Being inspired by some great Ridge to River paddlers and needing to rest a tweaked calf muscle, the idea of paddling my sea kayak from below Rock Island Dam to Vantage along the Columbia River seemed like a fun way to spend a day. On a cool spring day, I launched from the Columbia Siding Road several miles downstream of the Rock Island Dam.
My first stroke of the paddle cut the water at about 6:30 a.m. I crossed the Columbia and followed the western shore. Paddling under the columnar basalt cliffs was delightful. Nice sandy pullouts seemed to appear when it was time to stretch the legs. On sunny exposures, balsamroots and phlox bloomed. The green leaves and white flowers of serviceberry bushes contrasted with the rusty rock of outcrops.
The wildlife on this day was abundant. Songbirds sang, eagles stood watch from some of the vegetation, a beaver family splashed into the water, a lone coyote walked the shoreline, goats traversed some of the rock walls bordering the river, and birds flocked to these same walls for safety and rookeries. Meanwhile some of the basalt cliffs I paddled under had grandeur of their own as they rose precipitously out of the river and cast dark shadows over the water hundreds of feet below.
At about 3:30 p.m., I reached the take-out at Vantage on the northwest side of the bridge. I enjoyed many stops along the way and, on this day I had little wind and smooth waters. This contributed to making this a very enjoyable day of paddling.
Distance: 29 to 30 river miles.
Fitness: 3 to 4 (difficult) as a day trip. Some current helps accelerate the paddling on calm days, but upstream winds are also common.
Skill level. The currents and eddies along this stretch of river are relatively easy so paddlers with some canoeing experience can handle the technical difficulty. To complete the entire distance in a day, however, requires relatively efficient flat-water technique. Furthermore, this stretch of river is notorious for its stiff winds. Strong winds can make the river quite treacherous; it’s not unusual for whitecaps to completely thwart downriver progress. Because of the distance and the possibility of wind, the route is best suited to paddlers with intermediate or better abilities (or less experienced paddlers with plenty of time).
More about winds. Check the local radio weather reports for information about forecasted winds and approaching fronts. The river is most enjoyable on low-wind days and is best avoided if strong, upriver winds are forecasted. For current and forecasted winds, check this link at iwindsurf.com
Put-in. Drive south of Rock Island Dam on Highway 28 for about 3.5 miles to Nelson’s Country Store (near the turnoff for the road to the Palisades).The Columbia Siding Road leads to a nice PUD launch site for non-motorized craft (canoes and kayaks). There is enough space for 3 or 4 cars and no permits or fees are required.
Wildness. Roads bordering the river are visible or audible mainly near Crescent Bar, Sun Cove, and Vantage. Most of this stretch is road free and the miles are quiet and lonely in spring and fall. In summer, expect to see a good number of motor boats and water jets.
Stops & sidetrips. There are many places to get out of the boat and enjoy sandy beaches, but there are also some stretches where sheer basalt walls border the river and where shoreline access is difficult. The shoreline across the river from Crescent Bar offers flat walking. Elsewhere there are easily accessed knolls offering nice walks with views over the river.
Multi-day trips and camping. This is a great multi-day paddle and you’ll find many nice places to camp along this 30-mile stretch of river. Only a few places are marked with ‘No-Trespassing’ signs. There are a variety of sites owned by the Department of Fish and Wildlife where camping is allowed—some of these are marked with signs prohibiting fires. There are no facilities along the river so, if you’re planning to camp, carry your own river toilet. If you intend to make a fire, use a firepan to protect the native vegetation.
Take-out. There is a large, paved parking area and boat launch on the northwest side of the I-90 bridge crossing the Columbia at Vantage. This is easily accessed from the west side of the bridge and was free to use as of April 2008.
Best seasons. Spring for green hills and flowers; late September and October for nice weather and low crowds. In summer motorboats and jet skis are commonly seen on this stretch of river. There are also a number of hunting blinds along the river and it would probably be best to avoid duck hunting season.
More information. There is a great detailed account of this area by the Wenatchee Row and Paddle Club.
Reporter. Tom Janisch.
Leave It Better Than You found It. This should be every user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull noxious weeds along your route, disperse old fire rings, throw branches over unwanted spur trails…
Disclaimer. Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change and those contributing these reports are volunteers–they may make mistakes or not know all the issues affecting a route. You are responsible for yourself, your actions, and your safety. If you won’t accept that responsibility, you are prohibited from using our information.