Boating Destinations: Columbia River

If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind boating adventure, take the path less traveled and head for the Columbia river. While most recreational boaters head south for warm weather and calm winds, the Columbia river is a gem in the Pacific Northwest. With mild year-round temperatures and breathtaking views of the Cascade mountains, you won’t want to miss this once-in-a-lifetime itinerary. Keep reading to learn everything about planning your Columbia river adventure.

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Columbia River Itineraries: What To See?

The Columbia river is a unique destination for boaters across the US and Canada. This massive network of rivers and tributaries starts at the Columbia river delta on the west coast and snakes its way all the way across Washington State and Oregon, until it eventually twists north into British Columbia, Canada. Small recreational boats can follow the river deep into Washington, or follow it east, where it splits into the Snake River into Idaho.

Click on the image to open Maps. Map data (c) 2023 Google

Most boaters will start their Columbia river vacation at the western terminus of the river. While some will look to launch their vessels in one of the many marinas and docks on the river, many still will start in the protected waters of the Puget Sound, outside of Seattle, and sail south until they reach the mouth of the river. Boating offshore along the west coast offers some challenges, especially if there’s bad weather. However, you’ll also have an opportunity to see amazing wildlife, like the sea otters and orcas that call this area home.

Columbia River Orcas

Once you enter the Columbia river delta, national parks to the north and south will guide you up river. Most notably is the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge, which is on the Oregon side of the river, only about five miles east from the ocean. The refuge is made up of about 20 different islands that extend over 25 miles upstream, and is home to waterfowl, wolves, bears, deer, elk, otters and more. Since this is a protected ecosystem, it’s important to obey all marked speed limits and stick to deep channels so you don’t risk running aground. Also, make sure to contain all waste on board to help protect this national refuge.

Columbia River Astoria Oregon

The first 300 miles of the river follow the border between Oregon and Washington, meaning you’ll see some of the best each state has to offer. As the Columbia curves toward Portland, you’ll enter the Cascade mountain range, which will provide breathtaking views on either side of the river. Keep an eye out for Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams to the north, and Mount Hood to the south. These volcanic mountains are capped in snow and tower over the neighboring mountains, so you can’t miss them from the river.

Columbia River Mount St. Helens

However, your trip doesn’t have to be limited to cruising and enjoying nature. Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon lie on opposite sides of the river and are a great opportunity for boaters to get on shore and stretch their sea legs. There are plenty of marinas in each location that are a perfect place to dock for the evening, so you can explore the best of the Pacific Northwest. Portland is home to countless breweries, coffee shops and first-class restaurants where you can refuel for the next leg of your journey.

Columbia River Nightlife

While many adventurers will turn around here, there’s still plenty to see up-river, including the Bonneville Dam and locks system, which are an exciting experience for even the most seasoned boaters.

Columbia River Activities: What To Do?

It seems like there are endless activities and attractions to add to your Columbia river itinerary. Whether you love to fish, do water sports with the family, sight see or bar-hop from marina to marina, you’ll have no trouble finding fun and adventure when you decide to go boating in the Pacific Northwest.

If you’re an angler, you’ll have no trouble finding thrilling entertainment and fun on your Columbia river adventure. As you boat across the river, it’s important to know that depending on where you are, there may be different rules for fishing. Make sure to pay attention to your location, and make note of whether you’re in a control zone or wildlife reserve before keeping any fish you land. It’s also important to know the different types of fish that are in the Columbia river, so you know which ones you can keep. Fish species like sturgeon are always reserved for catch-and-release, while there are seasons for trout or salmon. There are also specific rules for the kind of tackle that you can use while fishing, so make sure to know the regulations before casting your line.

Columbia River Sturgeon

There are some pollutants, like mercury, in the Columbia river that can affect what fish are safe to eat. Current guidelines from the state of Oregon recommend that anglers only eat one fish a week from the Columbia river. The advisory includes most freshwater fish, like bass, carp and yellow perch. Generally, it’s safe to eat migratory fish, like salmon, steelhead or shad, however it’s best to still use caution when eating fish caught in the river.

Those same pollutants can make it unsafe to swim in the Columbia river. While most regulations allow for swimming, there are often incidents of high bacterial overgrowth like e-coli that can put swimmers at risk. These pollutants and bacteria come from water treatment plants and factories that are on the banks of the river. There are plenty of resources that can help families find which locations are safe to swim in, like the Swim Guide app, provided by the Columbia Riverkeeper, which does regular water testing to assure that fans of the river can swim and play safely.

Columbia River Boating Swim

By far, the best entertainment the Columbia river has to offer is that you can get right from the deck of your own boat. As you tour the water, enjoy the natural spectacle of the Cascade mountain range. You can see bald eagles swooping high in the evergreens that line the river and plenty of shorebirds, from different species of geese, to herons and pelicans along the banks of the river. The waters are home to plenty of fish, including salmon and trout. You can even see whales, like gray whales and orcas, in the deeper waters near the mouth of the river. Enjoying nature is what the Pacific Northwest is all about, so make sure to take it in while you can.

Columbia River Bald Eagle

Safety First: What To Pay Attention To?

