This week marks the official start to summer! As the weather heats up – yes, it gets into the 100s in Portland – city folk run for the Oregon coast and the nearest rivers. It’s time to river float Portland! If you’ve been dreaming of a leisurely day on the water, here’s everything you need to know to get out on one of our many rivers. TL;DR – Buy the Intex tube (or here). Decide on the Clackamas River float (the Barton to Carver float is the most popular route) or the Sandy River float. BE SAFE! Every year, people drown in Portland rivers! 2022 Update: This year’s spring rain and late season snow melt means faster and colder river temperatures than we have experienced in previous years by this point of summer!
Jump to section:
- Which Portland river to float?
- Logistics: parking, shuttle cars etc
- What tubes to buy
- Clackamas River Float (Popular route: Barton to Carver)
- Sandy River Float (Popular route: Dabney to Lewis & Clark)
- What to bring tubing
- Newbie Tips & Safety
- River Float Map
Which Portland river to float?
There are many rivers that you can swim and play in near Portland. (Including parts of the Columbia and the Willamette). But if you want to do a proper float — from point A to point B — your best bet is to head to the Sandy River or the Clackamas River. Both rivers have several parks that you can base yourself from and either swim/wade in the water or go tubing. Floating the Sandy river is a little closer to central Portland, but the Clackamas is my old favorite. Can you float on the Willamette River? Yes, you can float or swim on the Willamette River, but it’s not the easiest or safest bet. Currents are much stronger and there’s debris, boat traffic etc. The Willamette is best for a quick dip while playing near shore. Or in July during The Big Float event. (The 2022 Big Float event is July 10, 2022!)
First, you’ll need two cars if you plan to float from one park to the next. Your other option is to bike or hitch a ride back to the upper parking lot. Here’s how:
1. On your way to the river, either drop Car #1 off at the float STOPPING point (and have driver #1 jump in Car #2) and drive Car #2 to the START point. OR Have everyone meet at the STARTING point and then while everyone is getting ready, Driver #1 and #2 take both cars to the STOPPING point as detailed above.
2. When you arrive at the end of the float, either fit everyone into Car #1 and go get Car #2 at the STARTING point. OR Send both drivers to rescue Car #1. And everyone else gets to start a picnic. (Hope you put the food in Car #1).
Remember, the drivers need to keep their keys with them on the float!
Where to buy tubes in Portland:
Most outdoor stores (Next Adventure etc.) in Portland have tubes for river floats. Big box stores like Target, Walmart, and Fred Meyer do too. As summer heats up, it can be difficult to find tubes in stock and/or at a reasonable price. So plan ahead! (I was quoted $60 for the cheapest tube at one big box sporting goods store in town one year). As much as I like to shop local, I bought inner tubes on Amazon. (I paid $18 a few years ago, and with Amazon Prime I didn’t have to plan ahead that far!) You can also rent inflatable kayaks from Alder Creek.
Clackamas River Float: Best Routes
You have several options for floating the Clackamas River, as there are three typical start points and three end points. The most popular launch is Barton Park for the shorter Barton to Carver float, or from Milo McIver State Park‘s Upper Ramp near Estacada, Oregon for a long route. This is also an option for a place to kayak near Portland.
Float times (see map below for locations):
- Route 1: Barton to Carver – 3-4 hours
- Route 2: McIver Upper Ramp to McIver Lower Ramp – 1-2hrs (Class II+ rapids)
- Route 3: McIver Upper Ramp to Barton – 6-7 hours
- Route 4: McIver Upper Ramp to Carver – 8-9 hours
- Route 5: McIver Lower Ramp to Barton – 5-6 hours
- Route 6: McIver Lower Ramp to Carver – 7-8 hours
Sandy River Float: Best Routes
The most popular route on the Sandy is Dabney State Recreation Area to Lewis & Clark State Park (see map below). You can also start at Dodge Park and continue to Lewis and Clark. Most of this route is pretty chill the later in the summer it gets. However, there are some rapids and rocks at Glen Otto park. Right before the bridge that’s the start of the Historic Columbia River Highway at the large boulders, keep right. There is a life guard station here that is usually open Memorial Day to Labor Day. (They also have a sign of count of # of people who have drowned). They also have had a life vest stand for free loaner vests some years.
Float Times & Sandy River Water Level:
It’s really hard to estimate float times on the Sandy! The river speed and water level depths change quickly from beginning of summer to end, and depending on the year. Just because you floated the Sandy last year in June doesn’t mean this year will be same conditions. You can also check out the USGS river data to see the gage height at Bull Run (further up river). This can help you estimate how the river is looking compared to last year. For example, by June 16 of 2020, the river was still 3 feet higher than the same date in 2019. And it was moving 8x as fast at that gauge too. Estimate 2-5 hours.
- Route 1: Dabney to Lewis and Clark or Glenn Otto (Class I rapids)
- Route 2: Oxbow to Lewis and Clark/Glenn Otto (Class I rapids)
- Route 3: Dodge to Oxbow / Dabney (Class II+ rapids)
What to Bring Tubing on the River:
- inner tube
- air pump or hand pump version
- dry box – like Otterbox or Pelican – (for keys, phone etc)
- life jacket – (for kids – ALWAYS!, for adults – depends on your risk tolerance. See below for more info.)
