written by Anna Bird | photos by Christie MacLean
Oregonians have a pretty friendly reputation, but when it comes to their swimming spots, they can get protective of hidden oases, and rightfully so. A refreshing plunge into clear, crisp water is requisite for happiness in the summer months, but rowdy crowds can spoil the pristine beauty. Whatever your tolerance for crowds may be, the plunge into Oregon’s beautiful, fresh waters will not disappoint. Follow the ‘Leave no trace’ principle, be respectful, and you may even make friends with the locals who claim these swimming holes as their own.
If you’ve never admired the strikingly blue waters of Crater Lake and thought, “I’d really like to swim in that,” then this article isn’t for you. The only legal swimming area is at Cleetwood Cove where you can dive into the sapphire waters from cliffs or take the safer approach and wade in from the rocky shore. Because of the crater’s depth, the surface temperature rarely gets above 60 degrees, but the refreshing plunge will be all the more rewarding when you surface and remember where you are.
A popular getaway for local families and college kids from Eugene and Corvallis, Lake Creek Falls (also known as Triangle Lake Slide Rock, Triangle Falls or simply Rock Slide) is a charming oasis near Triangle Lake with waterfalls, swimming holes and a natural water slide. Bring a floatie, inner tube or even a yoga mat to slide down the rock slide, unless you’ve got tough skin. The luscious greenery and cascading pools seem like something you would find in Rivendell— save for the college kids.
With sandy beaches, deep blue-green pools and cliffs for jumping, the Illinois River is as fun as it is beautiful. Surrounded by the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the Siskiyou National Forest, the river flows through the Oregon Coast Range and down steep canyons toward the Rogue River. The entire river valley is worth exploration, but two idyllic swimming holes can be found near Cave Junction: Illinois River Forks State Park (where the river’s east and west forks converge) and Store Gulch Campground.
photo by Christie MacLean
Most of the Clackamas River is serene and beautiful with its long stretches of calm, clear water and luscious shoreline greenery. It also cuts through Oregon City and Gladstone on its way to the Willamette River, making it very accessible from the Portland metro area. This is both a blessing and a curse. On a sunny day, rambunctious floaters swarm the stretch between Barton and Carver parks, and thrill-seeking teenagers head to High Rocks. For a more relaxed atmosphere, try the Big Eddy day-use area near Estacada. There are picnic tables shaded by big leaf maples and eddies perfect for leisurely swimming— just stay upstream, as there are rapids downriver.
Oregon’s newest state park, Cottonwood Canyon State Park, is located on the John Day River between Wasco and Condon. The vast, rugged terrain is teeming with steep canyon walls carved by the river, arid grasslands, big horn sheep and rolling hills. With miles of trails and campsites for hikers and bicyclists, the John Day is one of many recreational opportunities in the area. During the late summer this desert region can be one of the hottest places in the state, so a river swim is a given when the river is lower and slower. Check waterdata.usgs.gov at Service Creek for water levels.
Near Mt. Hood, Buck Lake is perfect for anyone with a bathing suit who is looking for a day away from the Portland area. It’s more off the beaten path than nearby Timothy or Trillium lakes, but it’s well worth the excursion. The only thing that stands between you and this stunning alpine lake are some gravel roads and a somewhat steep mile-long trail. The opal water is a comfortable 70 degrees in August, so it’s perfect for spending all day in the water. There aren’t any beaches, so bring a floatie or find a big rock to lounge on. Campsites surround the small lake, so pack in camping gear if you want to make a night of it.
photo by Christie MacLean
There has been limited development around Suttle Lake. Nothing but a quaint resort, some private cabins, a church camp and a few campsites line the water, so there’s still a primitive beauty to the small lake on the eastern flank of Santiam Pass. There’s a trail that circumnavigates the lake, winding through the mixed-conifer forest that surrounds it, so if you need a break from the brisk water, you can take a walk and enjoy the view. If you seek slightly warmer water, nearby Scout Lake is a smaller, more popular swimming spot with Sisters-area locals.
If you’re on the Oregon Coast and don’t feel like swimming in the salty sea, head to Lake Marie, a quiet lake with a small beach, surrounded by towering pines. Located in Umpqua Lighthouse State Park, it’s close to Salmon Harbor or Winchester Bay with campgrounds, yurts and cabins around the lake for overnight visitors. Jump in feet first and rinse off the grit from your off-roading adventure. This lake is in the middle of Oregon Sand Dunes National Recreation Area.
A dusty trail from the Indian Crossing Trailhead in the upper Imnaha River Canyon takes you along the south fork of the Imnaha River and through a stretch of old-growth ponderosa pine habitat that has never been logged. Two miles in, a calm section of the river is surrounded by sheer rock walls. During the spring and early summer, peer into the nearly still pool of clear-blue water, decorated with the red scales of Chinook salmon as they make their run upstream. From your perch on the rocks above, you’ll see the faint reds, blues and greens of the river rocks. They look deceptively close, but you’ll find out that the water is plenty deep if you finally garner the courage to make the leap—though you might want to wait until the August heat. The water is bone-chillingly cold, but after a short hike in the sweltering Imnaha canyon, you will welcome the icy waters of Blue Hole.