: Erick Durano

Guide to Summer Fun Along Oregon’s Santiam Canyon

Here's how to play on the water safely and support local businesses in this wildfire-impacted area.
July 13, 2021

Cradled among the picturesque peaks of the Cascades flows a haven for water lovers: the Santiam River. Located just 30 minutes from Salem and 90 minutes from Portland, the tributary (along with its North Santiam River offshoot) offers a wide range of activities for locals and travelers alike. Class II and III rapids are made for whitewater thrill seekers, while inner tubers, swimmers and those looking for scenic views might want to relax at Detroit Lake State Recreation Area

All of this opportunity for natural outdoor recreation remains even after the devastating 2020 wildfires, which caused the area’s largest public closures in memory. But with time comes healing. Here’s how to get out and raft and boat safely in the Santiam canyon again, while supporting local businesses at the same time.  

A raft full of people travels over a river rapid
Rafting the Santiam River with eNRG Kayaking is an excellent way to experience the canyon, although some areas are still closed for restoration efforts. (Photo by Sam Drevo)

Guided Trips

As you drive along Highway 22 from Salem to Idanha, you’ll see views of Mt. Jefferson to the east. You’ll see the sparkling blue Santiam River as it parallels the highway through the Santiam State Forest for many miles, then the boaters and RVers flocking to Detroit Lake. The forest burn is visible, with downed and charred trees, and construction underway.  

However, the forest has already begun to regenerate, and communities are welcoming visitors back. “There’s green along the river, in the understory, since the burn,” says Sam Drevo, extreme kayaking champion and director of Northwest River Guides and eNRG Kayaking, which offers whitewater rafting and kayaking tours. While many of the parks in the canyon are temporarily closed during restoration efforts, Drevo emphasizes that a trip down the river itself is an excellent way to see the area.

Working with local outfitters is another excellent way to support the community. It also ensures peace of mind and a safe trip. Trips also include all equipment and gear for a no-hassle experience. 

Drevo’s eNRG Kayaking operates seven days a week and offers 2.5-hour river runs out of Mill City. Launching from North Santiam State Park, Oregon River Experiences is a family-friendly (kids age 6+) outfitter, leading participants on intermediate whitewater trips in the spring and beginner river excursions in the summer and fall. Blue Sky Rafting offers half-day and full-day (with lunch provided) rafting experiences on North Santiam’s beginner rapids for adults and children ages 4 and up. Call or visit their websites for more information or to schedule an outing. 

With trout and summer steelhead returning to the river, fishing trips with local guides like Fisherman Mike’s are perfect for anglers of all experience levels.

A woman holds a plate of pastries in a light-filled cafe
Strawberry shortcake is a specialty at Evelyn Joe’s Farmhouse Cafe, one of several small businesses in the canyon that rely on visitors to thrive. Consider stopping in on your way to or from an adventure. (Photo by Erick Durano)

Local Businesses to Support

Many food and drink establishments in the canyon area were impacted by the recent wildfire but are building back and relying on support from visitors to thrive. Consider stopping in on your way to or from an adventure in the canyon. 

Neufeldt’s Restaurant Aumsville is a local classic, serving large portions of diner comfort food since 1987. In Mehama The Gingerbread House has a little bit of everything for hungry road-trippers, including burgers, gingerbread and soft-serve ice cream. Evelyn Joe’s Farmhouse Cafe serves up fresh strawberry shortcake and refreshing concoctions like a lemonade with red, white and blue sorbet. 

In Mill City, businesses like Giovanni Mountain Pizza, Rosie’s Mountain Coffee House, Poppa Al’s Famous Hamburgers and Mill City Grill — less than a mile off the highway — have reopened. The city has also recently installed four charging stations for travelers with electric vehicles. 

Near Detroit Lake, Connor’s BBQ at Detroit Lake has reopened, with specialties like hickory-smoked chicken and ribs, pulled pork, brisket, and salmon as well as pizza. In Gates family-owned Sierra Mexican Restaurant serves up favorites like sizzling fajitas, tamales and tacos, and the drive-through Canyon Espresso stand nearby is a great stop for a caffeine pick-me-up. 

A mountain peaks out in the distance of a low-level lake
Because of fire damage or safety hazards, many of the canyon’s most popular spots are closed this year. Detroit Lake is open, but check conditions before you go and visit midweek for fewer crowds. (Photo by Erick Durano)

Tips for the Best Experience

Whether looking for adventure or to stave off the summer heat, Oregonians have been more eager than ever to hit the Santiam. However, there are a few things to remember before venturing out.

If rafting or kayaking, make sure to wear a helmet and a personal flotation device. According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2019 Recreational Boating Statistics, roughly 82% of drowning victims the previous year were not wearing a life jacket. PFDs and helmets are supplied by all guided trip companies and are available for purchase at most sporting goods and outdoor stores for solo adventurers. Learn about PFD fit and safety from the Oregon State Marine Board before purchasing.

If you decide to go without a guide, plan ahead. Reserve a campground (like Santiam Flats Campground) ahead of time if you intend on spending the night. Double-check with the Detroit Ranger District which put-in and take-out locations are open; because of fire damage or safety hazards, many of the canyon’s most popular spots are closed this year.

Also, it’s best to bring what you need with you. With local businesses still rebuilding, some supplies may not be available in the area. Make sure to call ahead or pack essential items, and keep your vehicle fully gassed up since closed gas stations mean a long stretch without service. Whatever you pack in, pack out — in other words, pick up your trash.

Outdoor-recreation reporter and river enthusiast Zach Urness suggests smaller access points like the steep gravel ramp at Kimmel Park in Mill City for those looking to boat on the lower stretch of the Santiam. He also recommends using the boat launch at North Santiam State Recreation Area or — for those able to portage — a spot off the beaten path just above Minto Fish Facility.

Finally, canyon stewards warn visitors that the river can get crowded, especially on weekends. As summer temperatures rise, more visitors flock to the area, so go early in the day or midweek when possible.

About The

Katie Borak
Katie Borak is a writer and instructor in Portland. They make short queer blackout poems from pulp novels, and long stories about icebergs, fanaticism and the sea. Find them co-editing Kithe Journal, teaching at Portland Community College and Literary Arts' Writers in the Schools program or hiking in the Columbia River Gorge. Visit www.katieborak.com to learn more.

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