Columbia River Water Trail

Some friends and I are considering doing a week plus on the Columbia River Water Trail, but have few details besides a AAA article ( and the web site for the Water Trail (

But, neither of these provide as much info as I’d like. So was hoping to get some local info from locals or from people who have paddled all or parts of it.

We are all reasonably experienced paddlers, and have all done multiple week long trips. Plan would be to go from Cascade Locks down to within sight of the Ocean. In water without current - we would normally do 10-20 miles a day.

Some of the early questions that come to mind:

  • if someone has done it and has a similar itinerary (put in spots, campsites used, etc.) or Blog about it, I would love to see it
  • can kayaks go through the boat locks if we put in above Bonneville? Or would we have to portage? Is there a charge to use the lock?
  • how much tidal current is there below Bonneville? We are used to the SF Bay, so I suspect this won’t be out of our league.
  • many of the campsites listed on the water trail web site don’t appear to be on the water - like the ones around St. Helens - are they?
  • On the map, it seems like a pretty big gap between campsites at Washougal and St. Helens - any idea how far this is?
  • anything in the must see/do category?
  • anything in the avoid if at all possible category (well, beyond the obvious, like getting run over by a barge)?

    More questions to come, I am sure.


Lake Roosevelt ?
is just a bit farther to drive but I think you may like it better. Away from cities, very few people, way cleaner water, less wind (maybe) and fantastic scenery. Spokane has a canoe and kayak club with a website. Sorry I have no info for you on the lower river or gorge area. I stay over closer to my stomping grounds. There are so few people and so much water in these parts that a trip with lots of solitude is very common even on weekends.

Columbia River
I live in Tri-Cites of Washington state on the Columbia River and have paddled it locally but never below Bonneville dam. You might try to contact Alder Creek in Hood River, OR or Pat Daley of Columbia Kayak Adventures here in the Tri-cities (Richland, WA). They may have the information you seek or I am sure they can put you in touch with folks who do.

As far as the locks go; most do not allow kayaks to use the locks unless they have special permision and usually require them to be tied off to a ‘mother’ ship. Never has made sense to me but there it is. Portages on most dams is pretty easy and if you contact local clubs or paddlers you can usually find someone to come help you with the portage.

Multnomah Falls would be worth stopping at for a look. It is on the Oregon side just across the Interstate. Give you a chance to stretch your legs a little.

Enjoy paddling the Columbia Gorge; it is a very scenic place to paddle.


Also and farther north

– Last Updated: May-17-07 1:24 PM EST –

is lake Chelan on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. Very clean water and because of its location is more sheltered from wind. I know if I went on a vacation and were to drive that kind of distance, I would want to be as far upstream as possible from freaking Portland ! That place sucks. The only drawback about the upper Columbia and Chelan is that you won't find many well stocked stores and very few good places to eat. I tkink there are few if any, official canoe or kayak "trails" , just wide open freedom, pure nature, with few if any people shaking rule books at you or charging fees.

get in touch with flatpick or Otterslide
I suspect they’ve done a good portion if not all of it and can give you good advice.

home stretch
this is MY stompin’ grounds and I’ve done this run a bunch.

  • if someone has done it and has a similar itinerary (put in spots, campsites used, etc.) or Blog about it, I would love to see it

    sorry, can’t help ya there.

  • can kayaks go through the boat locks if we put in above Bonneville? Or would we have to portage? Is there a charge to use the lock?

    make it EZ. put in BELOW the dam. they won’t let you thru and the portage is HUGE. Plan on 4-8 days to paddle to Ilwaco or Astoria.

  • how much tidal current is there below Bonneville? We are used to the SF Bay, so I suspect this won’t be out of our league.

    River current on the EBB (yes it DOES EB all the way to the dam) can be substantial. i generally plan on a EBB in the AM hours at Vancouver when I start a trip and get the flow downhill the entire trip.

    Be careful as there is enough current to cuse grief when dealing with ANY obsticals in the river, especially below Skamokawa.

  • many of the campsites listed on the water trail web site don’t appear to be on the water - like the ones around St. Helens - are they?

    Sand Island IS and basically there are numerous, primitive sites that the river trail website can’t promote BUT are legal to camp on. any beach that is decent IS fair game. Memorial weekend… EVERY spot will be used!

