Columbia River Cruising Guide

By Pat Rains

This Pacific Northwest river offers dozens of islands and small anchorages that invite small-boat cruising, plus pleasant ports with 50 marinas, 48 launch ramps, and ample boat services.

Pink sunrise over the Columbia River gorgePhoto: Thinkstockphotos.com/JPLDesigns

When in 1785 Capt. Robert Gray sailed to the mouth of the waterway that now divides Oregon from Washington, he wrote that "a river of giant proportions" must be the source of this violent collision between fresh- and saltwater. The treacherous breakers and outflow to the Pacific Ocean capsized and wrecked many ships. Gray, an American merchant sea captain, eventually crossed the bar in 1792 aboard his trading ship Columbia Rediviva but charted only a few miles upstream of the river he named "Columbia," after his ship. Celebrated explorers Lewis and Clark provided the most detailed chart of the river when they hiked and canoed across the Rockies and the Cascades to reach America's fabled "Gateway to the Pacific" in 1805.

Columbia River mapClick image to enlarge. (©2017 Mirto Art Studio)

Today, recreational boaters easily explore the spectacular scenery of Columbia River's main stream as it forms the twisting boundary between Oregon and Washington state, flanked by snow-covered peaks, forested cliffs, waterfalls, national and state parks, and the Lewis and Clark Memorial Highway.

Family cruising season generally starts here in late spring after the runoff from mountain snow abates. Some diehard anglers fish year-round, but summer usually opens fishing for coho and chinook salmon, steelhead, and shad on the rivers, then winter for sturgeon. Check regulations and limits at dfw.state.or.us and search "Columbia resources."

Cruising season peaks in summer. Under sunny skies, daytime temperatures on the river can reach the mid-80s, then drop to the 70s overnight. The season runs through mid-autumn, when scenery is magnificent, thanks to a nice mix of evergreens and colorful hardwoods on both riverbanks.

Autumn scenery on the Columbia RiverPhoto: Thinkstockphotos.com/Freebilly

The Columbia starts as a trickling brook in Canada's Kootaney Mountains and is then amplified by nearly 100 raging tributaries along its circuitous, 1,234-mile dash to the ocean. En route, it dramatically changes its personality five times, as you'll see as we cruise upstream from Astoria, at the river mouth, to The Dalles.

The Notorious Columbia River Bar

I've crossed the Columbia River's infamous 2-mile-wide bar 10 times while delivering different boats up and down the Pacific Coast. In very calm conditions, with due diligence it can be relatively trouble-free. We'll see a few white caps on the bar, while inside the bar, fishing boats and windsurfers ply the calm waters. On the flip side, during stormy or winter conditions, the U.S. Coast Guard actually closes the bar to recreational vessels — often for days at a time.

Columbia River entrance at Clatso SpitColumbia River entrance at Clatsop Spit. (Photo: Pat Rains)

In the summer of 2016, my husband and I were delighted to join friends in Portland, Oregon, to explore 150 nautical miles of the Columbia River for pure pleasure. The river bar is a broad patch of breaking shoals between North Jetty's Cape Disappointment Light and South Jetty's Clatsop Spit. The ocean continually rearranges the shoals of river sediments. The deepest zigzag path safely across the bar changes from day to day, and the mixing of fresh- and saltwater adds to the turbulence. To help vessels safely cross the bar, the Coast Guard and NOAA employ 24/7 data from dozens of buoys placed offshore, in the bar and upriver; from pilot boats working on the bar and upriver; and from drones. We watch our radar and depth sounder, and monitor VHF 16 and 22 for hourly bar reports and forecasts from Coast Guard Station Columbia on Cape Disappointment.

We time our approach to the bar to coincide with favorable ocean tide (ideally an hour before high tide) and river current (not max flood or ebb) and with fair weather (not a strong west wind) and plenty of daylight — enough to get us over the bar and 10 miles upstream to Astoria.

Astoria And The Lower Columbia

Ten miles upstream, Astoria Bridge (193-foot vertical clearance) spans the river, and the charted ship channel runs close along Astoria. We always berth at the Port of Astoria's West Mooring Basin, located a quarter mile before the bridge, the only public marina in town. It's an easy entrance with good access to fuel, provisions, and scads of eateries within walking distance.

Astoria's narrow downtown parallels the waterfront and consists of about 20 blocks of practical shops (chandlers, hardware, groceries) mixed with trendy restaurants, coffee and wine bars, Gold Rush themed T-shirt stores, and bike rentals. Dozens of Victorian mansions climb the steep, pine-clad hills behind the waterfront. Flavel House is one of the oldest, built by Captain Flavel, the first bar pilot on the Columbia. A tourist trolley runs from the Columbia River Maritime Museum down River Walk to the cruise-ship dock, then climbs 600 feet uphill to the Astoria Column — a spectacular place to fathom the lay of the land.