The Columbia river serves as a natural shipping channel, so it’s generally easy to navigate the waters, especially as they move inland towards major ports like Portland. However, it helps to know a few things about these waterways so you and your passengers can enjoy your trip worry-free.

If you’re looking to slip into the Columbia river from the ocean, take some time to study nautical maps and buoy locations ahead of time. The Columbia Bar is a system of shoals and sandbars in the Columbia river delta, and is known commonly as the Graveyard of the Pacific. It’s not unusual for large boats to run aground in these shallow areas. Luckily, the bar tends to be sandy-bottomed, so running aground may not prematurely end your vacation. In some areas, like the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge, it’s possible to run aground during low tide. The park specifies that if you do get stuck, wait for high tide to lift you off a shoal, instead of powering off where you can disturb the ecosystem. Take your time to follow well-worn trade routes and deepwater channels so you can safely get into the river and continue your trip along the river.

Shallow Areas

It’s important to know where you are in the Columbia river before casting a line or jumping in. Some areas of the river have specific fishing regulations, while others have high incidence of pollution caused by local runoff or factories. Use the Swim Guide app provided by the Columbia Riverkeeper to make sure that the water you’re swimming in is clear and safe for swimming. It’s also best to reference the Oregon and Washington State websites for advisories regarding fishing in the Columbia river, to make sure you’re doing so in season.

When you set sail in the Columbia river is almost as important as where you set sail. With so many mountains on either side of the river, the conditions can change rapidly in just a few days. It’s better to take to the river in the late spring, after warm temperatures have melted much of the snow in the nearby Cascades. Snowmelt can cause the river to swell, making the water move faster and more turbulent than it normally would during other parts of the year. Late spring and summer allow the waters to calm down, making for a smoother, safer ride, especially for smaller vessels.

Finally, there’s wildlife everywhere in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s important to interact with animals safely. While it’s rare to see sharks in the river, the brackish waters in the mouth of the river can be home to some large species of shark, like great white sharks or salmon sharks. In fact, a video of a shark eating a seal in the river went viral in 2016. Try to avoid swimming with other marine creatures like seals or otters, which can attract sharks, and make sure that you don’t have any open cuts when you do jump in. Stay aware, and you should have a great time on the water.

Best Boats for the Columbia River

We have the perfect boat to help you plan your Columbia river adventure. While many go to boating destinations encourage lighter, faster boats, the long trip up-river through the Pacific Northwest generally requires a vessel that you can stay on board for several days or weeks at a time. That means you’ll want to consider larger boats, like motor yachts or sail boats. Here are our picks for sailing up the Columbia river.


There’s no better way to cruise for long stretches than in a sailboat. Imagine quietly slipping through the tranquil, protected waters of Oregon’s national parks, drifting below the shadow of Mount Hood as you head upriver towards the interior of the US. Sailboats offer a unique advantage when traveling the waters of the Pacific Northwest as they can go longer than most other boats between fuel stops. That means you can easily sail from the Puget Sound to the Columbia river mouth, experiencing everything this wild marine landscape offers. The one drawback to sailing the Columbia river is that the deep keel of some sailboats can run aground on some ‌sandbars, so ‌sail with caution and follow dedicated channels to ensure smooth sailing.


If you’re not worried about getting to Portland quickly, consider touring the Pacific Northwest on a trawler yacht. While motor yachts are great for seeing as much of the Columbia river as possible in a short time, trawlers are truly ideal for slowing down and enjoying your trip. Trawlers have notoriously long ranges, so if you’re considering seeing it all, from the Puget Sound to the interior of Idaho, you definitely want to make sure you set out aboard a Trawler.

Trawlers More

Motor Yachts

For a little more luxury and speed, consider a motor yacht for your Columbia river adventure. Motor yachts let you bring your accommodations with you wherever you go on the water, meaning you can dock at any of the marinas along the way, or drop anchor and stay on the river itself. The compact size of a motor yacht is also ideal for longer upriver voyages and makes slipping through the Bonneville locks a dream. While there are plenty of marinas and gas docks on the trip, it’s best to plan your journey ahead of time so you know exactly where you can stay for a night and refuel during your adventure.

Motor Yachts More


Of course, there’s always a chance that you can fall in love with the Pacific Northwest, and choose to extend your stay indefinitely. One of the most popular ways to really explore the Columbia river is aboard a houseboat. There are plenty of marinas along the river where you can rent a houseboat to stay right on the water and enjoy the nature all around you. A houseboat allows you to wake up on the river and enjoy the scenery at your own pace. Definitely consider this as a temporary, or permanent way to enjoy Washington and Oregon.

Bay Boats

Finally, for the anglers and adventurers out there who have on-land accommodations, bay boats can be an ideal way to explore the river during long day trips. Bay boats are perfect for fishing for trout or salmon, and can easily navigate the often unpredictable waters around the many small islands and shoals in the Columbia river. You’ll never have to worry about running aground in a bay boat, and can easily make your way through narrow estuaries or channels, making this a perfect way to explore the often unseen parts of this massive river system.

Now that you know all that the Columbia river has to offer, we bet you can’t wait to plan your next boating adventure. The great news is that we have the perfect boat for your trip to the Pacific Northwest at! Take a look at our inventory of luxurious yachts and fast bay boats so you can start exploring the great outdoors today!