Swimming in Portland's Rivers 

Swimming area at Cathedral Park.
Portland Parks & Recreation has several parks and recreation facilities that have direct access to the river and water. This page offers guidance for Portland residents on swimming in Portland rivers. This page is developed in partnership with the Human Access Project.
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Swimming in the City’s two major rivers – the Willamette and Columbia - can be fun, refreshing, and can help keep you fit, especially in the warm weather months. Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) recognizes that interest in swimming is increasing, especially with the completion of the Big Pipe project, which has substantially improved water quality in major sections of the Willamette River. 

Although they may look like calm, peaceful places most of the year, our rivers are active, living bodies of water and are in constant states of change. Before swimming, please remember: 

  • Water levels go up and down 

  • Currents change depending on the tide, river level and wind 

  • Branches, debris, and rocks move around on and under the surface 

  • Boats and jet skis move around over the surface, can be hazardous and hard to see 

  • Water temperatures change seasonally, with colder water likely from late September and to early June 

  • Banks can be uneven, rocky, slippery, and have submerged drop-offs 

  • Sewage overflows are extremely rare but still possible. Environmental Services issues alerts on its homepage when they occur. 

  • Harmful Algae Blooms can occur when we have a warmer and dryer Winter or Spring – Willamette River Harmful Algae Bloom FAQ’s

  • The lower Willamette River is part of a designated Superfund clean-up site (between the Broadway Bridge and Sauvie Island), and two of its sites should not be entered for swimming: the Willamette Cove and Gasco sites. Oregon Health Authority has found that the river is safe for swimming.  The principal risk of the Superfund is consumption of resident fish.  Please read more about the Portland Harbor Superfund site below.   

The State of Oregon’s Department of State Lands has jurisdiction over the Willamette River (nearly all areas below elevation 18, which is the ordinary high-water mark). Swimming is allowed at your own risk. 

Portland Parks and Recreation is grateful for the collaboration with our community partner Human Access Project who helped us develop content for this page.  You can view Human Access Project’s Willamette River Swimming page here.  

Please obey all rules and regulations posted. 

Health Advisory Due to Harmful Algae Bloom

Be advised: Oregon Health Authority is merging two recently issued recreational use advisories for the Willamette River due to a harmful algae bloom extending from Ross Island Lagoon downstream to Cathedral Park in Portland.

The expanded advisory is due to the presence of a harmful algae bloom and toxins above a level that is safe for human exposure.

People should avoid swimming and high-speed water activities, such as water skiing or power boating, in areas of the river where blooms are, as the major risk of exposure is from ingesting water. Skin exposure may also result in a puffy red rash.

For more information, read the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Human Services press release.

Swim Safety Near Portland Parks Adjacent to Rivers  

While PP&R cannot prohibit swimming in areas below ordinary high water, we do recommend that you NOT swim in certain areas, including: 

  1. Kelley Point Park, because of numerous drownings that have occurred in the waters (notably off the western edge) of the park in the past decades. 

  1. Off or near docks that are designated for boating and watercraft tie-up. 

  1. Sensitive habitat areas – look for signs. 

  1. Areas not recommended on the PP&R website 

  1. Some Superfund-designated areas – see map 

The Portland Harbor Superfund site extends roughly from the Broadway Bridge to Sauvie Island. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared Portland Harbor a Superfund site because of past chemical contamination in sediments on the riverbed. 

According to the Oregon Health Authority, with the exception of two areas (Willamette Cove and the Gasco site), the levels of chemicals found in the water, dirt and sediment do not pose a health risk for recreational users, including children. 

  • Willamette Cove (located at the foot of N Edgewater Street or River Mile 6.8) 

  • Gasco site (7900 NW St. Helens Road or River Mile 6.5) 

For more information about the Portland Harbor Superfund site and its effect on recreation, please refer to information provided by the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services.

