Pop quiz: What’s the most popular outdoor activity in Central Oregon each summer—hiking? kayaking? mountain biking? Those are all good guesses, but the answer—incredibly enough—just might be floating the Deschutes River in Central Oregon.
As soon as the weather warms up in June, locals and visitors flock to the rivers in Central Oregon for tranquil floats. Whether taking a shuttle in Bend or setting up DIY shuttles in the likes of Sunriver and Tumalo, floaters around the region love soaking in views along the Deschutes River. And with a season that runs through September, there’s plenty of time to take advantage of this popular pastime each summer.
These floats can all be enjoyed along relatively quiet, slow-moving stretches of the Deschutes River—but be aware that accidents can happen in any condition. So a few tips: Children 12 and younger must wear a life jacket at all times, and life jackets are strongly encouraged for all adults. And be sure to drink plenty of water and wear sunscreen at all times while on the water. It’s not a bad idea to have a dry-bag for your keys, identification, and/or wallet—and wear water shoes while floating, since flip-flops can fall off and float away easily. (Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe sells waterproof cell phone cases, and rents river-friendly shoes, at its Park and Float location in Bend.)
Keep in mind that alcohol and cannabis use is illegal on the river and in nearby parks. Finally, if you’re not renting a tube, try to purchase a durable tube that won’t pop on branches, rocks, and debris in the river; that means leaving the kitschy pool floats at home. Ready to hit the water? Good. Here’s how to get started with float trips on the Deschutes River throughout Central Oregon.
Floating and Tubing in Bend, Oregon
Floating is perhaps the most popular outdoor activity in Central Oregon, and the Deschutes River through Bend just might be the most popular place to float in the region. Before you hit the water for this classic outdoor experience, though, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind.
First, are you planning to float with your own tube—or rent? If it’s the former, you’ll have to walk between put-in and take-out points along the Deschutes River; parking is limited around these areas, but the walk between access points is usually flat and mostly hugs the river. We’ll get to those access points in a bit.
If you’re renting, Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe offers not just rental tubes, but shuttle service between a put-in point at the Old Mill District and a take-out point just south of downtown Bend. Rentals are available at Tumalo Creek’s Park and Float location on Bend’s westside, with five-minute shuttle rides connecting to the area’s southernmost put-in point. A shuttle bus (usually running 12-7 p.m.) then picks up floaters from the northernmost access point and returns floaters to the Park and Float location. Advance reservations are recommended, especially on warm summer weekends.
About those access points: Floaters have a few options for putting in and taking out of the river.
The southernmost (and most popular) put-in point is Riverbend Park at the southern edge of Bend’s Old Mill District. From here, floaters follow the river before arriving at the Bend Whitewater Park, where they can either head through the leftmost of three channels with class-II rapids for a small thrill—or exit the river, walk around the rapids, and put in just downstream of the park. (If you’re pressed for time and toting your own tubes, this is another popular put-in point.)
Beyond the whitewater channel, floaters trade shops and restaurants along the Deschutes for stately homes and a smattering of parkland before arriving at Drake Park—the area’s northernmost access point. Here floaters take out of the river and catch a shuttle back to Tumalo Creek’s Park and Float location. In all, a float between Riverbend Park and Drake Park typically takes about two hours—but may take a bit longer if river traffic is heavy.
Other Outdoor Activities in Central Oregon
Sunriver may lack some of the amenities of Bend’s float scene—you won’t find daily shuttle runs around the resort community, for instance—but groups with two vehicles can set up their own shuttles and enjoy long stretches of lush Deschutes River scenery for a more DIY experience. The water here has few obstructions or obstacles, the lack of crowds creates a quieter atmosphere, and several put-in and take-out spots make it easy to find a float that fits your schedule. Just know that the water around the Sunriver area tends to be chillier than in Bend, so consider frequent breaks to dry off and stay warm.
One popular float begins in the ponderosa pine forest at LaPine State Park and winds its way toward Big River Campground, south of Sisters. Here the wide river offers easy-going currents and is bordered on both sides by a steady diet of pine trees and parkland—making the float feel far more remote than its put-in and take-out points might suggest. Assuming favorable currents and wind, the float takes about 2.5 hours.
Big River Campground isn’t just a good take-out spot—it’s also a popular access point for floaters heading toward Harper Bridge. The float takes about four hours, conditions permitting, and heads through a much more developed community at southern Sunriver. (To wit: floaters will pass several houses abutting the water, as well as the popular Crosswater Golf Course, on this stretch.) A few class-II rapids in the area add a fun challenge. Floaters taking out at Harper Bridge should exit the river on the south side of the bridge.
Further north, a fun float trip begins at Besson Picnic Area—near the heart of Sunriver—before ending in another 3-5 hours at the Benham Falls East Day Use Area. The float travels past a riparian forest of pine, with occasional mountain views rising above the tree line; wildlife in this area may include river otters, deer, elk, and waterfowl.
If you need rentals around town, Sunriver ToyHouse Toys offers floating “islands” (which can fit up to six adults and may include cup holders, backrests, and other amenities) as well as more traditional floating tubes. The Sunriver-based Good 2 Go also offers a wide range of rentals, as well as a float trip on the Little Deschutes River.
Want to grab a drink and bite to eat after floating around Sunriver? The community is home to a variety of eateries and establishments, so check out one of our blogs on breweries in Central Oregon for the skinny on post-float fun.
The River Float in Tumalo
North of Bend, the lazy stretch of Deschutes River around Tumalo offers a quiet experience—and, in some cases, floaters don’t even need to leave their campground before putting in.
First, keep in mind that you won’t find any shuttles or transit services around Tumalo—so you’ll want to have two vehicles arranged at your start and end points before heading out. This stretch of Deschutes River is also home to a few obstacles and rocky stretches as it flows northward; none of it should stop you from making the trek, but floaters should keep an eye out and be aware of river conditions at all times.
The most popular put-in point in the area is at Tumalo State Park, just south of town. The shallow, slow-moving waters here are ideal for easing into your float—all while passing massive boulders, riparian forests of pine, and occasional glimpses of Central Oregon high desert. (Floaters wanting to extend their day on the water can hike the Deschutes River Trail south from the park for less busy put-in spots.)
From the park, floaters have two basic choices. The first choice, for floaters with limited time, takes about an hour and ends north of the park—in Tumalo proper. A small parking area along the river near downtown makes an ideal take-out spot here.
The second choice takes 2.5-3 hours total—and continues onto Twin Bridges. As it heads north, this particular float trades the forests around Tumalo State Park for more wide-open grasslands and rocky hillsides covered in sagebrush. You’ll navigate a few rapids along this stretch. Beyond Twin Bridges is a dangerous waterfall not suited to floaters, making this an ideal take-out spot.
Explore Nature’s Beauty
From the sagebrush-covered plains of the high desert to the towering pines and majestic mountain peaks, discover the diverse landscape Central Oregon has to offer.