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Parks & Recreation

Healthy Parks, Healthy Portland

phone: 503-823-7529

1120 SW Fifth Avenue, Portland, OR 97204

Swimming in the Willamette and Columbia Rivers



Special Information about Swimming in Portland's Rivers

Swimming in the City’s two major rivers can be fun, refreshing, and keep you fit, especially in the warm weather months (July-September).Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) recognizes that interest in this activity is increasing, especially with the completion of the Big Pipe project, which has substantially improved water quality in major sections of the Willamette River.

Although they may look like calm, peaceful places most of the year, our rivers are active, living bodies of water and are in constant states of change:

  • Water levels go up and down
  • Currents change depending on the tide, river level and wind
  • Branches, debris, rocks move around on and under the surface
  • Boats and jet skis move around over the surface
  • Water temperatures change seasonally, with cold water September through June
  • Banks can be uneven, rocky, slippery, and have submerged drop-offs
  • Sewage overflows are still possible, especially during heavy storms
  • Large swaths of the lower Willamette River (north of the Fremont Bridge) are part of a designated Superfund clean-up site, and should not be entered for swimming

The State of Oregon, Department of State Lands, has jurisdiction over the Willamette River (nearly all areas below elevation 18, which is the ordinary high water mark). Swimming is allowed at your own risk. 

Please obey all rules and regulations posted.


How to Swim Safely in the Willamette and Columbia Rivers

  • Know your limits: it is possible to jump off a dock, paddle around and get out without being a strong swimmer. But don’t find yourself halfway across the river in trouble because you’ve run out of energy. Swimming in the City’s rivers requires an intermediate to advanced level of skill at a minimum. Can you swim ½ mile in a pool without stopping? You will need that level of strength and ability to be safe. If you are not that strong a swimmer, wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Fins help too.
  • Know the water:  Currents in the City’s rivers vary based on rainfall and the tide Wind may cause choppiness making swimming challenging even for the strongest of swimmers. Know the weather forecast and avoid swimming during storms, in strong winds and when there is lightning. Do not swim when sewage is being released, during and after heavy storms.
  • River temperature varies. Be particularly careful May through June when air temperatures are in the 80’s but river temperature may be in the 50’s. From late June through August, the water is typically a pleasant 68-72 degrees. Temperatures start to drop fast come September. Limit your time in cold water. If you swim during cold weather (below 68 degrees), wear a wet suit or other thermal protection.  Check the Willamette River's conditions at the Bureau of Environmental Services site or U.S. Geological Survey site
  • Don’t swim alone: have a safety paddler whenever possible--for visibility and safety there is no substitute for a SUP or kayak paddler. At the very least, swim with a buddy.
  • Be visible and audible: carry a safety whistle and wear a brightly-colored swim cap. Use a brightly colored floating Safety Buoy. This brightly colored floating Orange dry bag is helpful for visibility and in case you need to rest for a few minutes and float. You can also carry personal items inside! 
  • Don't swim in the dark.
  • Swim close to shore. Channel crossing is more dangerous that you might think. Tug boats, barges, and motor boats are not looking for swimmers and may not see you. Even jet skiers often don’t see swimmers. Stay close to shore where it’s safer.
  • Don’t swallow the water. Try to avoid getting river water in your mouth. Shower thoroughly with soap and warm water after swimming Don’t swim in the rare instances when an algae bloom is present.
  • Learn CPR: In the time it might take for paramedics to arrive, your CPR skills could make a difference in someone's life.
  • No swimming under the influence:  Alcohol and drugs can impair your judgment and put you at risk for getting in over your head. Swimming altered is a major contributing factor in many drowning deaths.
  • Practice ‘leave no trace’ swimming: pack out what you packed in, and consider bringing a plastic bag along when you come put to play in the river. That way, you can pick up a little extra trash on your way out and contribute to the health and beauty of one of Portland's largest public space.
  • Be respectful of our dedicated public safety officials: Obey all river security and safety personnel, including the Multnomah County River Patrol, Portland Police, Coast Guard, and PP&R’s Park Rangers.

How to Enjoy River Beaches Safely

Swimming and wading are allowed on the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. However, there are no lifeguards on duty. Beach users swim at their own risk. Parents are urged to be vigilant watching children near the water. The river can have swift currents and water depths can vary. Some safety suggestions:

  • Never swim alone. Always practice the buddy system while in the water.
  • Always enter water feet first. There are sharp rocks and possibly glass present--always wear water shoes.
  • Know the terrain. Be aware that the river bed can drop off rapidly and can have a strong current. There may be hidden obstacles in natural water sites including floating debris, logs or underwater boulders.
  • Learn to swim. Formal swimming lessons can protect young children from drowning. However, even when children have had formal swimming lessons, constant, careful supervision is necessary when children are in or around the water. Click here to access PP&R’s swim programs.
  • Watch waders or swimmers in or around the water. Designate a responsible adult who can swim and knows CPR to watch swimmers in or around water, especially children. The supervisor should not be involved in any other distracting activity (such as reading, or talking on the phone) while watching children.
  • Use life jackets (or other PFDs). Do not use air-filled or foam toys, such as "water wings", "noodles", or inner-tubes, in place of life jackets. These toys are not designed to keep swimmers safe.
  • Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation and basic first aid. These skills could save someone’s life.
  • Never dive or jump off bridges. Winter storms can shift underwater boulders, creating summer diving hazards where none existed the year before.

Keep in mind there is no guarantee that following these guidelines will keep you 100% safe. Swimming can be risky, like any other outdoor sport: biking, skiing, hiking, and others. By swimming in the Willamette or Columbia, you assume the responsibility for that risk.


Where to Swim

Portland is getting a beach! At Mayor Wheeler’s request, PP&R is designating and will operate a swim beach this summer (2017) on a pilot basis, between July 14 and September 4. The area will be lifeguarded during certain hours, and have amenities like restrooms, seating, bike racks, and concessions. The beach is just north of the Marquam I-5 Bridge, on the west side of the Willamette River, in an area commonly known as “Poet’s Beach” because of a poetry and art installation at the site.


Swim Safety Near Portland Parks Adjacent to Rivers

While PP&R cannot prohibit swimming in areas below ordinary high water, we do recommend that you NOT swim in certain areas, including:

  1. Superfund-designated areas – see map
  2. Kelley Point Park, because of numerous drowning's that have occurred in the waters off the western edge of the park in the past decades.
  3. Off or near docks that are designated for boating and watercraft tie-up.
  4. Sensitive habitat areas – look for signs.

Be Safe, and Let’s Enjoy our Rivers!