Before departing Astoria's marina, first timers should pick up an "Anchoring Safety" flier with five tricks unique to the Columbia. As the river turns and twists around islands, the 40-foot deep "ship channel" crosses from the Oregon side to the Washington side several times. Ships may travel up to 15 knots, some towing barges, usually confined to the buoyed channel, so ships have the right of way. We in pleasure craft navigate more slowly, so we stay along the edges of the navigable channel.

Victorian mansion in AstoriaVictorian mansions overlook Astoria's waterfront shops. (Photo: Pat Rains)

Check your charts. Quite a few tantalizing side channels offer stops for bird-watching, fishing, or even napping. Two nice stops for overnighting are Cathlamet, Washington (23 miles from Astoria), and St. Helens, Oregon (62 miles from Astoria, 25 miles from Portland).  Elochoman Marina on the Washington side makes an excellent day trip, only 23 miles from Astoria. At Buoy 41, we'll depart the ship channel and bear to port for 1.5 miles in the Cathlamet Channel, staying in 10 feet of water.

On the north side of Cathlamet village, we could anchor in the side stream lined with blackberry bushes, but the pretty basin for Cathlamet Marina has close along Astoria. We always berth at the Port of Astoria's West Mooring Basin, located a quarter mile before the bridge, the only pubic marina in town. It's an easy entrance with good access to fuel, provisions, and scads of eateries within walking distance.

I5 truss bridge over the Columbia RiverThe I5 truss bridge over the Columbia River. (Photo: Thinkstockphotos.com/vitpho)

St. Helens lies 39 miles upstream from Cathlamet, but on the Oregon side. Several full-service marinas and yacht clubs line the shore, including clusters of houseboats, and they all have dramatic views northeast across the river of snow-capped Mount St. Helens — yes, the volcano that notoriously erupted in 1980 (and is still active). St. Helens is only about 25 miles from downtown Portland, so many residents commute to work — some by boat. Here's where we joined up with John and Sue Waikart, commodores and cruise coordinators of the Columbia River Association of Yacht Clubs.

The Multnomah Channel

For a quick shortcut away from the strong current, the Multnomah Channel branches slightly west from the Columbia here at St. Helens. The Multnomah's personality is more hospitable, parklike, and residential. Eight marinas and seven launch ramps line the channel's west side, interspersed with dairy pastures and nice homes.

For lunch, tie up to Mark's on the Channel, a friendly houseboat restaurant and bar halfway up the Multnomah. Sauvie Island with its population of just over 1,000 lines the channel's east side. The current in the Multnomah is much lighter, too, because it's merely a 25-mile shortcut to the Willamette River (pronounced "will-AM-it" by locals).

On To Portland

Modern and sophisticated, Portland's metro area (population 2.35 million) fills the level ground where the wide valley of the Willamette River flows north into the Columbia. Only two marinas line the Willamette where it cuts through downtown Portland, and one of those is purely for houseboats.

Portland houseboatsInviting houseboats dot the Portland waterfront. (Photo: Pat Rains)

Portland's 16-mile north shore is framed by the Columbia, here flowing almost east to west. Portland's Hayden and Tomahawk islands are given over to the maritime world, including boatyards and 11 marinas. Government Island is uninhabited but shelters four houseboat marinas tucked into shallow coves on Portland's north shore.

If we're marina hopping, it's 14 miles from Portland's Heyden Island marinas up to the Camas-Washougal Marina on the Washington side, then 23.5 to Cascade Marina on the Oregon side just 1.5 miles past Bonneville Lock.

After Washougal, four must-see features are Vista Point, Bridal Veil Falls, Multmonah Falls, and Beacon Rock. Trailer boats might haul out at Dalton Point, Oregon, and drive 2 miles up to Vista Point for its 11-mile view up to Beacon Rock and wander its 1920s domed history center. Both falls have visitor centers with parking so you can hike the well-maintained trails.

Beacon Rock Park dockThe marina at Beacon Rock State Park features a boat launch, dock, and a pumpout station. (Photo: Pat Rains)

Beacon Rock State Park, 5 miles down from Bonneville Lock, is an ideal stop on the Washington side before or after locking through, and it's the most reliable anchorage on this stretch. Enter the cove west of Pierce Island to use the 200-foot dock, two-lane ramp, or anchor east of the snag line. This park is popular on holiday weekends.

Bonneville Lock is free for U.S. boats to transit Bonneville and the seven other massive locks on the Columbia and Snake rivers, all engineering marvels that make travel possible for shipping and recreational boats. The dam controls floods, provide drinking water, and generate electricity.

