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Exploring Portland... Rivers

Updated on August 18, 2015

River Town

Portland is a river town with the Willamette River running right through the city and the Columbia River bordering it to the north. To the east are the Clackamas and Sandy rivers, to the west you'll find the Tualatin river, across the river in Washington, look for the Lewis and Cowlitz Rivers.

The Willamette River is the largest river in Oregon by volume. The river supplies Portland with an abundance of fish, wildlife, natural areas and recreation. The Columbia River brings trade into Portland via ships and barges. It also provides recreation of all kinds and is access to the magnificent Columbia River Gorge.

Oregon Rivers

Known as the most significant environmental force in the Pacific northwest, the Columbia River flows for more than 1,200 miles, from the base of the Canadian Rockies in southeastern British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon. Perhaps the most scenic portion of the river cuts through the Cascade Mountain Range, creating the 100-mile-long and 3,000-foot-deep Columbia River Gorge.

If you've never been to Oregon before, you don't want to miss the Columbia River Gorge. Formed over 12 million years ago, the gorge showed civilizations as far back as 13,000 years ago. 80 miles long, the river forms the border between Washington and Oregon. The wide range of elevation and precipitation in the gorge creates a diverse collection of ecosystems from rainforest to grasslands. This creates a wealth of exploring and recreational opportunities including:

Hiking, biking, golf, fishing, canoeing & kayaking, windsurfing & kiting, water skiing, sailing, and cruising. For leisure trips, there is wildflower, animal and waterfall viewing, picnicking, scenic drives and cruises.Some highlights in the gorge include world famous Multhomah Falls, the Vista House, interpretive centers along the way, Bridge of the Gods, Bonneville Dam, Mt. Hood and the Old Columbia River Highway host to a wide variety of waterfalls, hiking and sightseeing.

The Willamette River runs right through the center of Portland. Historically, the Willamette River was a wild river. Rising with massive floods in winter and spring, and expanding across a wide valley that bears its name, the river ran with power and a dynamic nature that is too seldom seen today. As the centerpiece of the Willamette Valley, the Willamette River pushed its way some 187-miles on its main stem, from Eugene to Portland, with cold runoff from the mountains and splashing valley torrents creating a vibrant flow.

The valley was typified by open prairies and oak and conifer woodlands that covered the land, then tracing into the foothills of the Cascade and Coast Range mountains. Native peoples, mainly the Calapooia, populated the valley and utilized the river until the arrival of Euro American settlers from the East Coast. Abundant fish and other wildlife called the river and its valley home. Over the past 150 years much has changed in the Willamette Valley and the river reflects this change.

Today the river is surrounded by agricultural land with little in the way of riverside forests that once flourished. Cities now hug its banks and alter the River's character. Industrial facilities nestle against the river to utilize it as a water source and dumping ground. Its flows have been harnessed and modified by hydropower dams on the tributaries. With all this business, there is still plenty of opportunity for recreation including Hiking, biking, golf, fishing, canoeing & kayaking, water skiing, sailing, picnicking, and cruising.

The Clackamas River has been designated a National Wild and Scenic River. In order for a river to become a National Wild and Scenic River, it must be free-flowing and have at least one resource that is considered to be "outstandingly remarkable" . The Clackamas River was found to have five different resource categories to be "outstandingly remarkable": recreation, fish, wildlife, historic, and vegetation.

Originating in the Cascade Range, the Clackamas flows through a steep-walled canyon lined with dense forest and basalt crags on its way to the Columbia River. The area includes recreational opportunities including boating, whitewater, fishing, hiking, camping and backpacking.

The Tualatin River in Washington County has some of the least known natural areas in the Portland metro area. The river offer exploring to hikers, canoeists, kayakers, naturalists, birders and wildlife viewers. There is camping along the banks, whitewater rafting and fishing are available as well.

The Sandy River is very popular with boaters of all kinds. The Sandy River is the only glacial river draining water off the western cascades. It feeds recreation to small Mt. Hood communities as well as the greater Portland area. The Sandy is home to major parks including Oxbow Regional Park, Dabney State Recreation Area and Lewis & Clark State Recreation Site. You can enjoy camping, hiking, kayaking, fishing, and canoeing.

The Molalla River Recreation Corridor is well known for its hiking, kayaking, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, camping, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, swimming, picnicking, nature watching, or simply enjoying the sounds of the River. There are more than 30 miles of non-motorized trails which access numerous waterfalls and vistas.

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Washington Rivers

Originating on the west slope of Mt. Adams, the Lewis River passes through Swift, Yale and Merwin Dams before meeting up with the Columbia River. You can enjoy a wide variety of activities from camping, boating, fishing, hiking, caving, swimming, backpacking or just a picnic. Some highlights along the way are Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, Ape Caves, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, and a plethora of waterfalls.

The Kalama River offers year round camping, fishing, hiking, boating and white water rafting. While the river has serene spots, the white water is known to be challenging. The Kalama River originates in the Cascade Range just south of Mount St. Helens. It flows generally west, joining the Columbia River near Kalama.

The headwaters of the Cowlitz River are on Mt. Rainier in northern Washington. Two fish hatcheries offer excellent fishing opportunities, particularly in salmon and steelhead. Other than fishing, the Cowlitz River offers camping, hiking, white water, boating, swimming and picnicking.

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