Travel

The Best Swimming Holes Near Portland

Take a vacation, at home.

Now that your favorite bars and restaurants are either shuttered or operating in a takeout-only format, it’s never been more obvious that Portland’s greatest asset is its proximity to nature. The grassy knolls and sun-kissed forests that dot our countryside are the only reliable places to “hang out” anymore. With Oregonians putting a bit of effort into social distancing and keeping our public outdoor spaces open, it brings us great joy to report that many of our favorite swimming holes are still accessible in these bizarre and uncertain times. It’s more important than ever to tread lightly, respect the locals and stay at home if you just got back from Sturgis or an ill-fated Chainsmokers show at a drive-in, and you should do your best to keep your party small and contained. So pack a beach towel, a mask, and a six-pack of seltzer and enjoy what Portland does best: the great outdoors.

Dabney State Recreation Area

How to get there: Head east on I-84. Take exit 18 for the Historic Columbia River Highway. As you pass the Stark Street bridge, watch out for Dabney on your right.
Cost: $5 per car for parking.
The scene: A tad less crowded than nearby Lewis and Clark State Park, Dabney is a great place to splash around in the Sandy River without worrying about getting whisked away by the current. If that’s what you’re trying to do though, float from here to Lewis and Clark (the Sandy flows north), which takes about three hours depending on the current and how much beer is weighing down your flotilla. Be sure to pack a pair of river shoes or sandals, as there are small rock formations that could bust your toes if you’re not careful.
Nearby: Head north on the Historic Columbia River Highway until you reach a bridge, then hang a left to find a classic roadside snack spot called Sugarpine Drive-In. You’ll find everything from burgers to soft-serve here, and its takeout-centric business model makes it uniquely positioned to serve the post-beach crowd in a way that’s both efficient and socially distanced without the need to bend over backwards.

Rooster Rock State Park

How to get there: Head east on I-84. Take exit 25 and follow the signs to Rooster Rock State Park.
Cost: $5 per car for parking.
The scene: There are two very different vibes: the family-friendly riverfront park near the parking lot, and the clothing-optional beach on the other side of the woods.
Nearby: Level Beer is a spacious, open-air craft brewery in an old produce market right off Marine Drive in far-out northeast Portland. The greenhouse has been converted into a gorgeous patio, the backyard has ample room for well-behaved doggos and kiddos, and there’s a couple of solid food carts out front as well.

Sellwood Riverfront Park

How to get there: By car, head towards Oaks Amusement Park, then take a left into the parking lot once you turn off Tacoma Street. By bike, take the Springwater Trail south towards Oaks Park until you find a beach area you like.
Cost: Free.
The scene: Sellwood Riverfront Park is popular with kayakers, SUP-ers and yuppy families, who arrive in droves at the weekend and let their dogs and children run wild. It’s easy enough to escape them though -- just amble north along the beach until you find a secluded spot. You’ll never be completely alone, but most people give up well before they reach the dock, which is perfect for laying out and catching a tan between dips in the river.
Nearby: The downtown Sellwood/Westmoreland area is an unexpectedly poppin’ respite from Portland proper when it comes to bars, and a handful are keeping the dream of summer alive with limited outdoor seating. The closest to the park is the Muddy Rudder Public House, which has a modest patio, a respectable craft beer selection of some of the best pizza in the neighborhood. If you’re craving a burger then a trip inland to PDX Sliders is well worth it now that their expanded outdoor seating area is up and running.

High Rocks

How to get there: Head east until you hit I-205 south, then take exit 11 towards Gladstone, turn right onto 82nd and the park will be on your left.
Cost: Free
The scene: This suburban city park in Gladstone is a choice spot for cliff jumping. It’s high on fun-factor but low on risk -- the rocks aren’t crazy far from the water, and on busy summer afternoons there are lifeguards to keep watch.
Nearby: After an afternoon out in the parking-lot sun, your car’s gonna be baked -- come off the I-205 and reroute yourself to Happy Valley Station, a massive cart pod with 30 taps of cold beer and every variety of cart food favorite under the sun.

