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The scenery from a hike is spectacular on a Columbia and Snake River cruise. (Photo: John Roberts)
The scenery from a hike is spectacular on a Columbia and Snake River cruise. (Photo: John Roberts)

6 Pacific Northwest Adventures You Can Have on a Cruise

The scenery from a hike is spectacular on a Columbia and Snake River cruise. (Photo: John Roberts)
The scenery from a hike is spectacular on a Columbia and Snake River cruise. (Photo: John Roberts)
Dori Saltzman
Colleen McDaniel

Last updated
Sep 19, 2023

Read time
5 min read

For years, cruises on the Columbia River and its largest tributary, the Snake River, have focused on following in the footsteps of famed explorers Lewis and Clark. Cruises take guests through this historic area of the Pacific Northwest, which also touches the Willamette Valley, the famed wine region that draws national and international enthusiasts. While both wine and history are worth exploring, the area offers plenty of options for those seeking a bit more adventure outdoors.

For cruisers on some expedition lines (namely on Lindblad Expeditions and UnCruise Adventures sailings), activities like biking, hiking, kayaking and rafting 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.

If you're looking to move your body and explore this breathtaking region in a different way, here are six ways you can get your heart pumping in the Pacific Northwest.

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1. See a Port by Bike, and Enjoy the Scenery at Your Own Pace

Bikers tackle a trail from a Columbia and Snake River cruise. (Photo: John Roberts)
Bikers tackle a trail from a Columbia and Snake River cruise. (Photo: John Roberts)

Opportunities for biking abound on a Pacific Northwest river cruise, and you can challenge yourself or take it at a more leisurely pace. The variety of options, from paved, flat paths along the rivers to bike lanes along the highways, gives choice to bikers of all abilities. And many of these paths lead to wineries or craft breweries. Check out our article on Wine Sailings on Pacific Northwest River Cruises for more info on cruises for wine enthusiasts.

Richland, Washington, is perfect for independent, laid-back biking. Rent an easy-to-ride cruiser bike (from Greenies in downtown) and hit the riverside path; it's mostly flat, and for much of the way the bike path is kept separate from where people walk. Wind can whip up pretty quickly here, so your out and back journeys might feel really different.

For bike tours and slightly more challenging terrain, you'll need to get to Hood River (about 30 minutes from The Dalles, where all cruises stop), where a handful of companies offer e-bike tours and bike-to-wine tours. Tours typically last from three to five hours. Look for a half-day tour, as these will fit better into your cruising schedule.

2. You Pick: Challenging or Easy Hike on Your Columbia River Cruise

Hikers pose at the top of a climb with mountains in the background. (Photo: John Roberts)
Hikers pose at the top of a climb from a Columbia and Snake River cruise. (Photo: John Roberts)

Hiking is a staple of pretty much every port stop on a Columbia River cruise, and in many cases, trails and options are very close to where you'll dock or stop. Unless the cruise ship you're on offers guided hikes, though, you'll likely be on your own when it comes to finding and navigating the trails.

Many cruise lines will make hiking maps available to their guests, so ask at the shore excursion or guest services desk. You can also find hiking maps online, in local bookshops or at the visitor center of a state or national park. We love downloadable apps, like AllTrails, that help us really understand where the hike is and how strenuous it might be, and provide detailed map info.

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. You also can access the Pacific Crest from Cascade Locks, another popular stop on river cruises in the Pacific Northwest.

3. Hit the Water: Kayaking and Paddleboarding on a River Cruise

A kayaker enjoys the scenery from her boat on a Columbia and Snake River cruise. (Photo: John Roberts)
A kayaker enjoys the scenery from her boat on a Columbia and Snake River cruise. (Photo: John Roberts)

As your riverboat sails along the Columbia River system, you'll notice lots of kayakers and paddleboarders 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. It can be an exceptionally peaceful way to explore the fascinating terrain of the region, which includes tall basalt spires and deep gorges.

If you're not sailing with these lines, you can still spend a half-day paddling on your own. 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 paddleboarding lessons (and even windsurfing and kiteboarding lessons). If you're an experienced kayaker or paddleboarder, you can find also rentals in Richland, Washington, and Astoria, Oregon.

4. Jet Boating Provides Spectacular Views of Hells Canyon

A sign for the Dalles in the background with a ring reading American Empress in the foreground. (Photo: John Roberts)
American Queen Voyages' American Empress offers jetboat tours on Columbia and Snake river cruises. (Photo: John Roberts)

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 is spectacular. It's easily accessed from Clarkston, where most riverboats sailing the Columbia and Snake rivers either start or end their journeys, 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 Voyages offers a jet boat excursion as an optional extra-fee choice from American Empress.

Be prepared: These jet-boating tours are long and will take up the better part of the day, with a lot of scenic sailing rather than adrenaline-pumping speeds.

5. Ziplining Will Give You a Whole Different Perspective

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"). This gem is also home to some terrific craft breweries, within walking distance of the port.

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 Voyages 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. The venue also offers ax throwing.

6. Whitewater Rafting Will Get Your Adrenaline Pumping

A raft full of people in the background with yellow oars and part of a raft in the foreground. (Photo: John Roberts)
Whitewater rafting is a popular option on a Columbia and Snake River cruise. (Photo: John Roberts)

At more than 1,200 miles long and with nearly 1,000 tributaries, the Columbia River system offers plenty of opportunities to play in the rapids. For many, a whitewater rafting trip is a must when sailing this region.

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.

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