Bonneville DamThe Bonneville Dam. (Photo: Pat Rains)

Bonneville has only one lock to handle both upstream and downstream traffic. When you're approaching, hail "Bonneville Dam Master" on VHF 16 for instructions from Beacon Rock or Cascade Marina to schedule your entrance. Have your lines and fenders ready. Lockage takes 90 minutes before you're out into the gorge.

To The Columbia Gorge

The Columbia narrows at Beacon Rock, and a massive prehistoric landslide temporarily blocked the flow, forming the spectacular gorge. The town has a passenger dock for excursion vessels next to Cascade Marina, with fuel and guest slips.

Cascade excursion dockAbsorb the history of the Columbia River Gorge aboard a paddlewheeler. (Photo: Pat Rains)

The gorge cuts through the Cascade Range with steep sides as it narrows to less than one-quarter mile in some spots, so give way to ship traffic. National forest land on both sides may hide views north of Mt. Adams (12,280-foot elevation) and south of Mt. Hood (11,240 feet) — both snowcapped in summer.

It's 18.5 miles from Cascade to Hood River. In winter, the mountain draws skiers, so the town has trendy stores and a tourist railroad. July brings kiteboarders to the beach west of the bridge, and fruit is sold at farm stands. Nautical visitors may use the city's 100-foot guest dock for an hour, or anchor below the bridge legs, but the yacht club has no guest slips.

Salmon in rays of lightAnglers enjoy catching salmon, among other species, in the waters of the Columbia River. (Photo: Thinkstockphotos.com/Erik Trampe)

So we continue 15 miles through drying hillsides to the town of The Dalles, on the river's south bend. The Dalles Yacht Club offers 14 full-service guest slips to 50 feet LOA, first come, first served, plus a launch ramp with secure parking. The yacht club (the only marina in town) lies 2 miles before John Day Lock, so it's a convenient overnight stop, especially if we plan to lock farther up to the Snake River.

East of here, the scenery changes dramatically to dry buttes and cattle ranches, because it's in the rain shadow of the Cascade peaks. That makes The Dalles an excellent place to prepare for our downstream voyage, which we planned to enjoy just as much as the winding journey that brought us here. 

Pat Rains has logged more than 500,000 sea miles cruising Mexico and delivering motoryachts from Florida to California via Panama with hubby Capt. John E. Rains. Pat, who earned her U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton masters license, is the author of guidebooks for cruising Mexico and Central America.

— Published: August/September 2017


Marinas On The Columbia

Here is a curated list of marinas and other businesses that offer discounts to BoatUS members. All marinas have guest docks and are located near this article's itinerary.

McCuddy's Landing Marina
34326 Johnson's Landing Rd., Scappoose, OR (Multnomah Channel) 503-543-3836
200 slips to 90 feet, launch ramp, houseboat slips; Mark's On the Channel restaurant, 25% off transient slips

McCuddy's Ridgefield Marina
5 Mill St., Ridgefield, WA
(Lake River Channel, 6 miles off the Columbia) 306-887-7699
Slips, covered side ties, kayak rentals,
25% off transient slips

Multnomah Yacht Harbor
12900 N.W. Marina Way, Portland, OR (Intersection of Willamette River and Multnomah Channel, second mooring
on left) 503-737-1651
Full-service boatyard, including repair, service maintenance, sales and transient slips, 25% off transient slips

McCuddy's Marine Drive Moorage
2901 N.E. Marine Dr., Portland, OR
(on the Columbia just past Hayden Island) 503-289-7879
120 double slips to 75 feet, 30 covered slips to 45 feet, 50 houseboat slips,
25% off transient slips

Ducks Moorage
18699 N.E. Marine Dr., Portland, OR
(North Portland between several houseboat marinas on the south side of the Columbia, shielded by McGuire Island) 503-665-8348
600 feet of guest side tie among four piers, 25% off transient slips

RPM Marine Service
300 N.E. Tomahawk Island Dr.,
Portland, OR, 503-719-6445
Engine repair, maintenance, and mobile service in the Portland-metro area.
10% off repairs

 

Charts and Publications

NOAA Navigation Charts:

Chart 18521: Columbia Bar and Astoria
Chart 18523: Columbia River/Chathlamet
Chart 18524: Columbia River/St. Helens
Chart 18525: Columbia River/Portland
Chart 18526: Multnomah, Portland, Willamette
Chart 18531: Columbia River/Bonneville Dam and Lock
Chart 18532: Columbia River/The Dalles Dam and Lock

"Columbia River" Fold out charts of the Columbia River from Bonneville Dam to the Pacific Ocean including Portland. By Fish-n-Map Co.