The Wilson River

How to get there: Head west on US-26 towards the coast, then follow signs for OR-6 towards Banks and Tillamook. 27 miles later you’ll see the Tillamook Forest Center on the right, which is a good base for exploring the river.
Cost: Free.
The scene: If you’ve ever wondered how to access the river you drive along on your way to stock up on cheese in Tillamook, this is it. Swimming holes and cliff-jumping spots are all over the trail, so strap on some water shoes, pack a dry bag with jerky, and spend the day following the river through the old-growth forest.
Nearby: There’s a vast tract of the suburban westside between the city and Tillamook State Forest, which means all manner of stripmall-bound ethnic eateries are well within reach. Oyatsupan runs a grab-and-go operation for Japanese baked goods (think black bean paste sweet rolls or curry karaage croissants), and the newly-opened BG Food Cartel is a massive food cart pod that offers a combo of new-money suburban sheen and small-town culinary delights. 

Moulton Falls

How to get there: Take I-205 north to WA-503, towards Battle Ground, for 25.5 miles. Turn right on Rock Creek Road, then follow the road as it hugs the East Fork Lewis River for about 8 miles. Snag a parking spot as soon as you see cars parked every which way on the side of the road.
Cost: Free.
The scene: When your coworker offhandedly mentions that they know of a primo rock-jumping spot they can’t tell you about, there’s a good chance this is it. Closer to the bridge you’ll find a smattering of families floating in the slow-moving, pre-falls portion of the river, but the real action is on the rocks down below. Here you’ll find thrill-seekers of all ages diving off the rocks into the frigid pool below and sunning themselves like lizards between dips. It’s not the best time if jumping off the rocks isn’t your bag, as the terrain is subpar for casual sunbathing and the water is a bit too brisk for splashing around in a leisurely fashion, but it’s a blast for just about everyone else.
Nearby: Washington got a slight jump on Oregon with the re-opening process, so you won’t have much trouble finding a cold beer or a burger while passing through Battle Ground en route. You’ll find all of the above on the spacious patio of Northwood Public House, and if you only need beer you can snag a growler or a four-pack of No Bad Days IPA at Barrel Mountain Brewery.

Mosier Falls

How to get there: Take I-84 east and get off at exit 69 for Mosier, which is just a few miles past the Hood River. The Mosier Plateau Trail is closed at the moment, but a bit of scampering will get you there if you know where to go. The interstate exit spits you out on US-30, and as soon as it hooks to the left and leads you into town you can hang a right on just about any street, then a left on 3rd Ave. Once you pass Husky Rd. on the right you’ll start to go up a very slight incline. When the road bends to the right you’ll probably see a handful of cars parked on the side of the road. Jump out and follow the sound of screaming cliff-jumpers, and you’ll eventually find a navigable path on the other side of the guardrail near a clump of small trees. 
Cost: Free
The scene: It’s a small cluster of pools and waterfalls at the base of Mosier Plateau. Laying around and cliff jumping are, not surprisingly, the top two activities -- you can just about cannonball into the top pool, but the lower one is deeper, and you’ll have the bonus satisfaction of silencing all the kids who talk trash until you jump in.
Nearby: Mosier is just one exit past Hood River, so you’ve got every excuse to stop at top-notch beer spots like Double Mountain and pFriem for a six-pack and a sandwich, both of which you’re legally allowed to consume just about anywhere in town. 

Vancouver Lake

How to get there: Take I-5 north and get off at the E. Mill Plain Boulevard exit, just across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington. Hang a left on E. Mill Plain, then keep driving for about 10 miles. You’ll see the lake on the right about three-fourths of the way out, and the parking lot for Vancouver Lake Regional Park will appear around the 10th mile. 
Cost: Free
The scene: On account of its unchallenging terrain and easy access, this perfectly average lake in the perfectly average suburb of Vancouver is wildly popular with families who need nothing else than a chill spot to let their kids run around in the water. This is essentially the opposite of places like Mosier and Moulton Falls, and it’s worth knowing of its existence in case you’d rather play volleyball, grill weenies, and doze off in the sand. 
Nearby: As the pandemic rages on, downtown Vancouver remains a respite from the more extreme environs of the Portland dining scene, for better or worse. If the patio isn’t packed out we can’t recommend Heathen Brewing enough for a classic northwest-style IPA, and the meaty tacos at Little Conejo really hit the spot after a long day in the water.

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Pete Cottell is a firm believer that swimming pools and air conditioners are for wusses who’ve never experienced the exhilaration of peeing in a lake or river. Follow his adventures in the crystalline waters of the Sandy River at @VanifestDestiny.