When it comes to swimming holes, Portland’s outer lands are blessed. The Cascades are criss-crossed with pretty little rivers and streams filled with clean, cold water fed by ancient glaciers.
But about those glaciers. The water that comes from them tends to be very cold. During a mid-August heat wave, that’s a great feature. Otherwise, it builds character.
Three Pools, Opal Creek Wilderness
Best for: People who appreciate stunning views and don’t mind lots of strangers.
Two hours from Portland: From I-5 south, take exit 253 to OR-22E. After 45 minutes, turn left onto Gates Hill Road and follow signs to Three Pools. Northwest Forest Pass required.
Visiting Three Pools is as close as any human being will ever come to sampling life as a gleeful, carefree sea lion. From the parking lot and down a short, steep path, the Santiam River collects in shimmering, pristine pools in varied shades of emerald and turquoise. A small beach is toddler-accessible, while more agile folks will enjoy clambering up and around large overhanging rocks to jump in. No swimming hole that’s as amazing as this can escape massive crowds, especially on weekends. But if you arrive early enough, there are plenty of nooks and crannies to stake a claim on a few feet of rock. For this reason, dogs are not recommended. ADRIENNE SO.
Best for: Families, lazy people.
One hour from Portland: Take I-5 north to exit 9 for Northeast 179th Street/WA-502. Follow WA-502 until it turns left onto Northeast 10th Avenue/WA-503. The park will be on your right. For best results, go to the Larch area. Parking is $3.
Out past signs for the Vancouver Rodeo, in the land of hubcap-less Dodge minivans, sits Lewisville Regional Park. (It’s on the Lewis River in unincorporated Lewisville.) The park itself is much like any suburban center of Lions Club pancake breakfasts, youth sports contests and Labrador walking, complete with a warren of colorful birdhouses and a “no golfing” sign. But tucked away behind all those picnic shelters decorated with “C-O-N-G-R-A-T-S” and “H-A-P-P-Y B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y” banners, just outside a Little League field where giant men in sleeveless T-shirts smack softballs around, you find a massive grassy patch that functions as a beach for a pretty bend in the river. There’s plenty of shade on the banks, which are well-kept. The current is gentle and there’s plenty of parking. MARTIN CIZMAR.
Best for: Daredevils and would-be nudists.
One hour from Portland: From I-5 north, cross the Columbia River and take exit 1A to Camas. This road becomes WA-14. Turn left on Washougal River Road and follow signs to Dougan Falls. Follow the gravel road past Dougan Falls for approximately two miles. The access point is on the right. No Northwest Forest Pass required.
The name refers to (rumored) nude sunbathing, but another kind of daredevil generally frequents Naked Falls. The swimming hole’s principal attraction—besides the beautiful, crystal-clear Washougal—is a 30-foot cliff for jumping into a section of deep, moderately flowing river. But even if you’re not keen on that idea, there are plenty of other attractions—smaller falls for sliding or sitting in pools, a bridge with a rope swing, and plenty of large rocks for reading, napping and basking in the sun. The falls’ accessibility from Washougal and proximity to several campgrounds attracts a good-sized crowd, but you can always walk downriver and pick huckleberries if you start feeling a bit cramped. ADRIENNE SO.
Best for: Gorge enthusiasts who want to swim in waterfalls, not take pictures of them.
40 minutes from Portland: Take I-84 east to the Old Gorge Highway (or to the Multnomah Falls exit, if you hate scenic beauty/slow traffic), continue east past Multnomah Falls and look for the gigantic, non-operational railroad tunnel on the south side of the road marked Oneonta Gorge. If you hit Horsetail Falls, you’ve gone too far.
The Gorge’s best swimming spot requires that you overcome two kinds of logjams: a literal one in the form of a high-piled stack of trees and a human one made of camera-toting dingbats more concerned with snapping a photo than the dangers of walking on slippery wood. Overcoming both is worth it. The next task on your quest involves a short, frigid hike through chest-deep water as you’re sandwiched between mossy cliff faces that block most light, only to emerge in front of a towering waterfall with a perfect pool for low-danger cliff diving. The day’s heat will determine how long you stay, but if you time it right, the sun shines on you in relative peace, since the small amount of scrambling it takes to find the spot causes tourists to turn back and make haste for Multnomah Falls. AP KRYZA.
Best for: Daredevils with a high tolerance for rednecks hawking loogies.
25 minutes from Portland: Take I-205 south to Gladstone exit 11. Continue south on Southeast 82nd Avenue, take a right on Columbia Avenue, a left on 1st Street, and another left on Yale Avenue.