  • On the map, it seems like a pretty big gap between campsites at Washougal and St. Helens - any idea how far this is?

    35 or so. see above. there are tons of spots.

  • anything in the must see/do category?

    yes… THIS TRIP! paddle where Lewis and Clarke explored the Columbia!!! Nude beaches at Rooster (Cock actually) Rock state park and Collins Beach on Sauvie IS.

  • anything in the avoid if at all possible category (well, beyond the obvious, like getting run over by a barge)?

    buy the Nautical charts for the trip and understand EXACTLY where commercial traffic lanes are. watch out for pleasure vessels. use good seamanship. it’s a b;loody buzy place.

    good luck and feel free to ask more.


My 2 cents worth. In 2004 I paddled the columbia as part of a solo 6-month trip across the country.

I really enjoyed the columbia as well as the Snake river/Clearwater too.

I have never paddled in Ebb tides and still KNOW absolutly nothing about them. SOme of the best weather i had was the last week on the Columbia. Of the 187 days I was going I only had 9 days total that the wind did NOT blow and 6 of those days was the lower columbia. There was plenty of camping…plenty of nice sandy beaches…even a NUDE beach near St. Helens or. It was a unique experience for me since i have not paddled really any coastal tidel areas like this…it was all new to me. I was able to LOCK thru 1/2 of the dams and porraged the rest. I talked to the guy in charge of the dams etc on thephone, hes said he was working with the “trail committee” and to get a better understanding of paddlers etc. Seems that most of those that got into trouble in the locks were inexperienced paddlers. I think it would help to call ahead of time and maybe talk with the lockmaster and get an “oK” so he or she can feel you out. They are not paddlers so WHY should they know anything about our lifestyle anymore than me knowing whats it like to run a lock etc. Like i said on some dams i was the ONLY boat in and locked thru other times, i did the portage. They were working on some dams portage routes and easy acesss ramps for us paddlers which was nice.

I like going thru the Portland area. At frist i was worried since it was a big city and i had not paddled thru anything that big except Kansas City several months before but it was really “easy” and no worries. I found it a thrill being among big ships and barges. No problem being close to shore and away form them. A friend of mine last year paddle from Astoria to Lewistown Id (and beyond to Georgia) upstream the colubia and snake and just stayed close to shore…thats were all the birdlife and animals are too.

There was a nice sandy camp across from St. Helens Wa on an island which i liked.

Skamockawa was awesome too…Nice camp!!

I paddled across at Skamockawa to a navigation bouy direction west in the river on the tip of an island and tuck in behind this island then upstream a bit to some high bluffs on the west side and followed the inner channels to Astoria in about 4-5 hours. This is where lewis and clark took as well.

The Gorge was awesome…lots of good wind and plenty of great camping on the south shore…little nooks tucked in here and there. Saw this big black thing swimming like a man towards my camp. It came all the way across the river one morning and got out below my camp. It was all blackish brown and stood on two legs and was a good 500lbs more than me…weirdest damn thing ever.

In 04 I was so tired of eating one-pot meals for 6 months so i really enjoyed the “floating restaraunt” in Kamas Wa. I could paddle right up to it and climb out and into for good food. You see this was great for me aftering eating the same ole for months on end…probably unimporatant if you only out for a week…i guess just think of me when you paddle by it.

I was able to see Sea Lions as far as 75 miles upstream from the ocean. I saw them just below Rainer Or. Great to see them.

Other camping situations up from the Dalles…i recommend staying on the south side and there seemed to be plenty of little coves to hang out in. I even found a nice camp for 4 wind bound days up from Arlington Or where there was some old indian glyphs and a few rock structures built. BOy does the wind blow on that river at times. SOmetimes its best to paddle at night…plenty of light from the stars or just the traffic along the river…easy to make distance that way especially if you get behind. The wind knows when your paddle hits the water in the morning because you awaken it.


thanks for the info
Thanks to everyone for the info (especially flatpick and paddletothesea). Definitely read you comments with great interest, and likely will have more questions in the future that I may address as a posted question or a back channel question.

be sure to post what you learn there
here too!

