Four cooling outdoor recreation picks for Oregon’s July heat wave

By John Notarianni (OPB)
July 24, 2022 5:35 p.m. Updated: July 25, 2022 12 p.m.

Splashy rivers, alpine lakes, misting waterfalls and coastal oases to help you beat the summer heat

Stella Hartfield, 17, left, and her boyfriend Orion Crofut, 19, both of Lake Oswego, took to the Willamette River in Portland to cool off, June 28, 2021.

Stella Hartfield, 17, left, and her boyfriend Orion Crofut, 19, both of Lake Oswego, took to the Willamette River in Portland to cool off, June 28, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB


By now, you’ve almost certainly seen the headlines. My friends, it’s hot this week.

Beginning today, we’re expecting temperatures peaking into the triple digits across much of the state. Summer heat waves can be dangerous, especially for older adults and at-risk communities. But along with the very real health threats (and please: check on your neighbors, or call 2-1-1 if you need help with transportation to a cooling shelter), it’s also just indisputably true that trying to go about your daily business during these scorching summer days isn’t much fun. We live in Oregon, after all; shouldn’t we be floating down a river, or lounging alongside an alpine lake during these hot snaps?

Getting outside during a hot day can be risky, especially if you go too big. Trust us, this is not the day to tackle that 20-mile hike you’ve been itching to do all summer.

“For me, it’s about matching the activity with the destination based on the local weather,” said Zach Urness, outdoors editor for the Salem Statesman Journal and host of the Explore Oregon podcast. “If you’re hiking the forested mountains in the morning and headed to an alpine lake, that can work out nicely,” he said, “or if you’re headed out to Oregon coast, a lot more is possible because I’m seeing high temperatures there in the 60s and 70s.”

Urness said that on hot days, it’s especially important to plan ahead and get an early start; that way, you can avoid both the late-afternoon heat and the hordes of people with the same idea. He said he’s been watching the crowds grow, year after year, and noting what time the parking lots tend to fill up on the busiest days. “It’s right about 10 a.m. on the coast,” he said, “and probably around 10:30 a.m. at swimming holes or river put-in spots. So, getting there before that time makes a huge difference.”

As relaxing as a day on the river sounds, it’s still important to be careful. Every year, dozens of Oregonians die in boating accidents. Urness said the best way to protect yourself is also one of the easiest: “Wear a life jacket,” he said. “So many fatal accidents, or accidents in general, are solved just with that one thing alone.”

One final tip: Take it easy on the drinking, you party animals. “I mean, people are probably gonna bring cold beers with them on the river, no matter what I say,” he said, “but again, if you’re wearing a life jacket and you’re not hammered, chances of survival increase dramatically.”

Here’s four cooling, under-appreciated summer spots Urness recommends you check out this week.

Rafting the Upper Clackamas River


This stretch of river is finally open for public use after years of closures, following the 2020 Riverside Fire. Urness said the upper portion offers bigger thrills than the more sedate lower Clackamas, especially after the record-setting wet spring we’ve just had. “The river is about 20% higher than it normally would be at this time of year,” Urness said, “so the rapids are splashier and more fun.” One tip though: if you’re new to river rafting, it’s a good idea to hire a guide. “I talked to a guide out there and he said they’re ready,” he said. “They have lots of guides; they’ve got lots of openings.”

Sitka Sedge State Natural Area

With temperatures forecast in the 60s and 70s on the Oregon coast, it’s a no-brainer to head toward the ocean for a bit of relief from the heat. If you’re worried about the crowds, Urness recommends this newer state park, just south of Tillamook. “It’s just a beautiful spot,” he said. “It’s a hike through some wetlands, then goes out to this secluded little beach where you can look north and see Cape Lookout, look south and see Cape Kiwanda. It’s kind of nestled in between those two more popular areas.”

Alpine lakes in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness

You’ll need a permit to visit these mountain oases, but the good news is that permits are pretty easy to come by. They also help to limit the crowds. At 90 minutes from Salem, places like Pamelia Lake, Marion Lake, Duffy Lake and Santiam Lake are accessible as either a day hike or an easy overnight trip. “You hike through shady, old growth forest to reach them,” Urness said, “and then you get to go bask in the cool mountain water.” A word of caution: the wet spring has led to a bumper crop of mosquitoes across the Northwest (although all of these lakes are above 5,000 feet, which will likely cut down on the insects). Still, you might want to pack your bug spray for the hike in.

McDowell Creek Falls County Park

“I wanted to get a waterfall on here,” Urness said. We can’t argue with that.

Just outside of Albany, he said this natural area is similar to more popular destinations like Silver Falls State Park, but with a fraction of the crowds and more laid-back rules. “You can have your dog with you on the trail, and you can also kind of splash around in the waterfalls and pools,” Urness said. It’s also the most kid-friendly of the places on this list, and has somehow managed to avoid attracting the throngs of tourists that so many other outdoor destinations tend to draw. “Despite people knowing about it,” Urness said, “I’ve been there on peak days, and if the parking lot is half full I’m surprised.”

Go forth, get wet, stay cool, and enjoy.