- lunch or snacks
If you need ideas on what to wear tubing, it’s very similar to what to wear paddle boarding!
Newbie River Tubing Tips & Safety*:
- LIFE VESTS AND KIDS – first off, I don’t recommend taking kids on the actual float part of the Clackamas river. There are some great spots to play at the parks, but too many tricky spots with swirling water, current, trees limbs etc. on the float route. The Sandy river is usually calmer and especially late in the season (August) can be almost too slow, but still super cold, has unknown tricky spots and tubes can pop etc and the section through Glen Otto is dangerous – which is why there’s a life guard stand there usually. #1. PUT YOUR KIDDO IN A LIFE VEST. #2. Watch your kid closely! Just because your child is in a life vest doesn’t mean they can’t drown. Don’t assume someone else is watching them. During any water play with more than one adult present, a verbal handoff and confirmation is the safest. It sounds silly, but can save lives. For example: Adult 1 is in charge of having eyes on kids and at arms reach. They have to use the bathroom. They say to Adult 2. Can I tag out, I need to go use the bathroom. Adult 2 says: ok, yes I confirm that I’m now watching the kids. vs just “ok” which could also imply ok in a minute or ok I’m kinda watching them too. Don’t assume. :)
- LIFE VESTS AND ADULTS – It’s a personal choice, and only you can decide. I don’t personally wear a life vest while tubing, but I know how to swim, I don’t drink much on the water, and I try to stay aware of my surroundings. I have friends who will not go without a life vest. So much depends on your swimming ability, the water level and section you’re floating (rapids, debris etc), water temperature (even a great swimmer can drown if in cold water for long), and your ability to stay with your float tube (getting flipped out), it not popping etc. Note: According to the City of Troutdale, during the summer of 2016, AMR lifeguards pulled 129 people out of the water at Glenn Otto Park – only seven were wearing a life jacket.
- Party “barge” floating – every year, you see a huge group who have used rope to tie their float tubes together. Please do not do this. I know it sounds like I’m being a party pooper, but it’s actually super dangerous. I think sometimes people think they are doing it to not lose anyone, but if you hit rapids or debris etc. it can either trap, flip or entangle someone. You’re safest with no ropes and only your hands to grab or swim after your float. If you plan to “tie up”, instead just hold onto the rope so you can quickly let go if needed. Additionally, it’s not safe for others on the river, as it makes it harder for people to get around you and your “party barge” or you end up clotheslining people. If you want to catch up to your group, I’d recommend some flip flops. They make great hand paddles to speed up in a flat section of river.
- McIver State Park, Carver County Park, Dabney, and Lewis & Clark all close at 9pm; Barton closes at 10pm. Keep this in mind when you’re planning which route to float.
- Most routes pass through several sets of small rapids (depending on the time of year, water levels and speed vary, Milo McIver has some Class II), so not recommended for small children.
- You’ll need to purchase a $5 day use pass for both cars (main and shuttle). Barton Park now charges $6.
- If your car key is a fob and not an old school key, you’ll need to have a way to keep that key dry, by using an Otterbox etc.
- Bring water! The idea of drinking a beer while floating the river might sound fantastic, but you’ll want water as well.
- Alcohol – while alcohol is prohibited in most parks and the river, it’s kind of like the city of Portland parks… more of a recommendations and if you’re discreet, it is unlikely that you will be ticketed or bothered. If you’re dedicating one tube to be your beer cooler and partying near the parks along the route, you are more likely to get ticketed. These parks are patrolled and so are the rivers, especially on weekends.
- Bring a lunch! There are a few convenience stores on the way to the parks, but after your first hour or two of floating you’ll be glad you packed a picnic. If you’re floating the Sandy River, Sugar Pine Drive-in at Glen Otto park is in the parking lot and amazing.
- Just because you can drunkenly lay in a tube and float in water, doesn’t mean you can swim, maneuver small rapids, and/or help someone else if they need help. Drink responsibly!
- If you get a fancy-schmancy tube you’ll need a pump to inflate the main intertube and a bike pump or your mouth to inflate the backrest.
- Go see what the river looks like at the STOPPING point so you don’t float by.
- You’ll learn this tip quickly: when you’re approaching rapids (and rocks), lift your butt out of the water!
- Have fun, but be smart – every year someone drowns on the river. Take safety seriously. This is especially a consideration early in the season for both water temperature, speed, and river level from snow melt. Just because you floated a route easily last August, doesn’t mean that this June or August will have the same conditions.
Portland River Float Map:
Have you been river floating near Portland?
Leave your favorites or recent float report tips in the comments. Float on!
This post was originally published back in 2014, and has been updated for 2022.
*As with any outdoor activity, there is risk involved. Floaters agree to FLOAT AT THEIR OWN RISK. You are responsible for your own water safety, to float, navigate and conduct safely and appropriate to conditions as they exist.