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Public Use of Oregon's Rivers and Lakes

During a recent paddle trip on the Willamette River, I was asked where on the river can people legally camp and picnic. This prompted a visit to Oregon’s Department of State Lands for a legal answer to that question.

Oregon law allows boaters legal access to any navigable waterways and the submerged and submersible land alongside the waterways. Navigable waterways are any body of water owned by the state that have the capacity to enable boats to make successful progress through them. You are allowed to pull your boat up on land, camp, picnic, fish, swim, or perform other similar activities below the line of ordinary high water for a short period of time.

Oregon law defines the ordinary high water mark as the line on the bank made by the water when it rises to its highest level each year to the limit of upland vegetation (as shown in the illustration). It is not the flood line.

The law does allow you in some circumstances to walk on land above the ordinary high water mark in the least disruptive or damaging way possible using the shortest and most direct route if it is necessary to travel up or down the waterway. This would be the case if you had to carry your boat above the ordinary high water mark to get around rapids that can’t be safely navigated. You must, however, return to the water as quickly as possible.

You are not, however, allowed to cross private land marked by a “no trespassing” sign. You should also get a landowner’s permission before using his private property or water structures.

For more information on navigability, you can contact Oregon State Lands at 503-986-5200 or visit their website at


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