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What to know about floating the river in Bend the summer of 2021

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What to know about floating the river in Bend the summer of 2021

Few experiences fizz with Bend spirit like floating the river. There you are, lounging in an innertube with your toes in the water as you drift down the Deschutes with the sun on your face and a Hydroflask of lemonade in hand.

Deschutes River float rapids

Floating the Deschutes River is the ultimate in summertime Bend fun.

If a river float is on your wish list for summer 2021, read on for everything you need to know!


Grab the right gear

Kicking our summer off with a big “hooray,” I’m delighted to share that tube rentals and our beloved Ride the River Shuttle are both back in 2021. More on that in a sec.

If you’re packing your own floatie instead of renting, find a sturdy one with durable seams. Those cute inflatable donuts and pizza slices are fun for pools, but you’ll be on a river dotted with branches and sharp lava rocks.

Second, check your feet. You’ll want snug, well-fitted sandals instead of flip-flops so you don’t risk your footwear becoming litter in our beautiful river. I don’t advise going barefoot, since there’s lots of hot pavement and a put-in point studded with gravel. 

Third, slather on that sunscreen. It’s easy to underestimate the strength of the sun in our high-altitude desert town.

Fourth, some maybe items. State law requires a life jacket or PFD for all boaters, paddleboarders, and kids 12 and under. The term “boat” is broad, and if you lash several tubes together, it’s considered a boat. If you fall into any of these categories, play it safe and pack the PFD. If you forget, there’s a kiosk in Riverbend Park with free rental PFDs from Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe.

Lastly, grab a cheap dry bag. It’s optional, but you’ll need someplace to stash car keys, phone, or other important gear. Local boat and recreation shops sell inexpensive, watertight pouches you can wear around your neck. 

Now that you’ve got the right gear, it’s time to prepare.


Plan ahead, then plan some more

Maybe you have memories of trotting down to Riverbend Park on a July Saturday five years ago, snagging a tube rental, and plopping right in the river?

Standup paddleboard kids Deschutes

Don’t forget you’ll need a PFD if you’re on a paddleboard or boat.

Times have changed. It’s partly the pandemic and social distancing rules, and partly that more than 200,000 humans floated or paddled this section of river between Memorial Day and Labor Day last year. That’s a big uptick, so it pays to plan ahead.

The good news I mentioned earlier about tube rentals gets even better when you consider their new reservation system. If you’re hoping to float between now and Labor Day and you want one of Tumalo Creek Kayak and Canoe’s awesome rental tubes (you do!) reserve now. If there’s wiggle room in your schedule, consider a brunch-time float or early evening reservation when crowds have dwindled. 

You can also reserve spots on the Ride the River shuttle to ensure you’re not stuck hoofing it 1.7 miles from Drake Park back to Riverbend hugging a drippy innertube. The Ride the River shuttle starts and ends at Park & Float, beginning June 19 (weather permitting). A $5 round trip pass makes transportation easy for river users with shuttles departing every 15-20 minutes from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. You can snag advanced tickets from Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe online now. On the day of your reservation, check-in at Park & Float for a wristband valid the entire day.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering what the heck Park & Float is, it’s across from The Pavillion on Simpson Ave. and Bradbury Way. That’s where you’ll find tube rentals and the pickup and dropoff point for the Ride the River shuttle. There’s also gobs of free parking, so scope out the map here. Park & Float is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily from June 18 to Sept. 6.

While you can’t rent tubes or catch the shuttle at the Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe kiosk in Riverbend Park, you can rent kayaks, SUPs, and life jackets. That cute little trailer is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily (weather permitting) May 28-Sept. 6.

Campfire Hotel Bend

If you stay at the new Campfire Hotel, you can add a float package to make it nice and easy to enjoy the Deschutes.

If you really want to plan ahead and keep things super-duper simple, consider the new Float On package from brand-new Campfire Hotel (that’s a whole lotta new!) Guests at this retro-campy 3rd Street property can pay an extra $20 to access their fleet of rental tubes. With local transit steps from the hotel’s front door, it’s easy to be shuttled close to the river or rent one of the cruiser bikes for a little extra cardio. Afterwards, grab a cool beer from the hotel’s marketplace cooler, then sit by an on-site campfire and savor your float memories. Learn more here, then dibs your tube directly through the front desk.


Where are you going?

Nope, it’s not a dumb question. If you’ve never floated the Deschutes, you may have no idea where to put in and take out, so here’s the scoop.

