The Columbia River Highway celebrates its 100th birthday this summer, a centennial that the Oregon Department of Transportation is marking with a concert in Washougal, storytime at Eagle Creek and an antique car parade in Troutdale.
But, for us, the best way to experience the Columbia River Highway this summer is to travel it on the way to take a swim. We drove along the Columbia for 64 miles, from Kelley Point Park to Viento State Park, dipping into every notable beach along the way. Here are our six favorites.
Where it's at: The northernmost point of Portland, where the Willamette and Columbia meet.
8484 N Kelley Point Park Road, 503-823-2223. 6 am-9 pm daily. Free.
If you like: Day drinking, dog parks, not leaving the city.
Pro tip: There's cart fare and beer at the Fixin' To in St. Johns not far away.
Named for the New Englander who tried to start a city here in 1834, the park is now a delightfully sandy spot full of day drinking and friendly dogs past NoPo's industrial dead zone. It's within biking distance of any house in town, and worth the ride if you're an avid cyclist. Drivers, bring a stocked cooler and plenty of towels—the beach is wide and sandy, and the water is deep enough to jump off the watchtower into. Kelley Point reminds me of the inland California river beaches of my childhood, which is the highest compliment I can give it.
Where it's at: Northeast from PDX, in the middle of the Columbia. Access from Broughton Beach.
4356 NE Marine Drive, 503-797-1700. $5 parking.
If you like: Salty's on the Columbia, tubing or tall grass—in 1950, the government appropriated the island to grow hay.
Pro tip: Restrooms are scattered all over the island, if you're into that.
Accessible only by boat, Government Island is actually a string of five islands, all best enjoyed the way Lewis and Clark did when they stopped there in 1805: as a boater's picnic spot. It was put in by the Salty's restaurant at Broughton Beach, and, as beaches go, is mainly a Vancouver bro repository. Once you're in the water with takeout in the boat, set sail for the south side of Government Island, where boats moor for picnic hours, the more obnoxious folk set up E-Z Ups on the waterfront, and you get a free water ski show on busy weekends, when tubers and skiers go along the island's south edge for hours on end.
Where it's at: 30 minutes from downtown, in Fairview, just before Troutdale.
20500 NW Marine Drive, Fairview. 503-665-4995, 8 am-sunset daily. $5 parking.
If you like: Glamping, waxed F-150s, birthday BBQs.
Pro tip: Go via Marine Drive for a scenic ride; take I-84 if you need to buy floaties from Target.
Blue Lake Regional Park is a near-perfect circle of manicured fields and paved walking paths bordering the man-made lake. It is the type of nature area with a paved fountain area, so kids can get wet without dirtying their feet. For summer sports, it's unbeatable. Every soccer, baseball and volleyball area has a bathroom, covered barbecue patio and beach within sight. Kids have their pick of sandboxes, play structures and a sandy swimming area, while parents barbecue, play disc golf or fish. Don't let the many monster trucks and toddlers in the sandbox deter you; there's plenty of space.
Related: Best Swimming Holes Near Portland
Where it is: Across from the Troutdale airport, where the Sandy and Columbia rivers meet.
1 Jordan Road, Troutdale, 503-695-2261. 6 am-10 pm daily. Free.
If you like: Shade, wading, families with juice boxes.
Pro tip: The gravel parking lot closest to the freeway looks shitty, but it has shade. The swanky, paved lot farther down does not.
At the convergence of the Columbia and Sandy rivers, Lewis and Clark is the ideal ending point for a long day's float. The whole park is 54 acres of camp spots and hiking trails leading up to Broughton Bluff. You're here for the waterfront, where realty is at a prime on hot days. Waders enjoy the shade under rickety iron bridges that crisscross over the water, and picnickers nestle into the flat, dirt spots under intertwining trees on the waterfront. While the beach is small, the water is wide, and it's 4 miles by river from Dabney Park. By this time you're a few radlers in, so sitting in the shallows sounds fine.
Where it is: Past Gresham, where Division ends, right below Corbett.
3010 SE Oxbow Parkway, Gresham, 503-663-4708. 6:30 am-sunset daily. $5 parking.
If you like: Floating, sand castles, hot dogs without dogs.
Oxbow is a NorCal river beach, minus the empty Monster cans and Rainbow flip-flops. The sand is as wide as the river and perfectly flat, meaning prime sprawl area for your floating gear or if you plan to spend the day on the beach, where dogs are outlawed but kids run free. While "Sandy River" is an abbreviation of Lewis and Clark's ominous name, "Quicksand River," the winding waterway is docile here, where you can wade halfway across before getting your armpits wet.
Where it is: An hour from downtown, right between the Cascade Locks and Hood River.
Take Exit 56 off Highway 30/I-84. 541-374-8811. 8 am-5 pm. $5 parking, $17 campsite.
If you like: Privacy, getting wet only up to the ankles, skipping rocks.
Pro tip: Wear real shoes. And if a train is passing, you'll wait in the parking lot to cross to the beach.
Billed as a campground, Viento may be the worst camping park in the Gorge, stuck between the freeway and active train tracks in the middle of nowhere. The swimming spot, however, is the most serene and picturesque on the Columbia's southern shores just west of Hood River. In the undiscovered cove, a full-sized teepee made of driftwood and a picnic table are the only landmarks on a beach of large, smooth rocks. The water is shallow until at least 10 feet out, where windsurfers take advantage of the consistently breezy spot ("viento" means wind in Spanish). Most days, it's empty, the panoramic view from Hood River to the Cascade Locks unimpeded by children or floaties.