River Swimming Safety

Tips for Open Water Swimming 

  • Know your limits: it is possible to jump off a dock, paddle around and get out without being a strong swimmer. But don’t find yourself halfway across the river in trouble because you’ve run out of energy. Swimming in the City’s rivers requires an intermediate to advanced level of skill at a minimum. Can you swim half a mile in a pool without stopping? You will need that level of strength and ability to be safe. If you are not that strong a swimmer, wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Fins help too. 

  • Know the water: currents in the City’s rivers vary based on rainfall and the tide. Wind may cause choppiness, making swimming challenging even for the strongest of swimmers. Know the weather forecast and avoid swimming during storms, in strong winds and when there is lightning. Do not swim when sewage is being released, which can happen – particularly during and after heavy storms. 

  • River temperatures vary. Be particularly careful May through June when air temperatures are in the 80’s but river temperature may be in the 50’s. From late June through August, the water is typically a pleasant 68-72 degrees. Temperatures start to drop fast come September. Limit your time in cold water. If you swim during cold weather (below 68 degrees), wear a wet suit or other thermal protection.  Check the Willamette River's conditions at the Bureau of Environmental Services site or U.S. Geological Survey site.  

  • Don’t swim alone: when open water swimming, have a safety paddler whenever possible--for visibility and safety there is no substitute for a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) or kayak paddler. At the very least, swim with a buddy. 

  • Be visible and audible: carry a safety whistle and wear a brightly-colored swim cap. Use a brightly colored floating Safety Buoy. This bright orange, floating dry bag is helpful for visibility, and in case you need to rest for a few minutes and float. You can also carry personal items inside.  

  • Don't swim in the dark. Just don’t. 

  • Swim close to shore. Channel crossing is more dangerous that you might think. Tug boats, barges, and motor boats are not looking for swimmers and may not see you. Even jet skiers often don’t see swimmers. Stay close to shore where it’s safer. 

  • Don’t swallow the water. Try to avoid getting river water in your mouth. Shower thoroughly with soap and warm water after swimming. Don’t swim in the instances when an algae bloom is present. 

  • Learn CPR: In the time it might take for paramedics to arrive, your CPR skills could make a difference in someone's life. 

  • No swimming under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. They can impair your judgment and put you at risk. Swimming under the influence is a major contributing factor in many drowning deaths. 

  • Practice ‘leave no trace’ swimming: pack out what you pack in, and consider bringing a plastic bag along so you can pick up any trash when you come out to play in the river. That way, you can pick up a little extra trash on your way out and contribute to the health and beauty of one of Portland's largest public spaces. 

  • Be respectful of our dedicated public safety officials: obey all river security and safety personnel, including the Multnomah County River Patrol, Portland Police, Coast Guard, and PP&R’s Park Rangers. 

How to Enjoy River Beaches and Docks Safely 

Swimming and wading are allowed on the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. However, there are no lifeguards on duty. Beach and Dock users swim at their own risk. Parents are urged to carefully watch children near the water. The river can have swift currents and water depths can vary. Some safety suggestions: 

  • Never swim alone. Always practice the buddy system while in the water. 

  • Never consume alcohol or drugs that impair judgement when swimming. 

  • Always enter water feet first. There are sharp rocks and possibly glass present--always wear water shoes. 

  • Know the terrain. Be aware that the river bed can drop off rapidly and can have a strong current. There may be hidden obstacles in natural water sites including floating debris, logs or underwater boulders. 

  • Learn to swim. Formal swimming lessons can protect young children from drowning. However, even when children have had formal swimming lessons, constant, careful supervision is necessary when children are in or around the water. Click here for information about PP&R’s pools and swim programs. 

  • Watch waders or swimmers in or around the water. Designate a responsible adult who can swim and knows CPR to watch swimmers in or around water, especially children. The supervisor should not be involved in any other distracting activity (such as reading, or talking on the phone) while watching children. 

