Editor’s note: During the week of Aug. 13, 2023, swimmers and boaters should avoid areas of the Willamette River and Sauvie Island where toxic algae blooms are present.
It’s a well-known fact that Oregon’s largest city gets top marks for blending urban excitement with outdoorsy fun, but did you know that Portland’s largest public space is actually a river — and one that you can swim in? When temperatures soar, the Willamette River grows as warm as the lower to mid-70s, with gentle currents in parts that make taking a refreshing plunge safe and enjoyable. (See this Willamette River swimming guide for important tips, and avoid parts of the river when toxic algae blooms are present.)
Massive infrastructure projects and groups like the nonprofit Human Access Project have tirelessly created and improved public spaces in Portland where people can cool off right downtown, but the greater Portland region also has no shortage of spots to take a swim. Once you’ve dried off, it’s easy to extend the fun with family-friendly stops to get ice cream, play some games and eat.
Here are some natural swimming areas to check out beyond the central city that showcase the best of an urban Oregon summer.
Sandy Beach and Carnival Rides in Southeast Portland
Sellwood Riverfront Park sits just north of the Sellwood Bridge and features a long, sandy beach that families love. There’s a dock for perfecting your cannonball and a broad, 1.5-acre grassy area where dogs can frolic off-leash. (Please be respectful of others who may not enjoy your pooch as much as you do.) Picnic tables perched in the shade of waterfront trees make a great spot for lunch. There’s also a spot for launching a canoe or a kayak and paved paths for easy strolling.
Just north of the beach, you’ll find one of the oldest continually operating amusement parks in the country, Oaks Park, where a historic carousel, roller skating, arcade games, rides and mini-golf await. Wander a few blocks inland for delicious scoops of handmade ice cream at Hurry Back Ice Cream, a name that hints at things to come. You’ll love the food truck’s nondairy options, too, in flavors like pineapple and coffee.
Paddling, Swimming and History in Lake Oswego
About 10 miles south of downtown Portland in Lake Oswego, the 26-acre George Rogers Park is a hit with kids and families with a small but welcoming beach offering easy access to the warm waters of the Willamette. The park also features a memorial garden, walking trails and a playground, giving you many options to make an afternoon of it. In the summer Alder Creek rents kayaks and stand-up paddleboards on-site, too. Don’t miss the historic iron furnace ruins, a relic of the town’s industrial past.
Just a few miles south is 128-acre Mary S. Young Park in West Linn, a forested refuge with about 8 miles of trails that are popular with birders. The Riverside Loop Trail, much of which is paved, will take you down to the Willamette.
To reward yourself for an amazing day, head to Salt & Straw for handcrafted scoops in flavors like cinnamon snickerdoodle or Lake Oswego Ice Creamery & Restaurant to treat the family to a Tillamook cheeseburger and frozen treats afterward.
Farms and Beaches of Sauvie Island
At a whopping 24,000 acres, Wapato Island — now called Sauvie Island — is about the same size as Manhattan but with none of the crowds and way more nature. You’ll find several public Columbia River beaches on this island 10 miles northwest of downtown Portland. You’ll need a $10 pass, available at the Reeder Beach RV Park & Country Store, among other places on the island. (On a busy summer weekend, avoid the traffic and stay closer to downtown at Cathedral Park in St. Johns instead, where you’ll find a sandy beach great for swimming.)
On summer weekends that hit 80 degrees — and weekdays that top 90 degrees — be on the lookout for the red-and-white umbrellas of the Sweet Tooth Ice Cream boat in the water. It stops along the island’s beaches, delivering refreshing treats. Please consider leaving a tip: The money buys ice cream for kids who can’t afford their own. Round out the day with a trip to Topaz Farm for farm-fresh meals and summertime kid-friendly activities like supervised walks with farm animals.
Be Safe Out There
Please remember, you’re in Mother Nature’s house, where conditions can switch rapidly. Water levels do surge and recede, shorelines can drop off precipitously, and rocks and debris under the water can be dangerous. Motorized watercraft share the same spaces, too, so be on the lookout and avoid intoxicants. It’s best to wear a properly fitted life jacket, especially for children. Always keep an eye on the littles and never swim alone. It’s a good idea to check for water-quality alerts or sign up for weekly test results, and be mindful of potential algae blooms.