Pacific Northwest Portland

2 Best River Floats in Portland: The Sandy & Clackamas River

Portland River Float: Clackamas Sandy

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This week marks the official start to summer! As the weather heats up – yes, it gets into the 90s 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. 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!

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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 favorite. You can also float on the Willamette River in July during The Big Float event. (The 2020 Big Float has been canceled due to COVID-19, next year’s event is planned for July 10, 2021!)

Logistics:

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 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.

Clackamas River float

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). However, it looks like they’re not opening for 2020 summer due to coronavirus. But there is a life vest stand for free loaner vests. (Update: As of July 31, parks have ended their life jacket loaner program, due to COVID sanitation concerns!)

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)
Best river floats

What to Bring Tubing on the River:

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 2020.

22 Comments

  • Bad idea to suggest upper McIver ramp to Lower McIver in a inner-tube!
    Not a safe route, floated it in the beginning of July 2020, and we went over a rapids entitled the “minefield” & “rock garden” among other giant boulders the river’s current wouldn’t let us & our paddles avoid. We are all strong swimmers who have floated various rivers including further north on the Clackamas, and we would not recommend this stretch to those without a life-vest on & helmet. We did not get to enjoy a relaxing float, we wrestled the river for hours. After each rapid we saw more popped tubes, ours all survived but we all walked away bruised ans scraped up. I know understand why everyone putting in kayaks and pontoons at the upper rampsaid we were “brave” for going in with tubes and paddles. Do not attempt this stretch of the river without a guide or a boat/ kayak, something with more control than an inflatable tube & a paddle. Please float from the lower ramp at McIver or depart at Barton park or from Carverif you want to enjoy your float. Going through McIver is a harrowing journey, not just “hello summer fun”. Please be careful & enjoy the rivers safely. Another website lists this route as a lazy river float, please ask around before you put-in at a new location

    • Thanks for the update Maya! Sorry you had a rough ride. It’s been a couple years since I floated Upper McIver, but sounds like conditions are still pretty wild this early in season – higher water depth & current. I updated some safety info on this post, after kayaking the Sandy a few weeks ago, since this year we seemed to have a much later rainy season. >>> “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.”

      • Out of curiosity, so you know what that section of the river is rated..? I was part of Maya’s group who experienced the danger of the Minefields firsthand, & would love to know what class rating this particular stretch has been given. This was a large swathe of boulders sticking well our of the water in numerous staggered layers with immense currents, so it would be a great way of gauging what exactly these class ratings mean, in a very real, physical sense.

        Thank you so much!

  • I’m hoping to float either the Sandy or Clackamas this week with some visitors we have in town. They have kids ages 8-12. It looks like the Upper to Lower McIver on the Clackamas would be best because of the shorter duration, but I’m wondering if anyone has a suggestion who has been recently and can comment on how high/fast the water is. Is it safe for kids? Are life jackets a must or is the water very low? I know when I’ve floated the Sandy before it was very low and barely moving. Are there any other short trips that would be good with kids?

    Thanks!

  • Hey! My sister and I are planning a river float while vacationing in portland. Since we will not have ready access to two cars do you happen to know if the Clackamas or Sandy rivers over a shuttle service or have a bus line running near them? We will probably be renting one car but I was wondering about how to get to the beginning of the river run after parking at the finish.

  • Though it’s not required, it’s probably a smart idea to wear a life vest. The water is very cold, especially early in the summer and even the strongest swimmer can drown in a light current. Inner tubes can leak and that life vest may be the only thing keeping your head up till you can get to shore.
    I work at a local hospital and last year a young man in his 20’s died while trying to cross the Clack. He made it across but on the way back the cold made his muscles stop working and he drowned. It was awful… no parent should have to bury their child when it could have been avoided with a simple pfd. Be safe and have fun.

    • We just did the Sandy float yesterday and it was a ton of fun! We were thinking it would take us 2-3 hours to float from Dabney to L&C, but it actually took us nearly 5 hours. We took a 30-ish min break for some food, but that’s about it. At some points the river comes to nearly a stand-still. The water feels really cold at first, but you appreciate it after awhile of the 90+ degree heat!

  • It should be noted that if you’re in a raft (which you can fit multiple people into), not a single floatie (just for one) you’re required to wear a life jacket, and the sheriffs have been known to ticket people lately for failing to comply.

  • One thing I would add is that the Sandy is a very cold river. It’s much colder than the Clack which originates from much further away, closer to Mt Jefferson. The Sandy glacier is maybe 40 miles from the stretch of river outside of Troutdale. On the Sandy I would opt for a small raft over a tube where your rear is in the water all day or your rear will be COLD.
    The Sandy has also traditionally been the most deadly river in Oregon for the very reason that it is so cold and also so popular.
    Take care on both rivers.

  • Thank You! This is great information! I have floated the Clack River in the past with my last float being 3-4 years ago. On a whim, my boyfriend and I decided to make the most of the heat and what better way than to do so via float on the river (Barton to Carver). When looking online for info, laws/regulation changes, etc. I stumbled upon your site. By following your tips/suggestions, our spontaneous trip appeared to be anything but that, it gave an outward appearance that we were experienced and/or frequent “floaters” who methodically planned out their float, as we had all necessities in tow. It was an amazing day of fun, relaxation, nature/wildlife (Osprey, Ducks, Geese, Bald Eagles(2), Turkey Vultures, Fish – (Trout, Fry) and even Wild Turkeys(2)…YES! Wild Turkeys!! just to name a few). AMAZING! We enjoyed people watching at its finest, made some new acquaintances and rescued an extremely deflated raft & its stranded passenger/floater (rafts air valve unexpectedly & unknowingly opened?? – REMINDER: **DRINK RESPONSIBLY!**)

    Again, I sincerely thank you for taking the time to share this fab info, it truly facilitated in the making of a great day into a spectacular day!!

  • I’ve been looking/hoping to find such a comprehensive “Tubing For Dummies” article as this that covers everything from launch spots to conditions encountered on the water for family safety and increasing challenges and distances/times: heck, even where to get the best prices/selections for adequate tubes, etc. This week, Dabney to Lewis and Clark. Next week, Niagara!

  • Hi!
    How long is the float from dodge park to Lewis and Clark?
    Also I hear its illegal to drink on the clackamas river now? I’m debating
    On where to tube on the 4th of July. Thanks!

    • Hi Holly, I’ve only done part of the Dodge Park to Lewis & Clark route. I think you’d need to start pretty early and it would be a long day!

      Yes, it is in the park and you can have your coolers searched etc. But just like Portland parks – you’re usually fine if discreet and not acting ridiculous. ;) ie. take 1-2 drinks, not a float dedicated to a case of beer.

    • In late July of 2014 Dodge Park to Oxbow Park on the Sandy took about 5 hours. This year the River is lower with more shallows so I would add on a bit of time for that.

    • Yes! No alcohol allowed on the Clackamas because people are stupid and dump their trash in our beautiful river.