The Pacific Northwest is known for its pristine lakes and wide rolling rivers. I love to drive or hike along the shores of these waters, but I’ve found a whole different view can be had from the deck of a boat. Book a trip on any one of these unique day cruises, sit back, take in the scenery, and leave the navigation in the captain’s capable hands.
1. St. Joe River Cruise – Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
- Cost: $61.25 for adults and $59.25 for adults over 55
- Length of cruise: 6 hours
- Dates of service: Early June to late October
The meandering St. Joe River, the highest navigable river in the world, lies hidden away at the southern end of massive Lake Coeur d’Alene in Northern Idaho. The only access is by boat. To experience this natural wonder, take a trip aboard the 102-foot The Coeur d’Alene through Lake Coeur D’Alene Cruises for a ride across the lake and down into the mouth of the river. You’ll catch the boat at Independence Point, a short walk from the Coeur d’Alene Resort. Don’t worry about packing food as your ticket includes a buffet feast of fried chicken, fruit, and salads.
The double-decker boat has stairs that lead to an open upper deck perfect for taking in the sights. The lower deck is wheelchair accessible and features a large comfortable glassed-in seating area surrounded by expansive windows. Shoot for a cruise in the early summer or fall to escape the hot mountain sun and to have the best chance of spotting wildlife.
Pro Tip: Lake Coeur D’Alene Cruises offers a wide range of cruises throughout the year. View spectacular light displays on the holiday cruises and witness the annual gathering of hundreds of bald eagles on the winter eagle watching cruises.
2. Lake Pend Oreille Cruises – Sandpoint, Idaho
- Cost: $28.00 to $50.00 for adults based on the cruise
- Length of cruise: 1.5 hours to 3.5 hours
- Dates of service: Early May through mid-September
Lake Pend Oreille is over twice the size of Lake Coeur d’Alene, but a cruise aboard the 36-passenger Shawnodese offers a much more intimate chance to explore Idaho’s largest lake. Lake Pend Oreille Cruises offer a variety of tours to satisfy any interest and itinerary. Bird watchers will delight in the Bird of Prey Cruise and the Sunset & Eagle Watching Cruise. The 3G Tour takes passengers to secluded coves along the shore while affording spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.
Passengers will board the boat in one of two locations in Sandpoint, 1 hour north of Coeur d’Alene. Be sure to double-check your ticket for the proper location so as not to miss the boat. Multiple tours run each day during the height of the season, so why not treat yourself to more than one? Food and beverages are available for purchase once you board. Grab a seat on the shaded upper deck or enjoy the view from the enclosed lower deck. The Shawnodese is not wheelchair accessible.
Pro Tip: Take the opportunity once off the boat to explore delightful Sandpoint. Get a different view of Lake Pend Oreille relaxing in City Beach Park then head over to the Sandpoint Shopping District to hunt for unique Idaho souvenirs.
3. The Lady Of The Lake – Chelan, Washington
- Cost: $50.00 for adults, $47.50 for adults over 65
- Length of cruise: 9.5 hours
- Dates of service: Mid-May through late September
Combining work and pleasure, The Lady of the Lake acts as a ferry for forest service workers and residents of the tiny mountain hamlet of Stehekin and a pleasure cruise for passengers looking for a grand tour of the beautiful scenery surrounding Lake Chelan in north-central Washington. Catch the boat at the Chelan dock. About 90 minutes into the journey, the roads and houses abruptly end and the deep forest takes over. 2 and a half hours later, you’ll dock at Stehekin deep among the evergreen cliffs of the North Cascade Mountains for a 90-minute layover. On the ride back, take the time to chat with your fellow passengers and scan the shore for wildlife.
The boat makes a few brief stops along the way, but only workers and those passengers headed into the backcountry are allowed to disembark. It is equipped to carry 285 passengers and features two decks with plenty of indoor space and comfortable seating. All passengers are allowed one small carry-on item which you should be sure to pack for a full day’s journey. The snack bar offers limited food and beverage options. Wheelchairs not exceeding 25 inches in width are allowed.
