The sun plays peek-a-boo between the trees as your boat makes its way down the river. The birds fly through the air, their chirps creating a melody with the rushing turquoise water. Your oar pushes through the current. You’re soaked, but you don’t mind one bit. After a few hours on the river, you pull your raft out at your designated take-out spot and feel a sense of accomplishment. Welcome to Oregon river rafting—you’re in for a ride.
Oregon leads the nation with 58 designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Willamette River and the McKenzie River earning their titles in 1988. With the Willamette River running through town and the McKenzie River a short drive away, there is really no excuse to not try rafting either of these prestigious rivers. Several outfitters offer guided trips along the Willamette and McKenzie.
“The River House does mellow rafting for blackberries or afternoon raft trips along the Willamette River,” says Aimee Goglia, River House Outdoor Program staff member. “We usually put in at Armitage Park and take out at Christensen’s Landing.” If you have limited mobility, the River House is usually able to accommodate to a certain extent. They also offer multi-day rafting trips. All boating equipment, including life vests, is included.
Helfrich River Outfitters, High Country Expeditions, and Oregon Whitewater Adventures offer guided trips along the McKenzie, among other Oregon rivers. Popular day runs are Finn Rock to Helfrich Landing, or Helfrich Landing to Ben and Kay Dorris State Park. Depending on your run, you may encounter a few rapids on the McKenzie, the most famous being the Class III Martin’s Rapid.
Going on a guided trip is the best and safest way to get experience river rafting, Goglia says. The Willamette River and McKenzie River are both very family-friendly, but dangers like strainers (tree debris that is partially submerged underwater) are common. “It’s easy to downplay the power of the river,” she says. “Often people will go on trips and are underprepared.”
If you’re wanting to take the family out for a rafting adventure, be sure to go with an experienced guide and make sure all participants, especially children, have a well-fitted life jacket. Drinking water, sunscreen, sunglasses, and snacks should be put into a dry bag. River maps are also great to have if you’re on a new stretch of river. If you’re planning for a multi-day trip, pack as lightly as you can.
“There’s some simplicity to being on a river trip,” Goglia says. “It’s kind of like backpacking, but we get to bring a full outdoor kitchen.”
If your summer schedule is already full, you can still try river rafting throughout the year—just bring a jacket. Most rivers in Eastern and Central Oregon, like the John Day and Illinois River, rely on post-winter runoff, so they are only high enough to raft in the spring months. You can always check with your local outfitter company or online for the water levels.
If you’ve gone on a guided trip and want to plan a trip on your own, make sure you know the location of your put-in and take-out spots.
“When I’m dropping my car off at the take-out spot, I always go down to the river and find a few landscape markers to know where I should be stopping,” Goglia says. The duration of your trip will depend on the water level and how fast the current is, so be sure to do your research to get an estimate of how long each trip will take. Once you have your plan and feel confident about your trip, the best thing to do is to be present and have fun.
“River rafting engages you in so many different ways, it feels like you become part of the river,” Goglia says. “We call it ‘river time’ because you are just in that moment, and it really forces you to be present.”
With so many beautiful rivers in Oregon—two of them running in and near Eugene—and a handful of experienced guides, there really is no excuse to not try river rafting. Both the McKenzie and Willamette offer a variety of runs for all abilities and ages to raft.
Disclaimer: Please always take the proper safety precautions when going river rafting. Be sure to check rapids conditions ahead of time, wear a life jacket, and use caution.
Who to raft with:
The River House Community Center | 301 N Adams St. | 541/682-5329
Helfrich River Outfitters | 42091 McKenzie Hwy., Springfield | 800/507-9889
High Country Expeditions | 59296 Belknap Hot Springs Rd., Blue River | 541/822-8288
Oregon Whitewater Adventures | Springfield | 541/746-5422
Westfir Lodge and Mountain Market | 47365 West 1st St., Westfir | 541/246-9007