It’s something out of a dream: 250 miles of navigable waterways on Oregon’s North Coast that meander through dense forest, green pastures, marsh-like estuaries and small towns.

It’s known as the Tillamook Water Trail, a designated National Recreation Trail comprised of five separate watersheds — Nehalem, Tillamook Bay, Nestucca, Sand Lake and Netarts. A handy set of fold-out maps denotes easy access points, guidelines and flatwater and whitewater trips for all experience levels.

The nonprofit Tillamook Estuaries Partnership has recently made restorations to the sites, including new riparian plantings and salmon passage improvement. You can marvel at the wildlife from a front-row seat by kayak or stand-up paddleboard, but first should read up on the tide tables, since each of the estuaries is influenced by the tides, more so if they are smaller.


The fishing towns of Wheeler and Nehalem flank the banks of this watershed, giving paddlers a unique opportunity to start at one town and paddle to the other. Have fun exploring the dozens of marshes, and the multitude of options for shuttling and taking a mellow paddle downriver. First-time paddlers or families can head to Lake Lytle County Boat Ramp, 6.6 miles south of Nehalem Bay — known for its calm and shallow waters — perfect for practicing skills.

Tillamook Bay

One of 28 bays in the United States established by Congress as an “Estuary of National Significance,” this bay’s ecosystem is truly diverse, due to its spider web of inlets, sloughs and five rivers that pour in: Miami, Kilchis, Wilson, Trask and Tillamook. Beginners can check out the 2-mile trip at Cape Meares Lake, where it’s a thrilling experience to paddle through tall grasses and beaver lodges amidst the roar of the ocean.

Nestucca and Sand Lake

Take in the magnificent scenery near Pacific City by paddling from the Bixby County Boat Launch to Three Rivers County Boat Launch, a 5-mile, fast-moving stretch of the Nestucca River. It’s a popular spot for fly fisherman and drift boats, so be prepared to share the waterway. The Tillamook Estuaries Partnership maps offer detailed directions, information about permits and fees, safety messages, gear guidelines and other resources to plan your adventure.


Once known as Oyster Bay, the habitat here brims with oysters. But don’t touch — they’re all commercially owned or part of the Shellfish Preserve. There’s also a living sand dollar bed, a protected area where the animals hide beneath the surface of the sand before being swept out by the tide — please don’t disturb. Paddling near the mouth of the bay here can be unpredictable because of the changing conditions, so it’s not recommended as a spot for beginners. But companies like Kayak Tillamook offer guided kayak tours here and throughout the Tillamook Water Trail.

If you go: Call the Tillamook Estuary Partnership to request a free map or download one for free from their website. Or, check out their interactive map to learn how each of the watersheds have their own personality.  

Story by Jen Anderson
Photo by Justin Bailie (pictured is the Nestucca River)