others are interested in the same thing

Kayaking the columbia
Wow-kayaking across the country. Been my dream to kayak from mouth of columbia up snake to clearwater across rockies with cart(any good carts to go aprox. 300 miles)down bighole jefferson missouri to gulf of mexico around florida to chespeake bay. Tried once but got kayak and gear stolen at cape horn across from rooster rock oregon so made another kayak. I sure enjoy any stories about going across the u.s.a by kayak. I paddled inside passage solo in 2001 olympia to juneau took 40 days it was awesome. Great camping had bald eagle ride on my kayak for three miles just north of wrangel. Butedale was real cool as was anan creek. Griffen passage was cool with reverse tidal rapids. Averaged 35 miles a day just enjoying everything biggest day 50 miles from active pass to newcastle island off of naniamo. Anyway anyone got questions on the inside passage Ill try to answer them…Peace

Columbia River
I kayaked from the mouth of the columbia to cape horn just upstream and acroos the river from rooster rock. Dangers are old pilings that stick out in the river up to at least a hundred yards. Often they have boards nailed across them just under the surface. so beware. Also I got my homemade kayak ripped off at cape horn where the train comes out of the tunnel. It ended my five year preparation and dream to kayak across the u.s. I have since made another kayak. Its strip built and am trying to sell thre others I made to finance the trip. Mainly paying the mortage while im gone. I might just say screw it and go this summer regardless. Got to step out in faith. Cool waterfalls between catlame and skamokowa. I am a big fan of clandestine camping. Low impact and hide. There is tons of islands to camp on. Current can be strong in places at times below bonneville dam on the outgoing tide. But just punch through… The columbia is like a bunch of little rivers within a large river with all the islands and such. Its like you have a tailout and pool tailout and pool. Paddle hard through the currenty tailout tell you reach a pool. And use the eddies and reverse backwaters they help when the tide is out. Columbia is awesome. I left iilwaco first day camped on an island north of tongue point. Second day north to the alder trees across from cathlemet. Its an island with roads on it. Next day I made it too just south of the bridge at longveiw a cool sandy island. Then just before frenchmans bar on an island. Frnchmans bar is just north of like vancouver. Next day stoped at cape horn. Went exploring cliffs and such came back and kayak ripped off. It had an eagle catcxhing a salmon artwork burned into it and Haiada drawings my dauhter burned into the okume plywood. I thought it safe but a rip off can be anywhere. I was sad but trusted God that all things happen together for good for those who love God. He protects us. Maybe I would have gotten sucked up into a dam on the snake or something. But Im not giving up…Its across the U.S for this kayaker. Peace to you…Brade

across country + cart
a friend of mine paddled up the columbia last year solo from ft. clatsop near astoria all the way to lewistown then used his portage cart (the most durable…i have the same one…they have the small bike tires, i got mine at costco for about 80 dollars , much better than those ones with the short fat wheelbarrow tires…those suck.

anyway he too was paddling an old town 169 and walked all the way over the divide and lost trail pass down the road to the upper jefferson and they paddled all the way down to the Missouri, to st. louis, then down the Mississippi, up the Ohio to the Tennessee, then up the little tennesse for about 600 miles and then portaged a day over to the savananh river to the atlantic. He got there on x-mas day at the ocean…He did this all in 9 months…all solo except on the Missouri he had a friend paddle bow. …


Thanks paddletothesea
very much appreciate the info, especially about the cart. I like the big bike tire thing as your kayak would be higher off the ground so the stern wouldnt hit rocks and such while portaging around dams. I considered going the ohio but want to see the mississippi and the gulf of mexico. The coast of florida intrigues me., Ill bet lots of shells in places. Thats a cool story. I googled maps and you can get satellite pics so I zoomed in on the Bighole at wisdom montana where it looks dooable in a sea kayak. In fact it was a great way to get a ball park estimate if rivers might be too whitewater for a sea kayak. To much whitewater and big boulders a happy sea-kayak do not make. Anyway thanks again paddletothesea…Peace

completed trip - learnings and pictures
Ok, I completed the trip. 175 miles in 12 days of paddling. Much fun.

I posted blog updates at:

Basics of Trip:

The Trip:

Animals Seen:

Resources for others interested in the trip (and thanks to those who helped us):

Well in 2004 I did the section you are inquiring about even though I did not know there was a water trail… To me, if there is water then its a trail. This was part of a bigger trip --ST. Louis to the Pacific following lewis and clarks trail etc.

