The Okanogan River – Omak to Malott


Photo: Though Omak and Okanogan are far from bustling, their backyard is a surprisingly wild escape.

Attractions.  This section of the Okanogan River dissects the county’s heaviest population centers as it skirts the edges of the towns of Omak and Okanogan. Surprisingly, as you float past these pods of development, a veneer of wildness coats the scenery. At the start of the trip you can often hear the nearby towns and the roads paralleling the river, and yet what the eyes see are mainly the wild willows, cottonwoods, and dogwood osiers flanking the river. Downstream of Okanogan (the town), farms lay beyond the curtain of the riverine vegetation, but most of the time ducks, osprey, heron and kingfishers command your attention.

While this paddle trip may not rate enough stars to draw visitors from far corners of the state, for anyone living nearby, paddling the county’s namesake river provides a very pleasant day of exploration. Additionally, fishermen living in the valley would be wise to paddle the river to scope out possible fishing hole. When the salmon or steelhead arrive, you’ll want to know which holes can be legally accessed from nearby roads and which will require a boat to fish.

Skill: 1+ (advanced beginner). In places the river has swift current and a few small riffles. To prevent capsizing, paddlers need to know how currents affect canoes and kayaks. We recommend paddling the river for a first time in mid-summer when the current is slower and water warmer. During the spring runoff, fast current and cold water makes the conditions much more hazardous to inexperienced paddlers.

Distance to Malott: 14.5 river miles from Omak, 9.6 miles from Okanogan.

Fitness: 2 (intermediate). In summer, the trip requires about four hours of steady paddling if you put-in at the Omak Stampede Grounds. Add your stoppage time to this figure. Using the Okanogan put-in shortens the outing by about 1.5 hours. The current along this segment of river helps the miles pass faster, but don’t count on it to do all the work – if you don’t paddle, you won’t get there.

Put-Ins.  For the longest float, start from the Omak Stampede Grounds and put-in by the rodeo stands, using the same trail/road the riders competing in the Suicide Race use to exit the river. To shorten the trip 5.5 miles, put-in downstream at the City of Okanogan Public Boat Launch River Access Park located at the east end of Tyee Street. There are bathroom facilities at Omak but not at Okanogan. These two put-ins do not require permits or fees.

Take-Out at the hamlet of Malott. There is a sandy beach and a swimming hole on river right on the upstream side of the bridge marking your arrival at Malott. Take-out here and carry the boat 100 yards along a trail bordering the road leading toward town – here is small parking spot at the end of the trail you can use to load the car. Don’t park in this spot during the trip — park another 100 yards closer to Malott in the proximity of the post office.Photo: Bridge on the downstream end of Omak.

Trip Instructions. Put-in and paddle the river. In quite a number of places, islands in the stream will have you guessing where you’ll find the deepest water. The main hazard of this trip is about 0.7 miles downstream of the Okanogan put-in where the State Highway 20 bridge crosses the river. Sometimes a fish trap is anchored to the bridge and blocks much or all of the current. As you approach this bridge, move over to river left (the left side as you face down the river) and be prepared to exit the river and carry around any blockages. The rest of the trip has some small riffles and some areas of swirling currents but no real hazards to paddlers with some river experience.

Map. See our topo map.

Fishing the Okanogan River. The Okanogan River delivers a broad quiver of fishing options from bass to salmon to steelhead. To read about bass fishing check out these fishing reports at WashingtonLakes.com.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in fishing the river for salmon or steelhead, here’s what Griff’s Fly Fishing Adventures writes:

“If there is a sleeper steelhead river in this state, it has to be the Okanogan. To look at it, you would never know that steelhead and salmon swim this river. Bass, yes, but not steelhead. Well, I am here to tell you that it definitely has steelhead. It normally opens for steelhead fishing the first part of October at the same time the Wenatchee, Entiat, and Methow Rivers open. However, steelhead enter the Okanogan a bit later than the other three rivers with the best fishing kicking in late November. February and March are normally the best months.

The Okanogan also receives a large run of sockeye salmon starting in July. The last few years those runs have been phenomenal. They are heading to Osoyoos to spawn. Along with the steelhead and salmon. The river contains good numbers of smallmouth bass, and some locals believe that the next state record smallmouth will come from this North Central Washington stream. The smallmouth fishing normally picks up after the run-off in June and lasts throughout the summer.

Bank access throughout the river is not easy. Most of the shoreline is private property, and the east shoreline from the mouth to just upstream of Omak is on the Colville Indian Reservation. A Tribal Permit is required to access the river on Tribal Lands. There are boat accesses just upstream of the mouth, at the Monse Bridge, at the mouth of Salmon Creek in the town of Okanogan, at the Omak Stampede Grounds, at the town of Riverside, at the town of Tonasket, and at the Oroville Bridge.”

Wildlife and Birdlife. Although the river borders development, we saw deer and beaver along the way. The area is also surprisingly rich with birdlife — bring binoculars if you’re a birder. On any given paddle trip, you’re likely to see osprey, bald eagles, kingfishers, blue herons, merganzers, water ouzels, spotted sandpipers, red-winged blackbirds, vultures, hawks, swallows, crows, ravens, magpies. and a whole bunch of passiforms (perching songbirds). Before paddling the river take our bird quiz a few times so you’re up to speed on many of the birds you’re likely to see.

Leave It Better than You Found It. This should be every user’s goal. Do no damage and pick up trash left by others.

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.

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