Creek play in Portland: where to go?

Patrick and friends at Johnson Creek Park

Earlier this year, a friend of mine posed a question to me:

Where in the Portland area can kids play in a creek or pond without fear of breaking any rules or regulations?

Great question! My son has played in a couple of creeks over the last few years, but I wasn’t sure of anywhere specific that such activity was allowed or encouraged. So I inquired with some folks at different agencies to find out where. The general consensus seems to be that playing in a creek or pond constitutes going “off trail” and could damage habitat restoration efforts at natural areas, so it is not suggested. However, there is an increasing understanding of the importance of people engaging with the natural world, and water play can enhance the nature experience for children. Here is a summary of some responses I received:

Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District: it would be acceptable for kids to get their feet wet along areas of Commonwealth Lake Park and Bethany Lake Park, both in Beaverton.

Fanno Creek: as this is a muddy-bottomed creek (going through Portland, Beaverton, and Tigard) with no accessible areas of clean gravel to walk across, it is suggested that kids do not play in Fanno Creek. Likewise, the Tualatin River is not suggested for water play.

Portland Parks and Recreation: policy for PP&R is that access to water in natural areas is restricted for natural resource protection, which has high priority. However, in Marshall Park in SW Portland, it is acceptable to play in the creek where the stone bridge is, but the city is looking into how best to allow such use. Unrestricted water access can also be found at several sites along the Columbia Slough (including the Columbia wastewater treatment plant and Kelley Point Park)*, Tanner Springs Park in downtown Portland, and kids can use nets and other tools to search for aquatic life at the dock at Whitaker Ponds Nature Park in NE Portland. While people cannot enter the tadpole ponds at Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge in SE Portland, using tools to scoop up water and look for tadpoles and water bugs is an activity I’ve known others to do. While Patrick and some friends once played in Johnson Creek at Johnson Creek Park in SE Portland, PP&R now has signs posted there restricting such access. My son has also played in the water of the Willamette River at Sellwood Riverfront Park in SE Portland.

* a staff member from the Columbia Slough Watershed Council shared the following advice with me: the slough has a very muddy bottom (often 1-2 feet) so it can be a safety risk for people not expecting to sink into mud; there are deep holes due to scour from the reversing tidal flows at the mouth of the slough/Willamette that cannot be seen; at Whitaker Ponds there is a sign that asks people to stay out of the ponds, so please use the “belly biology” float there for access to be near the water; and PP&R’s “unrestricted water access” signs refer to canoe and kayak access.

Patrick and a friend at Marshall Park

Metro: Swimming is allowed at Oxbow Regional Park and Blue Lake Regional Park, and people can enter the water at Smith & Bybee Wetlands (which is a popular place for canoeing and kayaking). There are no posted regulations at these parks against entering the water. But, safety is a concern and folks should always be cautious when in a body of water.

Patrick and friends at Smith and Bybee Wetlands

So, that’s what I have been able to find out so far. I do know that some environmental education groups provide opportunities to get in water as part of registered programming, usually to search for tadpoles or water bugs.

I would appreciate it if any readers would share locations they aware of or have used for water play! Post in the comments or email me at darwinsbulldog AT gmail DOT com.

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13 Responses to Creek play in Portland: where to go?

  1. kstanik says:

    Hi, Michael! For readers: yes, definitely some programming allows. Our 6-yr-old just wrapped up a week at Audubon’s “stream secrets” camp – they got to go off trail to sections of Balch Creek, spent a lot of time in the water exploring (finding newts, water bugs, and even a pacific giant salamander!), and came home every afternoon wet, happy, and full of stories). Also, we live near Marshall Park (my son is in the photo above with Michael’s son), and I can second what Michael said about the work happening there: they do want to protect sensitive areas but also understand that kids need access and intimate hands-on experiences in order to deeply love and cherish these resources themselves. So they are allowing water play (at least for now) at the stone bridge. It’s a small area, and I imagine that were it to become crowded, that policy might shift. It’s a tension, for sure. But great to know so many people care about and love our water habitats!

  2. Kim Silva says:

    Perfect timing! Thanks!

  3. christy says:

    No playing in Johnson Creek Park anymore??? That’s our go to spot! Bummer.
    I wonder what the policy on going in the water at Reed Canyon is. It’s not really a creek, but a great place to see wildlife and a natural spring bubbling up from the ground.
    Will the new Nature Playground at Westmoreland park include a creek play spot? Maybe we should rally for that, if it doesn’t- something shallow that’s an offshoot and designated for people, as to not disturb fishies that they’re trying to bring back.
    There are a few spots where the springwater corridor bike path crosses Johnson Creek that are kid-friendly, but I don’t know about the legality of it.

    • darwinsbulldog says:

      Yeah, we had been to that spot on Johnson Creek once last summer, and were planning on visiting several times this summer, but not anymore unfortunately.

      I asked about Reed Canyon on their Facebook page, and their, too, there is no human access to the water. Their more detailed answer is here.

      As for Westmoreland Park, it looks like there will be some type of water-based interaction:

    • Shawna says:

      Neither Westmoreland or Reed Canyon are open to play in the streams. Both are highly sensitive Salmon restoration sites (our only unimpeded Salmon run in the city even!).

      • darwinsbulldog says:


        I believe part of the reason the new playground at Westmoreland includes the sand and water feature is because kids would no longer have access to the creek itself.

  4. April says:

    We just came back from commonwealth lake park and it didn’t have a very good place to play in the water. The playground was great and shade was abundant, but the lake looked icky around the edges and a local resident said that there had been reports of ecoli in the area. Lots of ducks and a goose in the area, but no water play as far as we could tell…

    • darwinsbulldog says:

      Thank you for sharing, April! Perhaps I should have been more specific. While THPRD informed me that playing in the water at those lakes feet-deep would be acceptable, there is no purposeful location for it or signs posted stating as such.

  5. darwinsbulldog says:

    Friend Laura posted about Bonnie Lure State Park in Estacada:

  6. darwinsbulldog says:

    Friend Laura posted about Mary S. Young Park in West Linn, along the Willamette River, where at low water level there is a current-free cove-like area to play in the water:

    Also, today my wife went to Canby south of Portland, and stopped off at Knights Bridge Park along the Molalla River, and my son played in the river there, along with lots of other kids on what was a very warm day! I took him there in 2011:

  7. darwinsbulldog says:

    Friend Laura added a page to her blog, Where to Get Muddy! –

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