It’s not an exaggeration to say that without the Willamette River, the valley that shares its name would look far different today. It was the river’s fertile farmlands and floodplains, after all, that made it such an appealing home for generations of Native Americans and Oregon Trail emigrants. And easy river access has long made it possible to travel around  Eugene, Corvallis, Albany, and Salem—all cities through which the Willamette River flows today.

The Willamette River isn’t the shipping channel it once was—but crops grown in the surrounding valley continue to reach consumers around the world today. And, not for nothing, but the river is a vibrant source of recreation for countless locals and visitors all year long.

Fed by mountain tributaries south of Eugene, the Willamette River flows northward for nearly 200 miles before emptying into the Columbia River near Portland. Along the way, it passes through cities large and small, boasts dramatic wildlife viewing opportunities, offers all manner of outdoor recreation, and showcases the natural beauty of the iconic Willamette Valley.

And you can see it all along the Willamette Water Trail, which covers 187 miles of wonder along the mainstem Willamette River, as well as the Coast Fork Willamette, Middle Fork Willamette, and the McKenzie rivers. 

So what is the Willamette Water Trail, anyway? Think of it as, well, a hiking trail—but on water. Instead of walking all those miles, you can  paddle or float as much or as little of the Willamette River as you’d like; in-town landings and roughly 50 riverside campsites make it easy to plan a leisurely afternoon on the water or a fascinating multi-day adventure—whatever sounds fun and doable.

Before you hit the water, here’s a bit about what to expect, how to stay safe, and how to get started.

What Makes the Willamette Water Trail So Magical?

So why paddle some (or all) of the Willamette Water Trail? Here are a few reasons to inspire your next outing:

Wildlife viewing: The Willamette Water Trail passes by the Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge, home to more than 200 species of bird that either visit or call the refuge home all year long.

Outdoor recreation: Paddle a canoe or kayak, float the river, cycle the Willamette River Scenic Bikeway (which largely parallels the water trail), hike the forests and floodplains along its banks, pick berries during summer months  on nearby farms, or camp overnight in surrounding parks. It’s all possible on (and along) the Willamette Water Trail.

Urban experiences: Sure, most of the Willamette Water Trail passes pastures and farmland—but did you know many of the Willamette Valley’s bigger cities can be accessed from riverside docks and landings? Tie up, and walk into the heart of Corvallis, stroll the charming community of Independence, or explore Salem’s historic downtown core. 

Trips of all lengths: Thanks to the Willamette Greenway Project, a collection of more than 90 parks along both sides of the Willamette River, you have plenty of options for choosing the perfect outing—and all that green space adds an element of natural wonder to the occasional urban experiences.

What Do You Need to Know Before Paddling the Willamette Water Trail?

Whether relaxing with an afternoon paddle or starting a multi-day trip, you’ll want to know the basics before getting started. Here’s a quick rundown of what to know:

Safety first, wear a lifejacket: Personal floatation devices (PFDs or lifejackets) are not required for adults—but are nevertheless strongly encouraged whenever you’re on the water. Children 12 and younger are required to wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket whenever the boat is underway. (The Oregon State Marine Board hosts a website on various lifejacket styles and how to choose the right PFD for your preferred activity.) Learn more about staying safe while paddling the Willamette Water Trail.

Keep your distance: Try to avoid crowded boat ramps, and maintain at least six feet of physical distance (roughly the length of a kayak paddle) from others whenever possible—even on the water; if it is not possible to keep that distance, you are required to wear a face covering in public places (indoors or out) throughout Oregon.

Ensure you have the proper permit: All paddle craft 10 feet and longer are required to carry an Oregon State Marine Board Waterway Access Permit ($7 for a seven-day pass, $17 for an annual pass, $30 for a two-year pass). These permits help fund the aquatic invasive species prevention program and grants to develop or improve paddling access for boating facility providers, and paddling without a permit may lead to a $115 fine. 

Respect private property: Private property borders much of the Willamette Water Trail; assume that property, unless otherwise noted on a sign or map, is private—and take care to respect all signs that warn against trespassing or hunting.

Share the water: Listen for the occasional motorboat, and paddle closer together in groups when you hear a motorboat approaching. Motorboats need deeper water to safely operate and pass.

Leave No Trace: Please abide by the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace; those principles include remembering to plan ahead and prepare, dispose of waste properly, and respect wildlife. (And while you’re outdoors, remember to Take Care Out There.)

What else should you know about paddling the trail? We’ve rounded up 10 ways to have fun while staying safe along the Willamette Water Trail.

Requirements for Paddling and Boating (via the Oregon Marine Board)

An illustration of a flashlight
An illustration of a permit and cell phone.
An illustration of a lifejacket
An illustration of a whistle

Learn more about safety, requirements, education, and more from the Oregon Marine Board.

How Can You Get Started Paddling the Willamette Water Trail?

For starters, you’ll want to consult the official Willamette Water Trail website, which lists gear essentials; showcases an interactive map full of campsites, restrooms, docks, and other resources; and offers tips for getting started (like understanding your options for a shuttle).

For anything more than an afternoon float, you may want to rent gear from a local outfitter or arrange for a guide. Here’s a quick rundown of outfitters and guides along the Willamette River:

eNRG Kayaking: Based in downtown Oregon City, eNRG Kayaking offers kayak rentals, guided tours, and scenic floats on the Lower Clackamas River (a tributary of the Willamette River).

Oregon Paddle Sports: The Eugene-based Oregon Paddle Sports offers single and multi-day rentals on stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, canoes, rafts, and trailers.

Peak Sports: Get everything you need for a safe, fun river experience from the Corvallis-based outfitter—and with 20 boats available to rent, Peak Sports carries the right craft for any adventure.