My expereince with the LOCKS— well in 2003 wheni called before my trip they said, ‘oh sure just pull the bell ahead of the lock gate and the lockmaster will open, yes you can go blah blah blah’…So after my completion of the Missouri and the hike overland I ditched my portage cart with friends…since they told me no problem…

Well I get to the first Lock and they say ‘no way, your going to have to portage’ so i did.

The next lock they let me through!!! Yippie…the only one in the lock…so they wasted 40 million gallons of water to lower me to the next level. Well the next dam…‘ah you gotta portage’. The one after I got to lock thru again!

The point being…there was no consistancy!!! I think they are apprehensive on the average joe or jane drowning in the lock etc… a BIG reponsibiltiy for sure on the ole Gov. Cascade is or at least WAS a NO-GO…since its a big power source for Portland…and they know how much explosives will fit in your kayak so dont bother…

The current picks up just below the damn.

I loved the lower part…it was incredible after 6 months of paddling and never being on a river with that much pull was awesome.

There were plenty of places to camp I thought.

The area called CApe Horn…a few miles below Beacon Rock…a BIG nice island river left to camp on. I made it from above Cascade to a small island off the S.E tip of Government island. There was actually several developed camp spots there…really nice despite being near portland even though you never really can see the city…i felt alone and I was! From that island I made it to ST. Helens which has another nice island camp directly across from town… fire pits and picnic tables too. I was there this time in Sept of 04 and didnt see anyone. A great camp alone even though close to a town. From St. Helens I made it to County Line State Park on the Washington side at the county line. I had to pay but they comped me when they found out i had paddled across the country. A hot shower too.

Before that there were a few small islands which looked like good camps too, some big sand bars etc. I started seeing sea lions here too which suprised me being 70+ miles from the ocean. The next day I made it to Skamockawa by noon…an awesome camp on the huge sand dunes. From there I crossed over to the Oregon side, tucked behind some islands,a short upstream paddle around one island and followed the lovely back channels to Astoria by 1pm. This is the same side channel that lewis and clark followed. And you can see why…protected and no weird currents or boats to run you over. Some big waves around the point just before Astoria too…

If you paddle SF bay you wont have any problems i dont think. Id stay out of the shipping channel once you leave Skomackawa …huge tides and you dont want to get raked through the hundreds of pilelings before it empties in the ocean. I cant remember the name of the bay on the Wash side (Grays?) a paddler said dont go in there…its really shallow even miles from shore.

I liked going thru Portland ARea…plenty of room to avoid ships and barges…its was great to see them ect for me. It felt like I was NOT near a city at all, I thoughtit was going to be really congested.

There is a nude beach before St. Helens I think, it maybe after… It looked like good camping along there too…a big beach.

Gee I dont know what else to say…i didnt preplan any of it going through there. I just stopped after paddling all day and camped where i ended up which seemed like good camps…rather on the developed side. I think there is plenty of non-devleoped camps too. A floating restaruant at Kamas Wash which you can paddle right up to. It was the best food on my 3600 mile trip! Bring along the journal of lewis and clark and read the geology and such as you pass through the same areas. It hasnt changed too much.

Email me for more info if you like


didnt see this was and OLD post
sorry i didnt mean to answer the same ? twice…didnt see that this was an OLD post…

oh well

no worries

– Last Updated: Sep-19-07 12:02 AM EST –

You provided more/different info than you did before, so the new post is appreciated.

I just revived this thread to answer the request to post what I learned here.

More info
Hey Peter -

I put up a website where people can add site specific info:

You were probably expecting this site, and now it’s up. Hopefully there will eventually be a plethora of information on it for future travelers.

Columbia River Trip

My name is Doug and I live near Sacramento, CA. Do you folks have your trip lined out yet? I grew up in Western Washington and have lived there in the past 10 years. I would be interested in joining a group on such a trip depending on the details, of course. I am 63, in good shape and well experienced on the water. I would add some experience to such a trip and would welcome the chance to discuss the plans with anyone going…to see if I might fit with your plans. Do call or write. Thanks, Doug Durham