Once the go-to place for rednecks to make the news by drowning in front of large groups of people, the danger level has been drastically reduced at Gladstone’s High Rocks by the addition of lifeguards, but the scene remains a menagerie of urban and rural archetypes. The place’s name refers to the sizable basalt rock platforms, where people lounge like tallboy-swilling lizards or rocket into the cold, cold water, which has made it an essential spot for anyone within 30 minutes of the pool as soon as the temperature spikes. And by everyone, we mean everyone: shithead teenagers wearing mesh hats both unironically and ironically, stuffy city dwellers making snide remarks, and pot-bellied dudes using PBR as a bronzing agent who somehow execute cliff dives worthy of a Mexican spring-break resort. It might be crowded, but that’s kind of what makes it incredible. AP KRYZA.
Best for: Cold days, hippies.
Two and a half hours from Portland: From I-205, take exit 12A to OR-212 E/OR-224 E toward Clackamas. Drive east on highway 224 through Estacada. Just past the Ripplebrook Guard Station, the highway turns into Road 46. Follow this for four miles to the junction of Road 63, turn right and travel four miles to Road 70. Turn right and follow Road 70 for six miles to the Bagby Trailhead. The walk is 1.5 miles. $5 per person.
OK, so it’s not really a normal swimming hole—don’t dare plunge your head under this magma-hot water—but given Oregon’s, ahem, very temperate summers, it’s a nice option on a cool June day. The water comes out of the ground boiling hot and is fed through a system of log “pipes” into private log “tubs” inside log shacks made from timber in the dark and drippy forest surrounding these remote springs. Saturated rays pouring through high-pass filter look hyper-real, and even the odd dogs owned by odd people who congregate here seem like they popped out of the Great Northwest Novel. MARTIN CIZMAR.
Glenn Otto Community Park
Best for: Rule lovers and a quick dip on the way back from Multnomah Falls.
1106 E Historic Columbia River Highway, Troutdale
20 minutes from Portland: Take I-84 east to exit 18 for Troutdale. Turn right onto Graham Road and left onto Historic Columbia River Highway. Go one mile. The park is on the right, just past downtown. Free.
There are many, many things you are not permitted to do at
Troutdale’s Sandy River swimming hole. Fortunately, there are many,
many signs posted to warn against animals, alcohol, pets, campfires,
nudity and the greenish-brown river itself (“DANGER EXTREME RISK
SWIMMING IN THIS AREA”). A wide strip of sand and a view of the green
steel bridge where motorcycles rumble along the old U.S. Highway 30 are
defining characteristics (beyond, “PROHIBIDO ANIMALES ESTRICTAMENTE
CONDENADO”), but it is one of the most convenient spots for a dip near
town and off the highway. Be warned, as two more signs say, it is
unlawful to take or attempt to take eulachon smelt. MARTIN CIZMAR.
Expert Advice: Relan Colley
Relan Colley is the author of Oregon’s Swimming Holes, first published as a book in 1995 and reborn last year as an iPhone app ($4.99 by Electric Sugar Inc.). Colley is an avid scuba diver and longtime explorer who has been to 200-plus Oregon swimming holes. He’s 66, retired and lives in Corvallis.
WW: How did you get interested in swimming holes?
Relan Colley: I’ve been a lover of swimming holes since I was a young adult, and sought them out around the state and around the country. I can recall several times having been on the road and hot, then pulling into a gas station or market to ask where the nearest good swimming hole was. Usually, I was met with a blank stare. This is my attempt to help folks find and enjoy one of the best pleasures of life with minimum waste of time, energy and resources.
What’s the best part about Oregon’s swimming holes, and the worst?
The best part about Oregon swimming is the general natural beauty of the state that accompanies each hole—the waters are generally clear and beautiful. The worst part is the way people sometimes treat them; litter and garbage and heavy-handed use are a threat to their beauty. Cold water is generally a feature of the Oregon swimming-hole experience.
What are your favorite swimming holes near Portland?
My favorite stream within 2.5 hours of Portland is the Little North Fork of the Santiam River. There are many beautiful places to swim and enjoy on that stream; it’s particularly stunning and presents an array of swimming opportunities for both the inexperienced and the adventurous swimmer. I like the Sandy River nearer Portland—I’ve listed Dabney, Oxbow and Troutdale parks in the book, but there are lots of places near Portland. I also enjoy Portland’s fountains for a fun experience with kids.