: Erick Durano

Guide to Summer Fun Along Oregon’s Santiam Canyon

Here's how to paddle the sparkling blue Santiam River, stay in a cozy lodging and find ice cream, burgers and more in these friendly communities.
July 13, 2021 (Updated March 20, 2024)

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 or Mill City Falls Park, by the historic bridge.

All of this opportunity for natural outdoor recreation remains, several years after the 2020 wildfires. But with time comes healing. Here’s how to get out and raft and boat safely in the Santiam canyon again, while supporting this warm, tight-knit community ready to welcome visitors back. 

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. Go with a guide for a safe and hassle-free trip. (Photo by Sam Drevo)

Take a Guided Trip

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 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. In the North Fork area it’s an especially wise choice to go with a guide, because downed trees and other hazards mean it’s more dangerous and harder to be rescued. 

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. 

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.

If you go on your own, paddlers can put in at the Packsaddle County Park boat ramp and head 5 miles downriver to Mill City Falls Park to boat along the lower stretch of the Santiam. Or use the boat launch at North Santiam State Recreation Area. When in doubt, check with the Detroit Ranger District which put-in and take-out locations are open.

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 number of small businesses in the canyon eager to welcome visitors back. (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 eager to extend a warm welcome to visitors. 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. Some restaurants are brand-new, like The Get-A-Way, serving giant crave-worthy burgers and shakes. 

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. 

Plan a Stay

There are lots of ways to extend your stay in the canyon. Campgrounds are in different stages of recovery, so make sure to verify that they’ll be open and book in advance. Try Santiam Flats Campground, or if you prefer to be indoors, The Lodge at Detroit Lake and Breitenbush Hot Springs offer cozy rooms. Nearby RV parks include Sweetbrier Train & RV Park in Lyons, Camp Benadoo in Gates, Lakeview RV Park in Detroit, and River Mountain RV Park in Idanha.


A mountain peaks out in the distance of a low-level lake
Get your fill of adventure at Detroit Lake and other spot in the canyon, and go early or midweek for the best experience during peak summer months. (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. All guides and outfitters supply this equipment, or you can find them for purchase at sporting goods and outdoor stores. Learn about PFD fit and safety from the Oregon State Marine Board before purchasing.
  • 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.
  • With the loss of homes, it’s challenging to distinguish between private and public property. Stay in marked areas and don’t accidentally trespass.
  • 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.
  • If you love Santiam Canyon in the summer, consider visiting in winter for a snowy wonderland experience. The location is a great jumping-off point for snowmobile trails facilitated by the North Santiam Snowmobile Club, as well as skiing nearby at Hoodoo Ski Area and world-class backcountry skiing for the especially adventurous at Mt. Jefferson.

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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