4. Heart Of The Gorge Sightseeing Cruise – Cascade Locks, Oregon
- Cost: $40.00 for adults
- Length of cruise: 1 to 2 hours
- Dates of service: May through October
Step back in time on this cruise aboard the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler, a 120-foot triple-decker paddle wheeler powered solely by the bright red paddle protruding from its stern. The knowledgeable captain provides narration along the journey about the history of the sternwheeler and the surrounding Columbia River Gorge while you take in views of the cloud-draped Cascade Mountains and watch as kite surfers race along the boat on the windswept waves.
The sternwheeler departs from Marine Park in Cascade Locks, 45 minutes east of Portland. 1-hour cruises are offered either east up the river or west down the river, or you can combine them for a 2-hour excursion at no additional charge. The gorge is often windy, so dress accordingly and wear flat non-slip shoes as the deck can get wet. Manual wheelchairs under 25 inches in width are allowed.
Pro Tip: Lodging options in Cascade Locks are limited. Take the 20-mile drive east to Hood River and book a room at the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel and Spa where you can wake up to views of the gorge and seven acres of gardens.
5. Willamette River Downtown Dinner Cruise – Portland, Oregon
- Cost: $96.00 for adults
- Length of cruise: 2.5 hours
- Dates of service: Year-round
The same tour operator that offers the sternwheeler cruise in the heart of the Columbia Gorge also offers a dinner cruise in the heart of Portland. Portland Spirit Cruises’ Downtown Dinner Cruise sails along the Willamette River taking you on an evening tour of Portland while feasting on locally sourced Northwest cuisine. You’ll float under eight of the city’s most iconic bridges and watch as the city lights come alive.
Board the Portland Spirit at the Salmon Street Springs dock then choose your dinner spot in one of the two inside decks or the covered top deck. You’ll sail in style aboard the 150-foot yacht first upstream on the Willamette River then downstream returning to your boarding location. Dress is casual. Be sure to prepare for falling temperatures as the evening progresses. Choose a cruise in the fall or winter to ensure you’ll be on board when darkness falls to best enjoy the sunset and the lights of Portland.
Pro Tip: Want to see more of Portland’s waterfront? Hop onto the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade, a paved walkway stretching 1.5 miles along the Willamette River.
If you’re looking for more opportunities to get on the water, check out two more of my favorite cruises a little further west in my home state of Montana.
- Cost: $30.00 for adults.
- Length of cruise: 1 hour 45 minutes
- Dates of service: Mid-June to early September
The Far West cruises the waters of Flathead Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes. Catch the boat in Lakeside on the western shore for a leisurely ride to Somers and back on this 65-foot vessel. The beauty of the lake and the soaring Mission Mountains will captivate you, and the relaxed vibe and intimate setting invoke the feeling of your own personal charter. The Far West is not wheelchair accessible.
Glacier Park Boat Company
- Cost: $35.25 for the boat ride plus the cost of a pass to enter the national park.
- Length of cruise: Approximately 2 hours
- Dates of service: Early June through mid-September
Glacier Park Boat Company runs cruises on four of Glacier National Park’s lakes, but the one I try to catch each summer is the cruise in the Many Glacier region spanning two stunning mountain lakes. Board the first boat, Chief Two Guns, at the dock behind the Many Glacier Hotel, then sail across Swiftcurrent Lake. You’ll disembark at the opposite end and hike 0.2 miles on a steep but smooth dirt trail to catch the Morning Eagle on Lake Josephine. You’ll cruise across the lake from here and have the option of hiking back to the hotel along the lakeshore or staying on the boat and returning the way you came. Along your journey, keep an eye out for grizzly bears along the shore and moose that like to feed in the cool shallow waters. Neither boat is wheelchair accessible.