Summer Adventures: Rafting

Explore Oregon’s White-Water-Blessed Wilderness in 5 Classic Guided Trips

Get out on the water, stat.

By Tim Gibbins May 28, 2019 Published in the June 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Camping along the Snake River

Snake River

Travel time from Portland: 7 hrs / Trip Length: 32 miles, 3 days / Difficulty: Class II–IV / Outfitter: Winding Waters River Expeditions
The Snake River forms part of the border between Oregon and Idaho, running through Hells Canyon—the deepest river gorge in North America. Soon after your launch near Hells Canyon Dam, you’ll hit two rapids with waves so big a 16-foot raft can disappear from sight between them. (Take a break for a hike to cliff petroglyphs). Once things settle down, you’ll be more than 5,000 feet beneath the canyon rim. It’s a guaranteed fix for adrenaline junkies, with a side of sandy beaches and star-gazing.

Clackamas River

Travel time from Portland: 1 hr / Trip Length: 13 miles, 1 day / Difficulty: Class III–IV / Outfitter: River Drifters
The Three Lynx section of the Clackamas is Portland’s backyard white-water run, with 11 Class III rapids set amid steep, mountainous canyons and rugged steel bridges. You begin at Sandstone Bridge, drop a stony rapid, then pass the regal Oak Grove Powerhouse, a 1920s-era hydroelectric building that still puts out enough power for 24,000 homes. Next up: the Narrows, a mini gorge good for cliff jumping with the potential for bald eagle sightings. Finally, you’ll hit heavy-duty rapids Hole in the Wall and Carter Bridge. It’s a Lynchian, wilderness-meets-old-industry vibe that’s perfect for curious out-of-towners.

Deschutes River

Travel time from Portland: 2 hrs 30 min / Trip Length: 42 miles, 3 days / Difficulty: Class II–III+ / Outfitter: All Star Rafting
This trip on the Lower Deschutes begins just off of Highway 26 at the Warm Springs boat launch and ends in Maupin. It’s blue-ribbon trout fishing water in a broad, sunbaked canyon. Typically run as a two-night, three-day trip, it’s perfect for families, friend groups, or anglers. Miles of flatwater are punctuated by rapids like Whitehorse, where the river drops 40 feet in a mile. At night, idyllic riverside camps are occasionally greeted by the rumble of the BNSF freight train thundering past.

McKenzie River

Travel time from Portland: 3 hrs / Trip Length: 16 miles, 1 day / Difficulty: Class II+ / Outfitter: Ouzel Outfitters
The day trip between Paradise Campground and Blue River in the Willamette National Forest is 100 percent Cascadia goodness—the drive there offers glimpses of glaciers and volcanoes, plus hot springs in abundance. (The now-iconic McKenzie River dory, or drift boat, was first developed to navigate these rapids.) The catch? The water is bone-chilling cold. A “glacial facial,” like the one you might receive at the Redsides rapid, can make teeth chatter even on a hot day. Still, take your parents and grade schoolers here. They’ll appreciate the thrills (not too extreme), beauty, history, and primo reservable campsites—it is called Paradise for a reason.

Paddling on the Rogue River

Rogue River

Travel time from Portland: 4 hrs 15 min / Trip Length: 38 miles, 4 days / Difficulty: Class II–III+ / Outfitter: Northwest Rafting Company
When Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, this stretch of the Rogue made the initial list. The river originates near Crater Lake, eventually becoming an emerald force that slices the Siskiyou National Forest in half. From Grave Creek, travel past pioneer homesteads, Native battle sites, historic gold mines, and even the cabin of Zane Grey, a prolific scribe of western novels. But stay alert: you still have Rainie Falls, the boiling cauldron of Mule Creek Canyon, and Blossom Bar, the Class IV crux, to contend with. You may see otters, black bears, and bald eagles. For adventurous families, it’s a veritable Oregonian rite of passage.

The Willamette River Water Trail

BONUS: The Willamette River Water Trail 

Don’t want to cough up hundreds for a guided multiday trip? Plan your own easy DIY float on the Willamette River in a canoe or kayak. The gentle, 24-mile stretch between Albany and Independence (just over an hour south of Portland by car) makes for two full days of paddling, a nice overnighter, and a refreshment stop along the way at the Rogue Farms Chatoe Tasting Room. Visit to plan your trip. 

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