Portland Is a Beach Town. It's True.

But which in-the-city Willamette River swim spot is the one for you and your crew?

By Margaret Seiler, Michelle Harris, and Matthew Trueherz June 2, 2023


The dock near Audrey McCall Beach

When temperatures soar, the city of Portland humbly reminds locals that we have a huge river running right through town, and that it’s usually OK to swim in it. A time traveler from the 1990s might be surprised to learn that people would enter the water by choice, but major infrastructure projects like the Big Pipe and river access efforts, spearheaded by the Human Access Project (the organizer of the Big Float, RIP), have changed Portlanders' relationship with the Willamette River.

While these aren't the only places in town to wade out or jump in—there are choices on the Columbia River, too, and countless swimming holes in the region—the Willamette brings its benefits. The bridges come with reliable shade, though you may need to shift your spot as the day progresses. And if you're commuting, the downtown bridges provide plenty of choices for a quick post-work cool off. Here’s a rundown of the now-city-sanctioned “safer swimming spots.” 

Remember, you swim at your own risk, there are no lifeguards on duty, life jackets are highly recommended, and rivers can always present unexpected hazards.

Tom McCall Bowl on the west side of the Willamette just south of the Hawthorne Bridge, as seen from Audrey McCall Beach on the east side

For Bikers, Food Cart Fans, and Commuters

Tom McCall Bowl, Downtown

Until the downtown skyline starts casting a shadow in the evening, there's not much shade at this expanse of sand and rock below a grassy slope of Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park between the Hawthorne Bridge and RiverPlace. Parking is tricky, but you can't beat the transit access, nor the proximity of food carts and takeout choices.

As the temp neared 100 one day in July 2022, Carmelita (left) and Aeris hopped in the river from the dock next to Audrey McCall, between bites of takeout from downtown's Buranko. They also brought their beading gear for jewelry making. (Editor's note: this is the perfect way to spend a Tuesday afternoon.)

For Sunbathers, Commuters, and Dock Enthusiasts

Audrey Mccall Beach, Hosford-Abernethy

Slightly hidden from the Eastbank Esplanade by a stand of blackberries, this beach of mostly smooth rocks under and just to the south of the Hawthorne Bridge on the east side is not the most comfortable to lie on, so you might want to bring a chair or settle on the nearby dock instead. The bridge provides some good shade, while the full-sun dock has a ladder for easy in and out. If you drive, the huge River East Center parking lot looks tempting, but it's by permit only and the towing threat is great. Find street parking elsewhere in the Central Eastside.

A view of Duckworth Dock from the Eastbank Esplanade

For Jumpers, Sunbathers, Fishers, and Sunset Watchers

Kevin J. Duckworth Memorial Dock Heading, Kerns

Just under a 10-minute walk from the Rose Quarter Transit Center, Duckworth Dock is a favorite among Portlanders who like to show off their jumping moves. The 300-foot spur of the Eastbank Esplanade just north of Burnside Bridge was dedicated in 2009 in honor of former Trail Blazer Kevin Jerome Duckworth, who died from heart failure in 2008 when he was only 44 years old. The much-admired player and community ambassador—he was with the team 1986 to 1993, playing center in place of the doomed no. 1 draft pick Sam Bowie—had loved fishing and boating. His namesake dock was designated as a swimming dock in 2021 and features eight ladders to make it easier to get in and out of the water. On a nice day, expect to see swimmers swan-diving into the water between sunbathing on the dock, folks fishing, and kayakers launching into the river. Be sure to slather on the sunscreen before heading out, as there is no shade. The dock is also a superb sunset-watching spot in case you’re headed out in early evening. Parking is extremely limited, so take transit or use the bike racks on Eastbank Esplanade. 

Two views from Poet’s Beach

For Families, Sunphobes, and Imperfectionists

Poet's Beach, Downtown/South Portland

What poet wouldn't be inspired by, um, the underside of the Marquam Bridge? Bring your inner Hart Crane, Allen Ginsberg, or Joel R. L. Phelps to this stretch of sand along the South Waterfront. It's short walk from a Portland Streetcar stop and right on the southern extension of the Waterfront Park bike path, and there's metered parking along S River Parkway and Bond Avenue, too. The Marquam is not quite the St. Johns (see Cathedral Park, below), but it's lovely in its own way, we guess, and it provides a swath of all-day shade on the beach below. 

A small part of the long stretch of beach at Sellwood Riverfront Park

For Picnickers, Bikers, Kids, and Dog People

Sellwood Riverfront Park, Sellwood

Directly off the Springwater Corridor, this park is a great bike-in spot to lay a blanket out in the grass and gaze out on the river from the south end of the city. Parking is abundant, but it can fill in fast on summer days. The adjacent dog park keeps plenty of furry friends around and the expansive pebbly beach is a great home base for taking a dip. The central pier of sorts houses a few benches and picnic tables and a floating dock that extends out into the water. A gently sloped beach with lots of afternoon sun extends well north of the main park and offers  room for kids to wade, while to the south trails wind into a lightly wooded patch from which you can find discrete beachy alcoves. Bonus: it's just across the river from multiple surf-kayak-paddleboard shops on Macadam, if you need some gear.

On a hot Tuesday evening, Tristan (left) and Bruce took in sun, shade, and water at Cathedral Park under the St. Johns Bridge, while another human-dog pair took a break from swimming by sitting on one of the floating poles that protect the beach area from river traffic.

For Waders, Kids, Fishers, and Drivers

Cathedral Park

Just down the hill from "downtown" St. Johns (where we highly recommend picking up tacos from the counter in the back of Tienda Santa Cruz), this park is known for the view from N Edison Street of arched bridge supports, which frame a famous shot from My Own Private Idaho and many a wedding/engagement/graduation photo. But continue down the hill and across the railroad tracks (be careful, as trains are frequent here!) to find a fishing dock and floating wooden poles that create a protected cover just upriver from the boat launch, with a stretch of natural beach good for wading. The scene of picnickers, dogs, stand-up paddleboarders, and fishers is always lively, even when there isn't a mass witch paddle or aerial Greenpeace protest happening.