Fall Day Trips: Paddle On

Want Crowd-Free Floats? Raft the North Santiam in the Fall

Autumn is prime time for one of Western Oregon’s most underappreciated rivers.

By Marty Patail September 13, 2016 Published in the October 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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River operators like Cascadia Expeditions, (pictured here), Oregon River Experiences, and High Desert River Outfitters offer October group trips on the North Santiam. (We suggest roping in at least six friends.)

Summer may be over, but with a big enough group, the rafting’s still fine on the North Santiam River. Winding through the woodsy foothills east of Salem, this easy, uncrowded, family-friendly river comes into its own in the fall. Flowing from the western slopes of the Mt Jefferson Wilderness Area, the 92-mile watershed tends to bask in October sunshine. Salmon spawn below Detroit Dam, and the forest canopy—cottonwoods and willows, alders and maples—glows red and gold. Soak up the Santiam’s rugged scenery on a six-hour, 15-mile guided rafting trip enlivened by a handful of Class III rapids. “It’s milder than the Clackamas, Deschutes, or Salmon,” says Craig Wright, owner of Oregon River Experiences, one of several rafting outfits to offer fall trips on the North Santiam. “And the fall colors are beautiful.”


Most North Santiam river trips hit the water by 9:30 a.m., so brew a strong cup of coffee for your drive south on I-5 through Salem. Head east on OR-22 for 34 miles, past Mill City (at 1,865 residents, this is the area’s “big” city) until you reach Packsaddle County Park on the river’s northern bank, the put-in for most river outfitters. Once you’re on the river, cede control of the day to your river guide, paddle when you’re told, and revel in the river’s quiet serenity. The North Santiam—named after the Santiam Kalapuya, the tribe that inhabited this area until the 1850s—flows past two overhead bridges and just a sprinkling of riverside homes.

Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife: osprey and bald eagles are known to make appearances, as are mink and river otter. Schools of steelhead and chinook gather in the pools formed by the rapids. (“I’ve even had steelhead jump in front of me as I’m cruising through the rapids,” says Nathan Van Amburg, a veteran river guide for High Desert River Outfitters. “It’s kind of a mindblower.”)

If the fish don’t knock your socks off, the three Class III rapids might: Spencer’s Hole, Carnivore, and Mill City Falls—the latter a near-vertical, four-foot drop that guarantees a splashback. Half-day floats end at Mill City. Full-day trips continue several miles to North Santiam State Park. If you’d rather DIY your rafting adventure, amateur floaters should skip the Class IIIs and put in directly at Mill City to conquer a less racy section of river—one reminiscent of the popular lower Clackamas.

Getting There

Mile 12

Savor the terroir of the Santiam watershed at Piluso Vineyard and Winery just off OR 22 in Shaw.

Mile 12

This Fallen Hero Memorial Highway section of OR 22 honors US Army Specialist Nickolas “Noodle” Welch, a Mill City native who died in Afghanistan in 2013.

Mile 25

Hit Mehama greasy spoon the Gingerbread House. (“If you try to rush your order it will take twice as long,” says river guide Nathan Van Amburg.)

Mile 32

Cross a Mill City footbridge over the North Santiam and you’re in Linn County, ”grass seed capital of the world” and turf provider of recent FIFA World Cups!

Mile 32

Toast your trip with a pint of suds from Lincoln City-based Rusty Truck Brewing at Giovanni Mountain Pizza, a river guides’ favorite in Mill City.

Mile 35

Want a longer stay in the woods? Airbnb lists a few adorable riverside cottages near Gates.

Alternate Adventure

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Jawbone Flats

One of Oregon’s more curious ghost towns hides within the temperate rainforest of Opal Creek Wilderness on the crystalline Little North Santiam—a tributary running northeast of Mill City. Jawbone Flats, a settlement home to zinc, silver, copper, and lead miners in the early 1900s, is now an Instagram gold mine—rusted-out cars, mining equipment, a company store. Access the town via a 6.6-mile, family-friendly hike from the trailhead at Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area.

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