The simplest option if you’re pressed for time is to put in at Riverbend Park, float to the Colorado Avenue Bridge, hop out there, and walk just over half a mile along Shevlin Hixon Drive to get back to Riverbend. You can do this loop as many times as you like before walking back to your car at the Park & Float. Alternately, you can put in at the Colorado Avenue bridge and float to Drake Park from there. These routes are the way to go if you don’t want to hassle with the shuttle or you’re short on time.

If you’ve got more hours to spare, get yourself a Ride the River shuttle pass and do the full float from Riverbend to Drake Park. You’ll be scooped up at the end-point and taken back to Park & Float. If that’s not in the cards, it’s do-able (barely) to walk the 1.7 miles from Drake to Riverbend, but it can feel weird strolling busy streets in a bathing suit lugging a big tube. If that’s not an issue for you, rock on with your summer lovin’ self. 

Just please, please don’t do the dual-car DIY shuttle where one person leaves a vehicle at Riverbend and one at Drake Park. Those limited park-side spots have a strictly-enforced time limit, and the Old Bend Neighborhoods require residential permits to park on the streets. They’re cracking down with citations, so don’t kill your happy float vibe with a pricey parking ticket.

Get the parking low down


To ride or not to ride?

Regardless of whether you’re doing the shorter float or a longer one, you’ve got a decision to make.

River float Deschutes

Ahhhh, summer bliss!

At the Colorado Avenue bridge resides one of Bend’s coolest attractions, the Bend Whitewater Park. It has three distinct channels including a habitat area for wildlife, a whitewater channel for surfing and whitewater kayaking, and a fish ladder meant for fishies and river floaters. 

When you reach that point, hop off your floatie and walk along the portage trail to scan the series of 12 small rapids that make up the fish ladder. They’re a bit bumpy and could wreck your ride (not to mention your backside) if you’re not on a sturdy floatie. SUPers and anyone in a flatwater boat definitely won’t want to chance it. 

Ready to ride the fish ladder? Do your best to keep your feet downstream and your inflatable in the center of the channel. Try to keep space between you and other users navigating the rapids.

If you have small children or would rather walk around, just stroll along the portage trail to the put-in point at McKay Park, where you’ll continue floating into Drake Park. You can also call it quits here and walk the .6 miles along Shevlin Hixon to get back to Riverbend Park.


What else should you know?

A few more tips to enhance your fun and help you avoid breaking the law or being a butthead:

  • Alcohol use is illegal on the river and in parks. Ditto that for cannabis. The fines are hefty if police catch you using either one.
  • If you’re enjoying a cold soda on the river, don’t even think about sinking cans or bottles in the water. Not only will police fine you, but locals will give you a serious tongue lashing for littering Bend’s precious waterways.

    River float rapids

    Ride the rapids!

  • Be alert to road construction. Watch for road construction near Park & Float, Bend Whitewater Park, and McKay Park. Projects are underway and detours are in place.
  • Keep in mind there are no lifeguards on the river. Watch children and non-swimmers closely. Also, remember life jackets are required for boaters, paddleboarders, and kids 12 and under, and generally just a good idea for everyone else.
  • Remember that the water is COLD. It can feel good on a hot day, but it can shock the ever lovin’ snot out of you if you’re expecting swimming pool temps.
  • Resist the urge to jump off any of the bridges you’ll pass under while floating. Not only is it illegal, but extremely dangerous. We’ve seen serious injuries and even permanent paralysis from botched bridge jumps, so don’t mess around with this.
  • The float from Riverbend Park to Drake Park takes roughly two hours. The float from Riverbend to the Colorado Avenue Bridge is about an hour. Plan your outing accordingly.
  • Keeping COVID caution in mind, consider going at a slower time of day like morning or evening when it’s less crowded. You can cluster up with immediate family, but try to keep six feet of distance between you and other parties, particularly if you’ve got unvaccinated peeps in your group.
  • Remember the pack it in, pack it out rule. If your floatie pops, don’t abandon it at the river’s edge or stuff it into overflowing trash cans. It’s up to all of us to make sure our rivers and beaches don’t become wastelands of lost flip-flops and garbage bins brimming with punctured air mattresses, so do your part to pick up after yourself.
  • Looking for ways to be a good steward and help protect the river? Go here to learn about the Enjoy, Protect, and Respect project, and here to contribute to Pledge for the Wild.
  • Watch where you park. There are major fines for overstaying your limit at Drake Park, and permits are required in surrounding neighborhoods. Stick with the free spots at Park & Float, and carpool if you can.