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Lower Lewis Falls

Image: Isaac Lane Koval 

Under an Hour from Portland

Lewisville Park

Distance from Portland: 40 minutes
This 154-acre park sprawled along the shores of the Lewis River holds acres of grassy expanse ripe for wheelbarrow races, plus picnic tables, barbecue shelters, playgrounds, a baseball field, and, of course, several swimming holes. But families seeking a mellow day on the water best head for the Larch area of the park, where a smallish sand-and-pebble beach affords easy wading and swimming for those still sporting water wings. Parents can watch from the grass clearing directly behind the beach … or return alone another day for more secluded lounging in the Ponderosa part of the park, where the current is stronger and the beaches are smaller, but curtained by rows of swaying trees.

Lower Oneonta Falls (currently closed)

Distance from Portland: 45 minutes
Descend into Oneonta Gorge’s mossy, magical slot canyon, wading through chilly waters and clambering over log jams for 0.6 miles until you reach the source: the slender Lower Oneonta Falls.

Collins Beach

Distance from Portland: 40 minutes
On Sauvie Island’s northeastern shores, the sandy, 1-mile stretch along the Columbia River makes for a quick, refreshing dip. Be forewarned: a segment of Collins Beach is well-known for its clothing-optional policy.

Rooster Rock State Park

Distance from Portland: 30 minutes
Oregon’s other designated nude beach (see Collins Beach above), the three-mile long stretch of Rooster Rock sits just 30 minutes away from downtown Portland on the south side of the Columbia River Gorge.

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Punchbowl Falls

Punchbowl Falls (currently closed)

Distance from Portland: 45 minutes
A little over two miles into the iconic Eagle Creek trail, hikers find refuge by scrambling down to the oft-photographed, bowl-shaped pool, fed by a powerful, 36-foot waterfall. 

Henry Hagg Lake

Distance from Portland: 50 minutes 
Despite (invalidated) rumors of ghostly underwater cemeteries at Forest Grove’s 1,113-acre dammed lake, it’s one of Portland’s best spots for recreational water sports, with picnic areas, 13 miles of hiking trails, and two boat launches.

Under Two Hours from Portland

Moulton Falls

Distance from Portland: 1 hour 
The utility player of swimming holes, 387-acre Moulton Falls Regional Park has something for everyone: Instagram-worthy falls surrounded by plentiful flat rocks for playing lizard in the sun, inviting flat water upstream, two miles of trails tracing the Lewis River’s banks, and a three-story arch bridge daredevils (illegally) leap off. Even better, it’s free, which means it can get crowded, so arrive early to stake out your bit of beach or stone and savor this MVP.

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Wilson River at Keenig Creek

Wilson River at Keenig Creek

Distance from Portland: 1 hour 
As you head west from Portland to the coast, a quick turn at Highway 6’s milepost 18 leads sweaty carloads to a relatively still, wide section of the Wilson River, near where it meets trickling Keenig Creek. Rock steps fit for Q*bert and a rope hanging from the bridge offer a variety of heights from which to jump in and cool off, while risk-takers launch from the bridge deck itself. For pleasures less vertical, a rocky bar in the middle of the river is perfect for wading.

Lake Merwin

Distance from Portland: 1 hour
As the Lewis River winds its way from Mount Adams to the Columbia River, three dams interrupt its delivery of glacial mountain runoff. Lucky for us. The result: a sprawling natural water park for all ages in the three massive lakes extending from the edge of Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Lake Merwin, Yale Lake, and Swift Reservoir offer 12,321 acres of combined space for splashing, swimming, and good old Marco Polo. Should your brood tire of pruney fingers, excursions of a less liquid variety await on nearby Mount St. Helens’s zip line or inside the popular Ape Cave. And once your adventure’s over, your trip home is only an hour—barely enough time for a single “Are we there yet?”

Dougan Falls

Distance from Portland: 1 hour and 10 minutes
At the end of winding Washougal River Road, you’ll find this Washington river’s most picturesque landing: 19-foot-tall cascades tumbling into a giant, blue-green pool and a rocky beach for lying out below the adjacent bridge.   

Alder Flat

Distance from Portland: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Whether the “flat” in Alder Flat refers to the 40-foot-long stone and sand beach or the quality of the blue-green Clackamas River stretching slowly around a bend, we don’t know. What’s more certain is that you’ll rarely have to share. Thanks to a ¾-mile hike to the water’s edge, only the adventurous frequent this idyllic swimming spot. (Fitting, since there is a slight but very manageable current.) Firs, ferns, and alder trees line the lush riverbanks, where just a few swim strokes away a trio of basalt boulders beckon from the middle of the river, gently, insistently, singing their siren song: cannonball!

