easier route, provided you watch your depth sounders.
Though boating here is somewhat limited by access, it is known as one of the most beautiful locations on the planet and well worth the trip. Crater Lake is the site of an extinct volcano, and offers views of high mountain peaks reflected in perfect glassy waters. The new baby volcano cone serves as an island in the middle of the water and is great to explore. Crater Lake is open for fishing as well, with proper licensing. If you do not bring a boat with you, rentals of small watercraft like kayaks and canoes are available, as well as chartered boat tours. Just hold on to your stuff, for if you drop something in the nearly 2,000 foot deep water, you are unlikely to get it back.
Snake River/Hells Canyon
Though the Grand Canyon gets all of the press when it comes to size, Hells Canyon has it beat when it comes to depth. The best place to enter is near the Hells Canyon Dam in Oxbow, Oregon. You will find a marina, jet boat tours, and fishing boat charters and rentals here, as well as a boat launch. The water here is not placid, and is home to a number of whitewater and other excursions. The bottom can be unpredictable, so it is always a good idea to speak with a local expert before putting your boat in the water here. If the water tables are too low or high, it may not be the right time for anyone but the most experienced captain. If you have your heart set on boating, however, the shores are full of experienced captains ready to share the beauty of this extreme canyon with you.
This stocked fishing lake is near Crater Lake and has a number of resorts along its shores. Though once disparaged because of a high level of trash fish, the lake has been undergoing a lot of restoration and is back to a main population of rainbow trout once again. Five separate boat launches are available along the lakeshore, along with several hundred campsites and three fish cleaning stations. In addition to fishing, campers here enjoy tubing, jet skiing, swimming, waterskiing, and other water sports. This is a favorite location for four-season vacation lake cabins, as Diamond Lake is also very popular for winter and ice sports.
Paulina Lake and East Lake
The large, extinct Newberry volcano caldera, like Crater Lake, has become a pair of twin lakes separated by a new baby volcanic cone. Paulina and East Lakes are a beautiful sight to behold from a distance, and an excellent place to fish, swim, and boat. The lakes are only a fraction as deep as Crater Lake, in the mere 250 foot range, but have been known as a water playground since the turn of the twentieth century. As a result, there are several beautiful old fishing and boating resorts to be found along their shores. The lakes are known for good brown trout fishing, and year-round lake activities.
Not to be confused with Lake Crescent in Washington’s Olympic National Park, Crescent Lake is located near the towns of Eugene and Bend. It is a great location for canoeing, kayaking, and small watercraft boating and fishing. Several campsites in the Deschutes National Forest section of the lake are available and offer great places to stay, or you can go to one of the private resorts or cabin rentals. If you do not want to trailer your own boat into the mountains to get here, there are several boat rental locations and marinas.
Wallowa Lake is another favorite for camping, small watercraft boating, fishing, and more. It is located near the region of Oregon known as little Switzerland for its architectural style and annual festivals. Those who prefer to camp in comfort will enjoy the large number of cabin rentals available in this area, which are offered year-round for both summer and winter sports.
Mt Hood National Forest Lakes
The lakes here are numerous and small, and known for camping, fishing, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, swimming, and more. They include Lake Trillium, Timothy Lake, Frog Lake, and Clear Lake. As Mount Hood is closer to larger cities like Portland, these lakes get a bit more traffic. However, not everyone who comes here is here for the boating. These lakes are notorious statewide as important mushroom picking habitat, and you will find many people with guidebooks and sacks looking to score lots of edible prizes along the shores. For those who love to forage and fish, this is an excellent location to gather everything you need for a campfire dinner of hand-caught trout and sautéed wild mushrooms.
Detroit Lake, Oregon
This nine-mile long manmade lake is an easy location to get to, as it is only about an hour east of Salem. It is also a camping lake and has just over 200 spots for both tent camping and RV hookups. The water is warm here, which makes it a better lake for play than for fishing (though there are places to do that here, too), and it is probably the most popular play lake in the state. It is an excellent place to waterski, tube, jet ski, kayak, canoe, stand up paddleboard, and much more. The limit to the number of
campsites usually keeps boat traffic on the lake at a reasonable level, though super hot weeks can fill the water with boats. Because of this, camping reservations here for the warm months fill up quickly, and it is good to try and book many months in advance. The campgrounds also have amenities like amphitheaters, nature hikes and tours, protected swim areas, and on-site firewood sales. There is an opportunity to check out the Detroit Dam that formed the lake as well.
Best Boating Spots in Oregon
No matter whether you love mountain solitude or busy river traffic, there is excellent boating to be found in Oregon. If you are traveling from out of the region, remember that the Pacific Northwest is very temperate. Always bring adequate layers — though the days may be in the 90s, the evenings can be in the high 40s, and rain is always possible. Your best choices are light, water wicking layers to stay comfortable here. Once you have arrived, it is easy to discover the extraordinary amount of natural beauty to be seen and loved in Oregon, particularly by boat.