Cover Story

8 Great Northwest Swimming Holes

Our guide to close-in swimming holes doles out details on where to get wet, whether you’re a family of four looking for calm waters (and close-by restrooms) or an adventurous couple seeking a secluded spot to soak up the sun.

By Kasey Cordell July 17, 2012 Published in the August 2012 issue of Portland Monthly

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Finding liquid relief in Washington’s Lewis River

Image: Neil DeCosta

For more up-to-date information, check out our 2016 guide to the Pacific Northwest's best swimming holes.

Every s
ummer as the temperatures (hopefully) soar, Portlanders turn their minds to water: where can we sink our toes, legs, or entire body into it? And—as yards turn a crispy brown and river levels fall—do we have enough?

Look to the pages ahead for some answers to both questions. We visit the region’s best swimming and wading spots, and show you why the closest choice, the Willamette River, may become the next great place to take a dip. And to ease your worries that the kitchen tap might go dry, we plunge into the past, present, and future of one of Portland’s greatest assets, the Bull Run water system.

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Image: Neil DeCosta

Lewisville Park

Family Friendly | Fee $3 | Average August Water Temperature 84°

Back in the heyday of company picnics (circa 1986), when three-legged racing was practically an Olympic event, Battle Ground’s Lewisville Park could have been considered today’s London. The 154-acre park sprawled along the shores of the Lewis River holds acres of grassy expanse ripe for finish lines, plus picnic tables, barbecue shelters, playgrounds, a baseball field, and, of course, a swimming hole. Several, to be precise. But families—or family reunions—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. Mom and Dad 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.

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PACK IT: Waterproof, paraben-, PABA-, and chemical-free, Think Baby sunscreen ensures the only souvenir your kids will take home is a happy memory. Available at Milagros.

Moulton Falls

Family Friendly | No Fee | Average August Water Temperature 84°

Image: Neil DeCosta

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.

FUEL UP: Tuck into hearty spaghetti with spicy Italian sausage and Kobe beef meatballs or a bowl of zuppa Toscana (spicy sausage swimming in a cream broth with fresh kale) at Galeotti’s in Battle Ground.

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Alder Flat

No Fee | Average August Water Temperature 61°

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.) Fir, ferns, and alder trees line the lush riverbanks, where just a few swim strokes away a trio of basalt boulders beckons from the middle of the river, gently, insistently, singing their siren song: Cannon-ball!

MAKE IT A WEEKEND: Turn this swimming hole into star-gazing ground by packing in a tent. Camping is permitted here, but there’s no potable water or toilets.

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Photo: Courtesy Anna Verlet Shelton

This could be you savoring Buck Lake’s 72 -degree water.

Buck Lake

No Fee | Average August Water Temperature 72°

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.

PACK IT: To discover more hidden gems like Buck Lake, get your hands on a copy of the out-of-print Oregon Swimming Holes. It might cost you $60, but it’s worth it.

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Photo: Courtesy Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center

Opal Pool

Fee $5 | Average August Water Temperature 43°

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 near 23,000-acre Opal Creek Wilderness Area in 1996 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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MAKE IT A WEEKEND: The cabins at Jawbone Flats—an old mining camp less than a half mile from the pool—sleep between 2 and 16. From $195; meals start at an additional $10 per meal

Plywerk bamboo photo frame maygdp

Portland summers are short; make the memories last all year with Plywerk. The five-year-old Portland company prints and mounts your best shoreline snapshots onto bamboo frames for as little as $18. Upload that awesome Instagram shot of pops or your BFF falling out of his inner tube and—bam!—instant wall art to warm you all year through.

What’s Really Under Hagg Lake?

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Three Pools

Family Friendly | Fee $5 | Average August Water Temperature 64°

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.

FUEL UP: Fill empty tummies with quick and easy grub from Venti’s in downtown Salem. Built on chicken teriyaki, this 16-year-old café has branched out to vegetarian dishes like garlic-sesame tofu wraps and spicy numbers like Cajun rockfish. 

Lost Lake

Family Friendly | Fee $7 | Average August Water Temperature 65°

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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. Which means only one thing will interrupt your serenity: water-bound first-timers’ inaugural whoops of glee.

MAKE IT A WEEKEND: Stay the night—or a week—at one of the lake’s six lodge rooms or seven rustic (read: no plumbing) cabins. From $70

 DIY Swimming Hole: The Columbia

Fee $225 | Average August Water Temperature 68°

If the Clackamaniacs at Milo McIver State Park or the “wildlife” at other close-in cooling-off spots don’t jive with your idea of a relaxing afternoon, create your own sanctuary with a 21-foot pontoon rental from SK Watercraft. Essentially drivable swimming docks, these boats sport bench seats, flat fixed platforms, and space for 12 of your closest friends. Boating beginners can rest easy, too: the rental (from $225 per half day) comes with a boating permit and directions to the Columbia’s nearest safe and sunny swimming spots, like the beaches of Government Island, where bald eagles, blue herons, and the occasional camper are the only wildlife you’ll meet. — Camille Grigsby-Rocca

FUEL UP: Stop in to Portland classic Gartner’s Country Meats and stock up on everything from salami to pepper-cured ham before you leave the dock. Might as well throw in an extra pound of pepperoni too. Just in case you get stranded. 

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IN THE COOLER: Ashland’s Caldera Brewing was the first Oregon brewer to blast the notion that good beer had to be bottled, putting its IPA in cans in 2007. Thankfully, others have followed suit, making our cooler hauling lighter (and tastier). Here’s what we’re packing this year: Caldera IPA (the original), Hopworks Urban Brewery’s Organic Lager (the new guy), and Fort George’s Vortex IPA (the classic).

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