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Pegleg Falls

Pegleg Falls

Distance from Portland: 1 hour and 40 minutes
Tucked away in the same enchanting swath of the Mt Hood National Forest that contains Buck Lake, Timothy Lake, and Alder Flat, Pegleg Falls enjoys a more serene, off-the-radar status than these primo—but oh-so-well-known—spots. (The lack of signage certainly helps.) Just park your car at the “Road Closed” sign a few miles upstream of the Bagby Hot Springs campground on the Collawash River, and after a short stroll you’ll be treated to a 60-foot-wide pool at the bottom of a 15-foot waterfall. Flat rocks flank the pristine basin, dense foliage conceals it from the road, and a fish ladder carved into the bedrock beside the low-slung falls offers prime scrambling territory.

Cliff Pool

Distance from Portland: 1 hour and 40 minutes
The journey to Cliff Pool is not one for the faint of heart: it hides at the bottom of a quick but truly treacherous, all-fours descent, after a winding drive through the Willamette National Forest southeast of Portland. But once you’ve conquered this challenge, your worldly worries melt away as you settle into your own little slice of Oregon splendor. A picturesque, six-foot waterfall defines this spot on the North Fork of the Santiam River, carving out a wide, smooth bowl in the rocks—ideal for swimming and diving—while a rocky riverbank provides real estate for sunning and spying rainbow trout in the crystal-clear water.

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Three Pools in the Opal Creek Wilderness

Three Pools

Distance from Portland: 1 hour and 45 minutes
The Potamoi (Greek river gods) themselves might well have carved out this impossibly clear trifecta of swimming holes along the Little North Fork Santiam River. Once your feet hit parking lot pavement, a mere 64 steps separate you from Three Pools’ calm aquamarine “shallows” (ahem, they’re still 12 feet deep) near a towel-ready pebble beach. Upstream, a stone totem stands guard over two clear-to-the-bottom pools that eventually squeeze into a kind of natural waterslide. You’ll pay a price—crowds—for easy access to such a striking scene, but then again, few offerings worthy of the gods come without a little sacrifice.

Two Hours or More from Portland

Lost Lake

Distance from Portland: 2 hours
Isolated (think 26 miles on winding back roads) but accessible (they’re good roads), Lost Lake sits high on Hood’s slopes, at a heat-blasting 3,100 feet. Besides the 10 degrees of mercury you’ll lose on your way up, you’ll also ditch the crowds. Shrouds of firs and pines offer prime fort-building terrain for the kids (and a welcome contrast to the scarred slopes of clear-cut you’ll pass on the way here) and ring the 175-foot-deep emerald waters. You’ll need a person-powered craft, like one of the paddleboats for rent outside the 1950s-esque General Store, to gain the best view of Hood’s perfect peak—from the middle of the lake—because no motorized craft are allowed. That means only one thing will interrupt your serenity: water-bound first-timers’ inaugural whoops of glee.

Buck Lake

Distance from Portland: 2 hours
Pristine Buck Lake sits 70 miles from downtown Portland—15 of them corkscrewing Forest Service roads. But the crucial last half-mile is what keeps this stream-fed swimming hole relatively secluded and unspoiled: it’s traversable only by foot. Hike through gorgeous stands of old-growth fir, serenaded by a chorus of croaking frogs and willow flycatchers to the edge of the lake’s spectacular emerald waters—waters so clear you’ll be able to see every rock and log (and sometimes fish) beneath the placid surface. A rocky section to the left of where the trail meets the lake offers the best perch for the day—besides a raft in the middle of the lake, of course. 

Wahtum Lake (temporarily closed due to summer fires; call 503-668-1700 for updates)

Distance from Portland: 2 hours
Rarely does a buttery-smooth paved road and a five-minute jaunt from the car lead to a densely forested lakeside retreat free of RVs and motorboats. But Wahtum Lake is a case apart. A serpentine drive with vistas of Mount Hood’s northeast face ends abruptly in pristine wilderness. Descend a winding staircase through hemlock, Pacific yew, and huckleberry to reach the glassy waters. Lakeside campsites are plentiful, and hiking options—including a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail—abound. Take the four-mile round trip up Chinidere Mountain for a close-up of Hood. 

