Cruising Stories

Boating Itinerary of Lower Columbia River, Oregon

pacific northwest

Risk and reward. People say you don’t achieve one without the other, and that’s certainly true when it comes to cruising the Lower Columbia River, which separates the states of Washington and Oregon in America’s Pacific Northwest.

The risk is short, but daunting. The reward is long, languid and lasting — breathtaking waterfalls, beautiful gorges and canyons, bountiful wineries, beachy isles and peninsulas, and bustling cityscapes.

But first you must “cross the bar,” as they say. Navigating the mouth of the Columbia is a tricky and sometimes dangerous undertaking, requiring equal parts preparation and prowess. The area is rightfully known as the Graveyard of the Pacific, with some 2,000 ships sunk or scuttled trying to traverse this stretch of sand and silt.

The narrowness of the channel and the rushing waters of the Columbia together create a constantly shifting sandbar that pushes about six miles into the ocean. The area’s weather and waves combine to make for treacherous and unpredictable conditions, regardless of whether you’re coming or going. Before departing, do plenty of research to get an idea of what you’re up against.

Having safely crossed the bar and cruised a few miles upriver to Astoria, you’re now looking at roughly 150 NM of relatively smooth sailing all the way to Bonneville Dam. Here’s a sample itinerary of the notable stops along the way.

Astoria-Columbia lightship
Lightship Columbia | Credit: Ian Poellet via Wikimedia Commons

Starting Point: Astoria, OR

Founded in 1811, Astoria has the distinction of being the oldest city in Oregon and the first permanent American settlement west of the Rockies. The fishing, canning and timber industries attracted a host of immigrants beginning in the 1800s, with Scandinavians, Chinese and Indian Sikhs leading the way. Today it’s a favorite cruise ship stop with a burgeoning arts scene.

The Columbia River Maritime Museum and the Astoria Column are worth a visit, and the Marina West Basin is steps from downtown. Hungry? Try Fede’ Trattoria Astoria for Italian dishes, fresh seafood from South Bay Wild Fish House, or for a real off-the-map dining experience, visit Drina Daisy Bosnian Restaurant. All are highly rated.

Stop 1: Astoria to Cathlamet, WA

Estimated Mileage: 20 NM

There’s a lot of commercial traffic on this part of the river, with large vessels relegated to the 40-foot-deep ship channel that crosses from the Oregon side to the Washington side several times between Astoria and Portland. Have your charts close at hand.

A little farther upriver, the small town of Cathlamet lies along the Cathlamet Channel, which separates mainland Washington State from Puget Island. Lewis and Clark found the Kathlamet and Wahkiakum tribes living here on their Northwest Expedition in 1805. Today, Cathlamet celebrates Bald Eagle Days, a two-day festival held the third weekend in July, featuring a parade, street vendors, music and fireworks.

Mt. St. Helens National Monument wildflower season
Mount St. Helens | Credit: Craigdickson1067 via Wikimedia Commons

Stop 2: Cathlamet to St. Helens, OR

Estimated Mileage: 38 NM

Continuing upstream, the river runs east and then turns south toward St. Helens on the Oregon side. The city’s waterfront district offers several full-service marinas, as well as restaurants, pubs, parks and walking trails. Big River Taproom on Strand St. is just steps from the river, serving sandwiches, salads, sides and an array of “Chicago Dogs” for homesick Midwesterners. Dramatic views of snow-capped Mount St. Helens across the river to the northeast are part of the picturesque charm here.

St. Helens is only about 25-30 miles from downtown Portland, so a lot of local residents commute to work by boat from their houseboats along the waterfront. From mid-September through the end of October, St. Helens celebrates Spirit of Halloweentown, a festival of parades, street performers, fun attractions and family activities, including tours of locations featured in the movies Halloweentown and Twilight, which were filmed here.

Stop 3: St. Helens to Portland

Estimated Mileage: 27 NM

A short detour down the Willamette River at Kelley Point brings you to Portland, Oregon’s largest city. The Willamette cuts right through the heart of the Pearl District, Old Town and Downtown, putting you in the middle of the action. Mooring is available at Riverplace Marina’s public dock, if you want to hit downtown hotspots such as the Portland Japanese Garden, Oregon Zoo, Powell’s Books or the Portland Saturday Market in Waterfront Park.

The city’s food scene is also worth checking out, with standouts like Jacqueline, Nodoguro, Tercet and Urdaneta drawing kudos from foodies everywhere. The Willamette also takes you to the doorstep of Oregon’s famed wine country. Consider renting a car and heading out Route 99W into the Willamette Valley, where you can sample some of the best American varietals — world-class pinot noirs, chardonnays, sauvignon blancs and rieslings, to name a few.

Stop 4: Portland to Camas/ Washougal

Estimated Mileage: 26 NM

Back on the Columbia River, Parker’s Landing Marina at Washougal Waterfront Park on the Washington side is a great place to refresh and refuel, and the views of Mt. Hood are spectacular. Moorage is on a first come, first served basis, and the marina can accommodate vessels up to 45 feet.

About a mile and a half down SE 6th Avenue on the other side of the Washougal River is neighboring downtown Camas, WA, where you find the Camas Boutique Hotel, about as picturesque a place as you’d ever want to lay your head. But before you call it a night, head down NE 3rd Avenue in Camas to Salud! Wine Bar & Italian Dining and peruse its seven-page wine list, then select from a menu of handmade Italian classics like osso bucco, veal piccata and sausage with peppers.

Washougal is home to dozens of restaurants, and the city hosts several community events throughout the year, including the Washougal Songcraft Festival, Art & Music Festival, Summer Solstice Festival and the 4th of July Concert and Fireworks.

Portland, Oregon Waterfront
Portland, OR | Credit: Another Believer via Wikimedia Commons

Stop 5: Camas/Washougal to Bonneville Dam

Estimated Mileage: 22 NM

The final leg of your upriver journey takes you to Bonneville Dam, passing spectacular scenery along the way, including Vista House at Crown Point, Bridal Veil Falls, Multnomah Falls and Beacon Rock. The marina at Beacon Rock State Park features a boat launch, dock and pump-out station.

Bonneville Dam is a good place to make the turn and head back downriver. The dam is a National Historic Landmark and was the largest water impoundment project of its type in the United States when it was constructed in the 1930s. Visitors can tour the two hydroelectric powerhouses and watch migrating salmon, sturgeon and shad traveling upstream at the underwater viewing rooms next to the fish ladders. The best time to see migrating fish is late April through early November, with peak time being the first two weeks of September.

Recommended reading: The Oregon State Marine Board publishes its Boating Guide to the Lower Columbia & Willamette Rivers at

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