"Pacific Coast — North Portion" Fold out map of Washington, Oregon and northern California, by Fine Edge Publishing

"River Cruising Atlas" Columbia, Willamette, Snake, published 2016 by Evergreen Pacific, sold by West Marine

"Astoria: An Oregon History", by Karen L. Leedom

"Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West" by Stephen E. Ambrose, author of Band of Brothers and D-Day. Available from Amazon.com

 

Walks and Hiking Trails

Multnomah Falls Trails

Paved hiking trails zig from the visitor center up one mile in two gentle sections to 611 feet at the crest. This roaring, awe-inspiring cascade of icy water is the most visited natural attraction in Oregon. From the river, you see only part of the top tier; to view both tiers walk a quarter mile to the carved out opening in the rock face, tilt your head up and get a mind-boggling perspective of the sheer cliffs and cascade, or look over down to the maiden's pool 69 feet below. Strollers and toddlers are OK on the lower section, visitor center, and in the glamorous 1920 lodge and restaurant.

Bonneville Fish Hatchery

Beautifully landscaped grounds for self-guided tours. Guides and interactive videos explain harvesting salmon eggs, caring for young fry, fingerlings, and smolts. The focus is education; lots of school groups year round. Watch fish climb the ladder at nearby Bonneville Dam visitor center.

Mt. Hood Vineyard & Orchard Tours

Rent a car at The Dalles or join a two-hour bus tour. The north flanks of this spectacular volcano are studded with vineyards (wine tastings daily) and summer/fall fruit orchards (berries, stone fruits), plus cut flowers and herbs in summer.

Lewis & Clark Expedition of Discovery

Want to sit exactly where Lewis and Clark camped? Two national park memorial sites are found at Cape Disappointment on the Columbia's mouth and at the Rock Fort Campsite at The Dalles.

 

History Lessons

Bonneville Dam and Lock

Bonneville Lock and Dam is located 145 river miles from the mouth of the Columbia River and about 40 miles east of Portland, Oregon, near Cascade Locks, Oregon, and North Bonneville, Washington.

The project's first powerhouse, spillway, and original navigation lock were completed in 1938 to improve navigation on Columbia River and provide hydropower to the Pacific Northwest. A second powerhouse was completed in 1981, and a larger navigation lock in 1993.

Portions of Bonneville Lock and Dam Project, a Public Works Administration project of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987. This history is provided by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

Cascade Locks

The history of Cascade Locks is tied to the story of the Columbia River and the early travelers who passed through this region. Forced to portage around the impassable Rapids of the Cascades in 1805, Lewis and Clark wrote, "This great chute of falls is about half a mile with the water of this great river compressed within the space of 150 paces ... great number of both large and small rocks, water passing with great velocity forming & boiling in a horrible manner, with a fall of about 20 feet."

Later, pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail's water route were forced to choose between taking the high, dangerous route over Mt. Hood's steep Barlow Road, an overland toll road, or rafting down the Columbia, risking their life and property on the treacherous river.

In 1864, the first steam locomotive in the Pacific Northwest—the Oregon Pony—portaged steamboat passengers and goods past the Cascade Rapids. Steamboats provided transportation on the Columbia between Portland and mining areas in Idaho and the Columbia Plateau.

You can see the Oregon Pony locomotive today in Marine Park, near the Cascade Locks Historical Museum. Marine Park is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

By 1875 the U.S. Government approved the plans to build a set of locks to improve the navigation through the Cascade Rapids. Construction began in 1878 and the locks were completed on November 5, 1896. The locks were an amazing achievement, with a lift chamber carved in solid rock 460 feet long, and 90 feet wide, with 8 feet of draft, deep enough for any vessel then on the river and large enough to accommodate several at once.

The locks made navigation on the river safer; soon riverboats made daily runs from Portland and The Dalles. The City of Cascade Locks was born amid this river traffic. Although the rising waters of the Bonneville Lock and Dam submerged the locks in 1938, Cascade Locks, the city, remains as a vital community in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge.

 

How to Anchor Safely in the Columbia River

From the US Army Corp of Engineers

1. Use anchor lines that are 5 to 7 times the depth of the water. River depths may exceed 100 feet in some places. Use a float for anchor line to serve as a buffer and to reduce the risk of getting the anchor line tangled in the propeller. Anchor only off the point of the bow. Anchoring off the stern or the side will capsize your boat.

2. Power upstream of anchor before retrieving it. Maintain position in line with the flow of the current while retrieving anchor. Turning cross-wise to the current increases the risk of capsize.

3. The Columbia River can become turbulent with little to no warning. Wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket at all times. Take precautions against hypothermia; river temperatures can range from 70 F in summer to near freezing in winter.

4. River users are reminded that, although it is legal to anchor in the channel, it is illegal to block the right of way of a vessel that is restricted to using the channel.

5. Five blasts of a horn signifies danger, and you must take action to avoid that danger.

 

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