What you should know about floating the Deschutes River in 2019
Maybe it’s breweries bringing you to Bend this summer. Could be the hiking trails, or perhaps it’s mountain biking or the city’s awesome arts & culture scene beckoning you our sunny little mountain town.
No matter what draws you to this high desert oasis, odds are good your bucket list includes floating the river if you’re visiting between May and September.
Our annual river float blog post is one of our most highly-trafficked pages year after year, so let’s dive right into what’s new and what hasn’t changed for floating the Deschutes river in 2019!
Start with the right gear
First things first: Here’s what you’ll need to safely (and legally) float the river:
- Proper footwear. New this year, the put-in point at Riverbend Park is covered in small gravel. I learned the hard way that it hurts like a beast to tread barefoot on it while carrying a heavy paddleboard, so remember your sturdy footwear. Whatever you do, DON’T WEAR FLIP FLOPS! They’ll come off in the water or mud to become litter in our pristine river. Instead, opt for sturdy sandals like Keens or Tevas.
- A high-quality inner tube or floatation device. While you’ll see plenty of folks out there on pool toys, that’s risky if you want to cruise through the Fish Ladder channel in the Bend Whitewater Park. Rocks and rapids lead to popped and tumbled cheap floaties (which leaves us with garbage bins stuffed with ruined inflatables). You can rent durable float tubes from Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe at the Park + Float kiosk (more on that in a sec!)
- Sunscreen. Plenty of visitors don’t realize the strength of the sun in our high-altitude desert town, so slather up, guys. You’ll thank me later.
- Well-secured “stuff.” Keep your personal items with you, not at the bottom of the river. Few things wreck your day more than losing your keys, wallet, phone, camera, or prescription glasses in the river. Buy a waterproof floatie bag to tote it with you, or better yet, leave it behind.
- Life jacket. State law requires that each boat or paddleboard carry one Coast Guard approved life jacket for each person on board, and children age 12 and under are required to wear life jackets. If you lash several float tubes together, that counts as a boat. Play it safe and snag yourself and the kids a free rental life jacket from the Tumalo Creek kiosk at Park & Float or Riverbend Park.
From Point A to Point B
Since the Deschutes River does not flow in a circle like a carnival ride, you need to make a plan before you set foot in the water.
While some folks opt for a long walk back to their car or do the multi-car shuffle by leaving a vehicle at the takeout point, you’ll be much, much happier if you leave the driving to someone else by taking the Ride the River Shuttle.
There’s a four-hour parking limit along Riverside Boulevard adjacent to Drake Park from Memorial Weekend to Labor Day, with fines starting at $50. That’s a lot more expensive than a ride on the shuttle, so make life easier and let someone else do the driving.
Where do I start floating?
Most floaters put in at the shallow beach area in Riverbend Park. It has the bonus of being just a few blocks from the Park + Float, where you can park your car, rent your gear, and catch the shuttle right to the river. Remember what I said earlier about the beach being covered in gravel this year? Seriously, don’t be a dummy like I was and try to walk on it with your bare feet. Sturdy sandals (the kind that attach securely and won’t float away) are your friend.
Since the shuttle starts and ends at the Park + Float, there’s no need to haul your rented tube down the hill to Riverbend Park. You can also rent a kayak, standup paddleboard, or surfboard here and go straight to the Bend Whitewater Park a block away. Bonus: When you’re done floating, they’ll take care of getting your tube back as you exit at Drake Park (more on that in a sec).
If you don’t feel like starting at Riverbend Park for whatever reason, some floaters opt to put in a bit more upstream at Farewell Bend Park, which is on the opposite side of the river and has much more limited parking.
Wherever you choose to start, just plop your booty in your tube and paddle out into the water to catch a current and start your journey downstream. Keep in mind the water is fed by snowmelt and icy springs, so it’ll be chilly even at the height of summer. As you approach the Colorado Avenue Bridge, you’ve got a decision to make . . .
To ride or not to ride?
In 2015, the Bend Whitewater Park opened at the site of the former Colorado Avenue dam, opening up an access that previously didn’t exist. It has three distinct channels that include a habitat area for wildlife, a whitewater channel for surfing and whitewater kayaking, and a Fish Ladder meant for fish and river floaters.
If this is your first time through, hop out here and observe the series of 12 small rapids.. They are a little bumpy and could wreck your ride (not to mention your backside) if you’re not using a sturdy floatation device. If you’re on a flatwater boat or paddleboard instead of a float tube, you’ll want to exit the river here as the rapids can damage your boat or board.
Feeling up to it? If you’re riding the Fish Ladder, do your best to keep your feet downstream and your floatie in the whitewater section of the channel.
If you have small children or you’d rather walk around it, just hoof it along the portage trail and hop back in the water in McKay Park the other end of the channel for more calm water floating.
You can also call it a day at the bridge and enjoy a relatively short walk back to the put-in point. My kiddos have been known to do this circuit over and over in a day, skipping the next section of river altogether.
Alternately, you can keep on floating . . .
Got it. Let’s keep going!
If you choose to continue floating past the Colorado Avenue Bridge, you’ll eventually find yourself drifting into Drake Park. As you approach the Galveston Avenue Bridge, start making your way to the right.
Just past the bridge, you’ll see a small beach on the right side of the river. That’s where you’ll hop out.
And since you already made plans to Ride the River Shuttle, you’ll have an easy time getting back to your vehicle or to the put-in spot so you can do the whole thing all over again.
What else do I need to know?
A few more rules, tips, and general advice to avoid breaking the law or being a jerk:
- Local ordinances make it illegal to drink alcohol on the Deschutes River or in a Bend park, so leave the brews at home. You know what’s also illegal? Sinking your beer cans or bottles in the water. If the cops catch you doing it, they’ll fine you. If a local catches you doing it, you’ll get a pretty serious tongue-lashing about littering and the importance of protecting Bend’s natural beauty. Check out our Visit Like a Local page to learn more about being a responsible visitor.
- Despite the fact that marijuana is legal in Oregon, it’s not legal to blaze up in public places. Leave the joints behind, guys.
- The float from Riverbend Park to Drake Park takes roughly two hours. The float from Riverbend Park to the Colorado Avenue Bridge is about an hour. On holidays or busy weekends, things can get backed up with the river shuttle, so plan your day with that in mind.
- Parking can be crowded at Riverbend Park, but it’s downright insane at Drake Park. Seriously, Ride the River Shuttle, or consider biking (there’s ample bike parking!)
- Bend Park and Rec has a full page devoted to the Bend Whitewater Park and tips for floating the river. Check it out here.
- Want a big-picture overview of the Deschutes River and where all the hazards lie? The Bulletin created an excellent graphic you can scope out right here.
- Looking for ways to be a good steward and help protect the river? Go here to learn about the Enjoy, Protect, and Respect project, or here to learn more about some of the initiatives aimed at keeping our river pristine.
- Want more tips on navigating Bend like a pro? Check out our Visit Like a Local page!
Happy floating, everyone!