The Willamette River: Scenic Paddles and Gastronomic Delights

June 10, 2024

The Willamette Water Trail, which flows 180 miles through wildlife habitats, waterfalls, farmland, forests, and urban areas, is a paddler's delight. It starts in the mountains just south and east of Eugene, Oregon, and flows north through Portland and eventually into the Columbia River. There is something for everyone. Oh, and do not forget all the dining and beverage options along the way. Here are three shorter paddles to enjoy.

Act 1

Willamette Falls is the largest waterfall in the Pacific Northwest (by volume). The horseshoe-shaped falls is also the seventeenth widest waterfall in the world. Of course, it is illegal and unsafe to go over the falls. A good place to start is eNRG Kayaking at Oregon City, just south of Portland and downstream from the falls. You can rent a kayak, SUP, or canoe there or go on one of the guided tours. There is also a public boat ramp. Sam Drevo is the owner, and part of his vast kayaking experience includes competing at the World Junior Championships when he was 15 and later, as an adult, helping to build the boat that won a gold medal for the USA Olympic team. His firm now guides on many of the key rivers in Oregon and has year-round classes.

In 1848, Oregon City served as the capital of the Oregon Territory and was a bustling trading hub with the Hudson's Bay Company. The falls were an excellent location for a hydroelectric dam built in 1889. The area became a mecca for industry, and many mills and factories were located along the river. The locks were built to let ships through the falls, creating a direct water route to the Pacific Ocean. They had a long history, operating from 1873 to 2011. Our guide told us many fascinating facts as we paddled along the river.

After this two-hour guided paddle tour, the much-needed nourishment is a short five-minute walk away. Corner 14 Foodcarts, Spirits, and Brew has ten food carts offering a wide variety of ethnic food selections with both indoor and outdoor seating. The indoor seating is inside a full-service bar. Want more food selections? Walk across the street to Oregon City Brewing to check their beers and even more food carts.

After nourishment, the next segment of the Willamette is located in the capital city of Salem, just an hour's drive.

Act 2

Launching a kayak or SUP is easy at Wallace Marine Park. From downtown Salem, go west across the Marion Bridge. There will be a sign for the park at the intersection of Wallace Rd NW (Hwy 221) and Glen Creek Rd NW. Then, go east into the park and follow the signs.

Are you wondering what the currents might be or what the best viewing spots for wildlife are? The best option is to go with Oregon Kayaking Tours, LLC; owner Shannon Valdez was born and raised in West Salem. Her parents owned a marine business, so Shannon grew up on the river and has always spent as much time as possible on the water.

The two-hour daytime tour or the sunset tour are both excellent choices. Part of the daytime tour is on the quiet waters of the Willamette Slough, and seeing wildlife is almost guaranteed. This tour is adjacent to the Riverfront Park and Minot-Brown Island Park. Shannon offers many other trips, including a three-hour, twelve-mile float from Independence to Salem. This trip includes a shuttle ride back to Independence – so no paddling upstream!

When it is time to eat, Salem is a foodie mecca, and Masonry Grill is an excellent choice. Chef Sam Woodward has been serving here since its inception in 2019. The menu includes many excellent options. However, the thin-crust pizza is a must. It is not too thin, with a nice crust, a hearty and flavorful marinara sauce, and just the right amount of cheese. An article written by us in 2022 has some other dining options.

Before the third kayaking venture the next day, we had a great place to relax and recharge - the new Holman Riverfront Park Hotel. Our room, with its floor-to-ceiling window, was beautiful and comfortable. Breakfast is as close as the lobby at theLip Service Café. Topped with avocado, egg, arugula, and pickled onions, the California Toast is a delicious way to start the day. Then, walk off some calories at nearby Riverfront Park along the Willamette River. There is a bridge to Minto-Brown Island Park, which is 1200 acres of wooded and open parkland. The park, which is bigger than Central Park in New York City, offers 29 miles of trails to run, walk, or bike, a playground, a picnic shelter, observation platforms overlooking the water, and a 30-acre off-leash dog park.

Next up is to return to the car and head north towards Portland for another kayak adventure at Scappoose Bay Marina. However, there is an essential stop along the way.

Act 3

Driving through beautiful farmland and wine country to McMinnville is an excellent route that takes 40 minutes. There are 250 wineries and vineyards within 20 miles of McMinnville; however, our goal for the day was to go directly to Humble Spirit for brunch.  

What makes this restaurant special? Humble Spirit is part of the evolving collection of experiences known as The Ground, established in 2015 by Brenda Smola-Foti. The first component of The Ground was Tabula Rasa Farms, which provides almost all of the food served at Humble Spirit. Since 2015, The Ground has grown to include 440 acres of farmland and forest, a catering business, a farmstand, several retreat houses, and a luxurious bed and breakfast.

Is that all? The farm (and all of The Ground) operates with the core value of regenerative farming practices, which include sustainable water usage, grass-fed beef, and free-range poultry.

The Bloody Mary seemed like an easy choice from the weekend brunch menu. The drink was decorated with a collection of pickled veggies: onion, olive, celery, and a beet. Secret Aardvark Hot Sauce and a dash of horseradish gave it a lingering kick of spice. It was delicious and refreshing.

After enjoying the drink, the lean Turkey Pastrami served with pickled onion strings was a delightful selection. The Buttermilk Biscuit Benedict with Sweetheart Ham and braised greens is a popular choice for a traditional brunch. Many people who try this benedict agree it is one of the best!


After brunch, drive north for an hour and a half through farmland to Scappoose Bay Marina, near the small town of St. Helens. The bay is a protected part of the Willamette Water Trail; and many folks can be seen launching their kayak, SUP, or canoe.

One insider tip is to paddle toward the north to enjoy the view of Mount St. Helens. South of the Marina is not recommended because that area of the bay gets very shallow. Next Adventure Scappoose Bay Paddle Sports Center has kayaks, canoes, and SUPs available for rent. Interestingly, the river has some tidal impacts since it is close to the ocean. Usually, the effect is if there is an unusually strong high tide or an extremely low tide.

This is just a snippet of the Willamette Water Trail! A trip to explore other parts is definitely recommended.

Editorial disclosure: food, beverages, and lodging generously provided.

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