Cruises on the Columbia River and its largest tributary, the Snake River, have long focused on the history of the Lewis & Clark expedition through the area and the Pacific Northwest's award-winning wine region. Yet, for those interested in more than history and wine, there's plenty of outdoor fun to be had, and cruise lines are taking notice.
For some cruisers (namely on Lindblad Expeditions and UnCruise Adventures sailings), biking, hiking, kayaking and rafting excursions are included as part of the cruise experience. For those on other lines, you'll need to make your own plans (or pay extra for an active excursion offered by your cruise line). The best ports of call for independent arrangements are The Dalles and Astoria, both in Oregon, and Richland and Clarkston, both in Washington.
Here are some of the active pursuits you can have on a cruise along the rivers of the Pacific Northwest.
There are several opportunities for biking on a Pacific Northwest river cruise, from paved, flat bike paths along the rivers to bike lanes along the highways, leading to wineries. Richland is perfect for independent, laid-back biking. Rent an easy-to-ride Cruiser bike (from Greenies in downtown) and take to the riverside path; it's mostly flat and for much of the way the bike path is kept separate from where people walk.
For bike tours (and slightly more challenging terrain), you'll need to get to Hood River (about a half-hour from The Dalles, where all cruise lines stop), where a handful of companies offer e-bike tours and bike-to-wine tours. Tours typically last from three to five hours.
There's hardly a stop along a Columbia River cruise that doesn't offer hiking trails within a half-hour's drive (or closer). But unless the cruise ship you're on offers guided hikes, you'll likely be on your own when it comes to finding and navigating the trails, as there are few companies offering guided hiking tours.
You can find hiking maps online, in local bookshops or at the visitor center of a state or national park. A few easy-to-follow paths can be found at Multnomah Falls (a common stop on all river cruises) and the Tom McCall Preserve (about 20 minutes from The Dalles), where you'll find the mostly flat Rowena Plateau trail and the steeper Tom McCall Preserve trail.
Kayaking and Paddle-boarding
As your riverboat sails along the Columbia River system, you'll notice lots of kayakers and paddle-boarders in the waters around you. UnCruise and Lindblad both carry kayaks onboard their boats and cruisers will get one or more chances to try them out.
If you're not sailing with these lines, you can still spend a half-day paddling if you're interested. The best place to find a tour operator is in Hood River, Oregon, located about 20 minutes from The Dalles. You'll also find a few operators offering two to three hour paddle-boarding lessons (and even windsurfing and kiteboarding lessons). If you're an experienced kayaker or paddle-boarder, you can find also rentals in Richland and Astoria.
While most people think of the Grand Canyon when they think of spectacular gorges in the United States, Hells Canyon (located along the border between Washington and Oregon) is actually the deepest river gorge in the U.S. and it's spectacular. It's easily accessed from Clarkston, where most riverboats plying the Columbia and Snake rivers either start or end their journey, with a full day in the area.
There are several tour operators operating jet boat tours into the gorge, with most tours lasting from five to six hours. UnCruise and Lindblad both include a full-day jet boat tour in the price of their cruises, while American Queen Steamboat Company offers a jet boat excursion as an optional extra-fee choice.
Some cruises to the Pacific Northwest (including river and ocean cruise ships) include a stop in Astoria, Oregon, best known for being the first permanent U.S. settlement on the Pacific coast (and as the backdrop for the cult classic movie "The Goonies").
For those seeking adrenaline during their port call, just 15 minutes away from the city is Highlife Adventures, where you'll find an eight-line zipline course. American Queen Steamboat Company offers a trip to the compound as an optional extra-fee excursion; if you're on any of the other riverboats, you'll need to get a taxi or Uber to the location.
At more than 1,200 miles long and with nearly 1,000 tributaries, the Columbia River system features a ton of water (not an exact measurement!), and with so much water comes plenty of rapids and, of course, whitewater rafting.
About 40 minutes from The Dalles is the Deschutes River where you can do a half-day rafting trip that can be as adventurous or scenic as you like -- expect to get wet either way. Unless you're on an UnCruise sailing, you'll need to make your own arrangements with one of several rafting companies located in Maupin, Oregon. The tour, plus transportation to and from Maupin, will take five or six hours, so leave yourself enough time to get back to your ship.