SURE, YOU CAN appreciate the metro area’s 4 rivers and 29 lakes from shore, but if you don’t get out on the water, you’ll miss those National Geographic moments. Like slicing through a mallard’s V-shaped wake near Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Or realizing just how massive the Columbia River really is when you’re smack in the middle of it, paddling toward the isolated beaches on Wells Island near Hood River. There may be hundreds of launch spots close to Portland, but these four are sure to deliver you to wild worlds that most only read about. All you need to pack is your (waterproof) camera. —Christopher Van Tilburg
Driving time: 90 minutes
Nearest town: Hood River
Distance: 3 miles
AFTER GUIDE JOHN DIVERS first set eyes on this idyllic lake in 1873 while leading a group of horsemen through the Cascade foothills, he managed to keep it a family secret for nearly a decade. But ever since the lake, perched at 3,140 feet, was rediscovered in the 1880s (and paradoxically dubbed “Lost Lake”), it has been a favorite destination for Portlanders seeking cool respite from the midsummer heat. Fortunately, the lake’s powerboat-free status keeps hordes of revelers at bay; those who do make the trip tend to scatter themselves along the three-mile-long shoreline. After putting in at the public ramp on the northeast end of the lake, the easy paddling through crystal-clear waters affords an in-your-face view of Mount Hood’s Cathedral Ridge and the Sandy Glacier Headwall. In fact, the Sandy Glacier is so close that evening alpenglow sends orange-purple sparkles glinting off the surface. Cast a line for trout; cruise the banks for huckleberries; or simply pull up your paddles, tilt your head toward the cerulean sky, and savor this alpine gem, where the only thing you’ll lose track of is time. —CVT
Get there: From I-84 east, take Exit 62 at Hood River. Turn right on Cascade, then right on Country Club Rd. Follow this to a T-junction with Barrett Rd. Turn left on Barrett rd and then right on Tucker Rd. Stay on Tucker Rd for about 11 miles, following signs to Dee. look for signs to Lost Lake.
Maps: Green Trails Map No. 461
Driving time: 60 minutes
Nearest town: Hood River
Distance: 2 miles
HOOD RIVER’S ROCKY SHORELINE, the epicenter of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, has long been the domain of adrenaline-fueled windsurfers, kitesurfers, and white-water kayakers. But when the wind is down and the river is glassy, paddlers in the know head a half-mile downriver to Wells Island, whose secluded beaches are accessible only by boat. Tackle the paddle on a calm day, when you’re less likely to have to share the shoreline with wind- and kitesurfers. Launch at “The Hook” at the Port of Hood River and head for the western end of the island, where a large cove with a sandy beach and shallow water make this a favorite wading area for kids. Since the water is too shallow for motorboats, a human-powered flotilla is all you’ll find here. Or take your vessel to one of the half-dozen tiny north-facing beaches: Most are just big enough to land a canoe or a pair of kayaks on, making them perfect for sharing a romantic picnic and lingering until the sun dips below Washington’s Underwood Mountain. —CVT
Get there: From I-84 east, take Exit 63 toward Hood River City Center. Turn left on second St, which merges into N Portway Ave. Follow about 0.5 mile to the port. Maps: Green Trails Map No. 430
Driving time: 30 minutes
Nearest town: Ridgefield, Wash.
Distance: About 10 miles
JUST 30 MINUTES north of the Oregon border, the sloughs and marshes of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge offer spirited paddling along green pastures, thick marshes, and serene wetlands—serene, that is, except for the cacophony from nesting Canada geese and the myriad other birds that call the refuge home. Established in 1965, these wetlands are a chief winter roost for migratory waterfowl; one of the largest colonies of great blue herons in the Pacific Northwest even lives among the flat, expansive fields. To get the best view of the wildlife, launch at the Port of Ridgefield and circumnavigate Bachelor Island via Bachelor Slough and Lake River; if you start feeling peckish, just pull ashore and forage for succulent blackberries (but please don’t go farther inland, since that’s part of the refuge). For a full-day adventure, cross the Columbia River to Sauvie Island and explore Warrior Rock Lighthouse. Built in 1889, it once boasted the oldest fog bell in the Pacific Northwest. If there’s still time on your return home, take a small detour through Gee Creek and check out the Cathlapotle Plankhouse, where, 2,300 years ago, Chinook Indians built roosts of their very own. —CVT
Get there: From I-5 north take Hwy 501 West. Follow signs to Ridgefield.
Driving time: 45 minutes
Nearest town: Estacada
Distance: Up to 13 miles
THE DESCHUTES RIVER might get most of the glory when it comes to white water in Oregon, but the Clackamas River, a National Wild and Scenic River just east of Estacada, offers plenty of wild rides of its own—and it’s about 70 miles closer to home (which means no cramps from a long car ride). The cold, clear Clackamas can be burly during spring runoff, but by midsummer, the river mellows into a more moderate stream that’s ideal for canoers, kayakers, and families on rafting trips, like the ones offered by Blue Sky Rafting. The classic full-day option ($75) shepherds rafters through 13 miles of river surrounded by basalt canyons and shrouded in lush old-growth forests. The trip begins with the Powerhouse rapids, an adrenaline-pumping section of Class III-IV white water, with three- to four-foot drops. From there, paddlers will blast through Toilet Bowl, Slingshot, and the Narrows—a section where the basalt lava compresses the stream into a 20-foot-wide slot. Near the end, you’ll hit Bob’s Hole, a Class III rapid that was home to a world-class kayaking competition for over two decades. With such an endorphin-filled day, by the time you reach your car back in Estacada, you’ll certainly feel a cramp—in your cheeks, that is—from maintaining a six-hour-long, face-splitting grin. —CVT
Get there: From I-205 south, take Hwy 212/224 to Estacada. The launch point for Blue Sky’s full-day trip is about 23 miles farther on Hwy 224, at milepost 46. Maps: Green Trails Map No. 492