  • Use life jackets (or other personal flotation devices – PFDs). Do not use air-filled or foam toys, such as "water wings", "noodles", or inner-tubes, in place of life jackets. These toys are not designed to keep swimmers safe. 

  • Learn CPR and basic first aid. These skills could save someone’s life. 

  • Never dive or jump off bridges. Winter storms can shift underwater boulders, creating summer diving hazards where none existed the year before. 

Keep in mind there is no guarantee that following these guidelines will keep you 100% safe. Swimming can be risky, like any other outdoor sport: biking, skiing, hiking, and others. By swimming in the Willamette or Columbia Rivers, you assume the responsibility for that risk. 

Water Access Locations

  • Kevin Duckworth Dock 

Poet’s Beach 

Location: West bank of river under Marquam Bridge off the westside Esplanade Path. 

Access: Via esplanade, bike or walk to path under bridge leading down to beach. Limited street parking off SW River Parkway, but lots of garage parking close by. 

Lowdown: This little gem of a beach has smooth sand and easy entry into the water. You can swim right under the Marquam Bridge. Nice place to relax and easy to reach. RiverPlace and South Waterfront neighborhoods are within walking distance with many shops, cafes and restaurants.  

Poet’s Beach got its name from the short children’s poems engraved into the rocks that lead to the beach entrance.  You can also find some Chinook Wawa words which are translated into English that were contributed by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. Look out for the two large signs that designate Poet’s Beach – It’s your River Get into it!  

Try to not be in too much of a rush to get to Poet’s Beach. Slow down, get inspired by the literary trail to the beach, bring a pad and paper and maybe write some poetry of your own! 

Safety: Suitable for all ability levels. Very little current with depth at this location generally 5-8 ft. at most.  The river is very silty here so your feet may sink in the sand a bit as you wade out. 

Eastbank Cresent and Dock (Audrey McCall Beach)  

Location: east side of the Willamette River, just south of Hawthorne Bridge along the Eastbank Esplanade.  

Access: Bike or walk along east esplanade to the Audrey McCall Beach cove. Ample free street parking on SE Madison and nearby streets. A paid lot is adjacent to the Eastbank Esplanade at the Station 21 Fire House.  Bike parking is available at the top of the riverbank on the north side of the Hawthorne Bridge. TriMet Hawthorne Bus 14 has a stop on the Hawthorne Bridge for an easy walk to the beach. 

Lowdown: Audrey McCall Beach is a cove with a semi-rocky beach that has easy gradual access into the river. This beach features great views of downtown and is a good spot for sunset viewing. The Central Eastside District is within walking distance with many shops, cafes and restaurants.  OMSI is adjacent to Audrey McCall Beach. 

You can also enter the water from the Holman Dock (slated to be replaced in 2023) where kayakers, canoes, and standup paddleboards often launch. Note, the water depth from the dock is 20+ feet deep and is only suitable for advanced level swimmers who feel very comfortable in the water.   

Please be respectful of the Dragon Boaters if you swim and hang out on the dock. Don’t use their anchored boats as storage for your personal belongings (or trash). And stay out of the way of any crew teams carrying their boats. Let’s all be courteous as we share this space. 

Safety: Beach suitable for intermediate swimmers and children with close supervision. Minimal current, with gradual slope that goes down to 10-15 ft. deep around 50 feet from shore. Because of the depth of water at the adjacent dock, the dock is only recommended for advanced swimmers. 

Audrey McCall Beach is owned and managed by a variety of organizations. Oregon Department of Transportation, Department of State Lands, Prosper Portland and the City of Portland. 

Tom McCall Bowl Beach 

Location: West bank of river just south of Hawthorne Bridge. 

Access: Take transit, bike, or walk to grass bowl fronting the river. Smart Park at SW 1st and Jefferson is an easy place to park. 

