There's an abundance of history, including the Lewis and Clark expedition, along with unique local wineries and remarkable nature. While on a Columbia River and Snake River cruise, you'll witness nature's grandeur, like famous landmarks Multnomah Falls, the Columbia River Gorge and Hells Canyon.
Read our guide below to discover what is so appealing about taking a Columbia River cruise and why you'll want to place it high on your cruise bucket list.
The Columbia River is a river system in the Pacific Northwest. Beginning in British Columbia's Columbia Lake, the 1,243-mile long river flows into seven U.S. states and drains into the Pacific Ocean outside of Portland, Oregon.
The Snake River is a part of the Columbia River Basin as well and is 1,078 miles long. It begins in Wyoming, arcs into southern Idaho, then bends again and makes its way north. The Snake River ends in southeastern Washington where it forms a confluence with the Columbia River.
River cruise lines on the Columbia and Snake Rivers typically operate from April to November, with no month being a particularly bad time to sail. Lindblad is one exception, which only operates for a month or so in September and October.
Spring months can be rainy, especially on the western part of the Columbia River, but it's that precipitation that lights the hillsides a verdant green. July and August trend hot and, in the early fall, the vineyards are remarkable. Wine lovers should look to travel in early October when the harvest and crush occur.
Cruise lines on the Columbia and Snake rivers include American Cruise Lines, American Queen Company (formerly American Queen Steamboat Company), Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic and UnCruise Adventures.
Each line offers ships with vastly different personalities, so it's difficult to outline the best river cruise on the Columbia River. As an example, Lindblad Expeditions' National Geographic Sea Lion and sister ship National Geographic Sea Bird are workmanlike expedition ships with just 62 passengers.
American Queen Company operates the plusher American Empress, a 224-passenger paddle wheeler. UnCruise's ship is the Wilderness Legacy, a replica turn-of-the-century steamer the S.S. Legacy that accommodates 88 passengers, where crew dress in period costumes.
Lastly, American Cruise Lines runs paddle wheelers American West, with 120 passengers, and American Pride with 150.
River cruise ships on the Columbia and Snake rivers typically cruise between Clarkston, Washington, and Astoria, Oregon, on the Pacific coast. Embarkation or disembarkation is in Portland, depending on which way the ship is headed.
It's a 500-mile journey that stretches from the arid, golden hillsides of eastern Washington to the moisture-rich, western slopes of Oregon. Along the way, the ships traverse eight locks.
Be sure to check out our Columbia River cruise map for a visual representation of where you would go when cruising the Columbia River, especially with an itinerary that includes the Snake River.
Editor's note: Passengers who embark or disembark in Clarkston fly in or out of airports in Lewiston, Idaho, a 20-minute drive from the dock, or Spokane, Washington, two and a half hours away.
Due to the typical itinerary on these cruises, there are no 3-day Columbia River cruises or shorter ones available. The shortest Columbia River cruise is five days in length and the longest is 11 days.
However, most of Columbia River cruises are seven nights with the option of a pre- or post-stay in Portland with a primary focus on the Lewis and Clark expedition. The occasional wine-themed cruise is also becoming a staple.
All in all, the various ships call on many of the same ports, among them being the Oregon communities of Hood River, Pendleton and The Dalles.
American Queen Company offers the most comprehensive itinerary choice. They have three different routes: Clarkston, Washington, to Portland, Oregon, or Vancouver, Washington, and vice versa, which travels on both the Snake and Columbia rivers; and the Columbia River-only itinerary that's a Portland to Vancouver route.
Cruises on the Columbia River afford visitors with an abundance of unforgettable sights. Here are just some of the major cruise port highlights to look forward to on your Columbia and Snake River cruise:
Hells Canyon: A remnant of the last ice age, Hells Canyon on the Snake River is primarily accessible by small water craft like jet boats. But this is how cruise passengers are introduced to this scenic spot where the borders of Oregon, Washington and Idaho meet.
Along the way, guides point out Native American petroglyphs, abandoned mines and wildlife such as mule deer and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.
The Hells Canyon region, where the Lewis and Clark expedition once traded for food, was home to the Nez Perce Native Americans, who lived there for thousands of years.