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Lower Lewis Falls

Lower Lewis Falls

Distance from Portland: 2 hours
Photographs just don’t do this place justice. A wall of water, 200 feet across, gushes from 43 feet high into a turquoise plunge pool big enough to shelter Shamu. With a crazy (but not death-wish-crazy) vertical drop from the rim and smaller pools etched into pockets of the rock wall, this is a cliff jumper’s paradise. Hike east upriver through lush old-growth forest to discover Middle (1.5 miles) and Upper Lewis River Falls (about another mile on), stunning in their own right and ripe for swimming if the lower section is overcrowded.

Boulder Lake

Distance from Portland: 2 hours
Nestled in a thicket of evergreens in a remote swath southeast of Mount Hood, Boulder Lake is uncommonly still; if someone swats a fly across the lake, or an eagle swoops overhead, you’ll hear it. The 13-acre pool sits at the base of soaring scree slopes, with a sequence of rustic campsites, some with picnic tables, tucked in the woods of its east and south shores. Travel light for a day of basking, swimming, and fishing, or pack a tent and stay the night. Twilight here is stunning.

Opal Pool

Distance from Portland: 2 hours and 15 minutes
One of the Northwest’s greatest ecological controversies—the fight for and against the endangered species listing of the spotted owl—detonated here in the 1990s, with conservationists eventually triumphing over timber interests. But the establishment of the 34,365-acre Opal Creek Wilderness and Scenic Recreation Area in 1998 preserved more than just habitat for our feathered friends. It also protected one of Oregon’s most scenic swimming holes—a 25-foot-deep turquoise pool at the base of a frothy Opal Creek torrent. There’s only one path into these breath-stealing jewel-hued waters, though: a 3.5-mile hike down an old rocky logging road and a final leap of faith from a 25-foot cliff. 

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Gifford Lake

Gifford Lake and the Olallie Lakes

Distance from Portland: 2 hours and 30 minutes
Every time Portland Monthly publishes a swimming holes article, at least one genuine, well-kept secret fuels an almighty Internet-comment backlash from the elect few who already knew the place. So here we go. A gem in the crown of the 200-lake Olallie Lakes, a scenic area roughly between Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson, Gifford offers aqua-blue waters, campsites with 270-degree views, and private-island seclusion. But getting there involves following an unsigned, overgrown path that doesn’t exist on most topographic maps. Start at the Lower Lake Trailhead, take a left at the four-way intersection past Lower Lake, and hike less than a half-mile more until you reach a tree marred by hatchet marks. Follow the overgrown trail on your left a few hundred feet to paradise. We’ll take the flak.

North Fork of the Willamette

Distance from Portland: 2 hours and 30 minutes
Prime territory for a family of dyed-in-the-wool river rats looking to homestead, this fork of the state’s 187-mile artery is too far afield for the masses looking for a speedy escape from town. Look for sweet spots 1.4, 3.5, and 11 miles east of Lane County’s Westfir Covered Bridge, with protected pools of super-clear water and big boulders for sunbathing and lounging. If things get tight—and they sometimes do, owing to the river’s proximity to Eugene—simply drive a few miles farther to find a secluded patch of your own to call home.

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Cleawox Lake

Cleawox Lake

Distance from Portland: 3 hours
With dunes on one side and leafy forest on the other, the sandy-bottomed Cleawox Lake, inside the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, offers sun and shade for swimmers, paddlers, and fishers (the lake is stocked through spring with trout). A sandy beach and roped-off shallow zone, just an easy stumble from the parking lot, become kid central in the summer. Once the youth tucker out, catch the sunset from the Eye of the Needle sculpture on the lake’s eastern shore, or drive to the nearby South Jetty to watch it set over the Pacific. 

Kirkland on Lake Washington

Distance from Portland: 3 hours
With million-dollar panoramas of Seattle’s skyline rising against the Olympic Mountains, Kirkland is rich in more than just vistas. The core of this tree-lined burg (where salaries are on average nearly twice Portland’s) boasts a grid of high-end boutiques, wine bars, and galleries—most of which are more easily enjoyed with a platinum Amex card. Fortunately, the best part of Kirkland—Marina Park’s manicured lawns, sandy shores, and lapping waves—comes absolutely free.

Waldo Lake

Distance from Portland: 3 hours and 15 minutes
Don’t even bother packing your iPhone when you go to Waldo Lake. For one thing, you probably won’t get service in this secluded basin, one of the world’s purest alpine lakes and the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River. Plus, you don’t want any pings and rings interrupting the silence. Thanks to a 2010 ban, nary a whir of a gas motor will tarnish your serenity at this 9.8-square-mile jewel. In fact, except for the occasional swoosh of a bald eagle’s wings and the harmonic song of a hermit warbler, the only sound you’ll hear is the echo of your paddle dipping into Waldo’s haunting blue waters, where the view down reaches a world-record 157 feet.

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