Lowdown: This is where Waterfront Blues Festival and The Big Float beach party is held. It has a rocky bank with sand and gravel shoreline and an easy grade into the river. Tom McCall Bowl Beach is adjacent to downtown and the Better Naito Bike lane. It is within walking distance of all of downtown’s many shops, cafes and restaurants.  This is a popular spot for dogs, many of which play fetch in the river. Please do always pick up after your pets. 

Safety: Tom McCall Bowl Beach has a fair amount of sharper angular rock below the water surface which can sometimes be hard to see.  It is very important to always wear river shoes at all river sites but particularly at this beach.   

Sellwood Riverfront Park and Dock 

Location: East bank of river at SE 7th and Miller St. just north of Sellwood Bridge. 

Access: Bike access via Springwater Corridor Trail. For cars, there is a large parking lot. 

Lowdown: Located near Oaks Amusement Park, Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, and the Sellwood Bridge, this is a large family park with many amenities including a long beach area and a dock which is in deeper water. The dock blocks waves so the shallow water near the beach is calm – nice for kids (and dogs) to play in and adults to relax in. 

This is a popular spot for dogs, many of which play fetch in the river. Please do always pick up after your pets. It’s a great place for views of the city and the west hills and is easy to reach by bike via paved paths that lead downtown or east to Springwater Corridor. 

Safety: Beach suitable for beginner to intermediate swimmers and children with close supervision. Minimal current, with gradual slope that goes down to 10-15 ft. deep around 50 feet from shore. Because of the depth of water at the adjacent dock, the dock is only recommended for advanced swimmers. 

Cathedral Park Beach and Dock 

Location: North Edison St. and Pittsburg Ave. under east end of St. Johns Bridge. 

Access: Transit (Bus 75), bike, or walk to this beautiful grass park and small beach. Limited parking. 

Lowdown: One of the most scenic spots on the river, Cathedral Park sits beneath the awe-inspiring St. Johns Bridge which towers 400 feet above. There are great views of Linnton and the West Hills of Forest Park.  Wonderful sunset viewing.   

The park includes swimming and fishing areas, boat dock and ramp, restrooms, picnic tables, and grass amphitheater. It has a small sand/gravel beach, right across from a bridge support. Cathedral Park is part of the Portland Harbor Superfund area which extends from the Broadway Bridge to Sauvie Island. According to Oregon Health Authority, swimming is safe from a human health perspective. 

This area is thought to be a campsite for a group from the Lewis & Clark expedition who explored up the Willamette River in 1806. A time capsule was hidden here in 1980 and will be opened in 2030. Stand by. 

Safety: Beach suitable for beginner to intermediate swimmers and children with close supervision. Minimal current, as fishing dock helps break wake from boats, with gradual slope that goes down to 10-15 ft. deep around 50 feet from shore. Because of the depth of water at the adjacent dock, the dock is only recommended for advanced swimmers. 

Kevin Duckworth Dock 

Location: East bank of Willamette River between Steel and Burnside bridges. 

Access: Short walk or bike ride from Rose Quarter Transit Center. Access from the floating section of Eastbank Esplanade. Ten bike racks were installed in 2022 in partnership with Human Access Project and Portland Bureau of Transportation. 

Lowdown: The Kevin Duckworth Dock is named in honor of beloved Portland Trail Blazer Kevin Duckworth. The Duckworth Dock has a long 300 foot deck which can accommodate many swimmers and sun bathers.  “Duckworth” was designated as a swimming dock in 2021 and is managed by the Portland Bureau of Transportation.  Duckworth features eight swim ladders and 10 bike parking spaces on the Eastbank Esplanade outside the entrance to the dock. The “U Shape” area between the dock and the Esplanade is a swim zone that is protected from boaters.  The Duckworth Dock is the best place for viewing the sunset in downtown Portland on the Willamette River.  If you catch the sunset at just the right time you can view a “double sunset” as the sun reflects off the buildings of downtown.   

Safety: Because of the very deep river depth at this location it is only recommended for advanced swimmers.