Columbia River Gorge: The Columbia River Gorge has been named America's largest National Scenic Area. This river canyon is 80 miles long and, while cruising through it, affords visitors towering cliffs, stunning views and an abundance of activities. When on a Columbia River Gorge cruise, visitors often have the option to hike, kayak, paddleboard and beyond here.
Columbia Gorge Discovery Center: Ice Age geology detailing the Missoula floods, native baskets, the Oregon Trail, the explorations of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark -- it's all there at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center. Of particular interest is the cargo the expedition carried on the long journey to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean.
The discovery center is located on 54 acres overlooking the Columbia River. There are also nature trails that showcase plants Lewis and Clark collected and cataloged for the first time in history. A few among them are golden currant, mock orange, green rabbitbrush, ironwood and the Oregon white oak.
Multnomah Falls: This waterfall in Oregon plunges 620 feet and is the most visited attraction in Oregon. There is a 2.2-mile round trip hiking trail just past Multnomah Falls and goes up a series of switchbacks through old growth Douglas fir to a rim. From there, it's a short walk to the viewing platform cantilevered over the falls.
Fort Clatsop: The Lewis & Clark National Historical Park has a 2006 replica of Fort Clatsop where the Lewis and Clark expedition wintered in 1805. It was built from a floor plan that William Clark drew on the elkskin cover of one of his journals. The fort was reconstructed just 100 feet from the site of the original, which rotted away more than a century ago.
Another intriguing exhibit features quotes from the voluminous notes that Clark in particular made during the journey. "O! how disagreeable is our Situation dureing this dreadfull weather," he wrote from Fort Clatsop on November 28, 1805.
A less glum Clark on March 23, 1806 noted: "We have lived as well as we had any right to expect…." By 1806, the expedition was thought to have perished so the men's return to St. Louis on September 23 of that same year caused a national sensation.
There are also hiking trails and an orientation film at Fort Clatsop. As an added bonus, rangers wear costumes and lead programs while in-season.
Cape Disappointment: The state park at Cape Disappointment fronts the Pacific Ocean in Washington. Its interpretive center speaks to the hardship, ingenuity and leadership of an expedition that spanned 863 days.
An overview starts at the very beginning with President Thomas Jefferson telling Lewis on June 20, 1803: "The object of your mission…the Pacific Ocean."
Waikiki Beach at Cape Disappointment has one of six outdoor installations in the Columbia River basin by artist-architect Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Confluence Project, as it's called, marks the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark's journey west. Lin's artwork at Waikiki includes a boardwalk inscribed with text from the explorers' journals.
It's positioned at the spot where the men found what they were looking for: the intersection of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean.
Pack layers. During the summer and early fall, highs are typically in the 70s and 80s. However, it's not unusual to start out with three or four layers of clothing, peel down to one, and layer up again all in a single day.
Morning temperatures can dip into the 40s later in the season, which can feel especially chilly on a day with high winds, so be sure to pack enough layers for your river cruise.
Protect yourself from mosquitoes. Be sure to bring bug spray whenever you go on your Columbia River cruise, as mosquitos are quite rampant on the river. Having long pants and long-sleeve shirts is a bonus for not only the weather but for keeping the mosquitos at bay, especially if/when you go hiking.
Walmart is your friend. If you are departing from Clarkston and have forgotten anything, walk to the nearby Walmart, which is just a few blocks from the dock. You can then stock up on electronic needs (batteries, chargers, power cords), sunscreen, snacks or anything else.
Note that many of the early ports on the westbound itinerary don't offer much in the way of goods and services.
Protect your valuables. Some of the cruise excursions include kayaking or transportation on inflatable rafts. It's not a bad idea to invest in a waterproof bag for cell phones and cameras.
Read up on Lewis and Clark before your trip. Before heading out on this Pacific Northwest river cruise, you should familiarize yourself a bit with Lewis and Clark to really get the most out of your trip.
Read Stephen Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage," the definitive book on Lewis and Clark. Stephanie Ambrose Tubbs, daughter of the late National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, also produced a great book called "The Lewis and Clark Companion." Tubbs occasionally joins Lindblad's Columbia and Snake Rivers' sailings as the resident Lewis and Clark expert.
"The Essential Lewis and Clark," edited by Landon Y. Jones, is also noteworthy for its skillfully presented highlights of the journals of Lewis and Clark, which remain today the most important documents in the history of American exploration.
Updated February 07, 2023