Snake River, Grand Teton National Park
Snake River, Grand Teton National Park

Rolling Down American Rivers

Learn more about our great country while reveling in the serene beauty of some of its finest rivers

BYLorraine A. Darconte
If you like the idea of exploring a country via its waterways, river cruising offers an intimate, exclusive, and educational experience. Most travelers probably associate this type of vacation with Europe, but this year, American rivers get their well-deserved turn in the spotlight. River cruising is expected to surge in the United States in 2017, with even more ships cruising rivers, including the upper and lower Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, New England’s waterways, as well as the Columbia, Snake, and Willamette Rivers in the Northwest.
Not sure what to expect when you embark? Here’s an introduction to what sets American river cruising apart.
River Versus Ocean
Cruising on a river differs drastically from ocean travel. For one, the ship is a lot smaller, usually carrying fewer than 200 guests. There aren’t long lines to get on or off the vessel, and there generally are more stops in ports where you can roam and learn about our country’s history. Often, riverboats have a distinct look or personality, some with multiple decks and bannisters that resemble 19th-century steamships from Mark Twain’s era, although most don’t have the big churning paddle wheel.
On riverboats, there usually is only one evening meal service. Meals can be quite sophisticated, varied, and delicious, some featuring local wines and fare. Though riverboats are smaller than ocean liners, many amenities, such as outdoor hot tubs, exercise machines, and yoga classes, often are included in the cost of the cruise. River cruises also can be extremely informative. Many invite crew or guest speakers to talk about the local history. 
Overall, the river cruise experience feels intimate and exclusive. You can get to know your fellow passengers, or you can spend time alone, as there’s still plenty of space to find a quiet nook to read, write, or relax.
A Taste of the River
What can you look forward to seeing on a tour of America’s waterways? The following recap of a cruise down the Columbia River provides a sampling of the sights, stories, and experiences that make American river cruising so rewarding.
Cruising the Willamette, Columbia, and Snake rivers is peaceful and exhilarating, both on and off the water. Local history comes to life as the vessel makes its way through a number of scenic and wilderness areas, including Multnomah Falls, the tallest waterfall in Oregon; and Hells Canyon Wilderness, one of the deepest river gorges on Earth. 
As you travel through Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, the terrain ranges from rainforest to desert. Some places receive 80 inches of rain per year while others get less than 10 inches. In spring the weather is welcoming, with sun-filled days giving way to cool, starry nights.  
Multnomah Falls, dropping 620 feet down the face of Larch Mountain, is one of the first stops on a cruise down the Columbia River. A short, easy .2-mile hike to Benson Bridge, a footbridge that spans Multnomah Creek between the upper and lower waterfalls, provides the perfect perch for visitors to marvel at Mother Nature’s handiwork. 
There’s much to see here beyond the waterfalls, including the nearly 100-year-old lodge that serves as a visitor center. The surrounding wilderness is teeming with Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, and Ponderosa pine trees. Bright green moss clings to stone walls, rocks, and trees like worn pieces of velvet. 
Other stops along the Columbia River provide access to museums, historic homes, and wineries, with highlights including the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center; Maryhill Museum (which features an impressive collection of the Queen of Romania’s personal items/photos); Columbia Gorge Discovery Center; Terra Blanca Winery (for a tour, tasting, and lunch); and Fort Clatsop National Monument (where Lewis and Clark’s expedition holed up during the winter of 1805 – 1806). 
If you’ve ever been to the Grand Canyon, you’ll love the stretch of the Snake River called Hells Canyon Wilderness, which cuts through large, craggy, vertical cliffs that are void of vegetation. Climb aboard a covered speedboat for a closer (and adrenaline-inducing) look at the protected National Recreation Area’s wildlife, including sheep, mountain goats, mule deer, blue heron, osprey, and bald eagles. You might even catch a glimpse of the canyon’s 7,000-year-old petroglyphs.
As much excitement as these vacations promise, the most notable opportunity on any American river cruise might be more about the atmosphere. A journey like this provides the ideal setting for simple, luxurious relaxation, compelling you to clear your mind as you enjoy the beauty of the country’s amazing rivers.
LORRAINE A. DARCONTE enjoys photographing and writing about Arizona’s most interesting, entertaining, and quirky people, places, and events.
Multnomah Falls
Multnomah Falls
If You Go
AAA Travel agents offer five tips for travelers considering booking a river cruise vacation. 
Don’t buy on price alone: Ask a travel agent to match your interests (e.g., food, wine, activity level) and onboard amenities preferences to your trip. With this information, they can find an itinerary that meets your interests, needs, and budget.
Consider shore excursions: Excursions are included in the price of a river cruise, but they are not all created equally. A travel professional can help you choose the cruise line with the options that are best suited to you.
Cruise for weather: Book during the months you will have the best chance of getting the weather you want. Book in the spring to see glorious flowers, or during the harvest season if you’re a wine lover.
Go with the flow: High water, low water — be prepared to go with the flow. Unlike ocean liners, you will be sailing on rivers that are affected by rain and the lack of rain. Be prepared to enjoy your river cruise experience and all it has to offer no matter what the river conditions are.
Learn More
Let a AAA Travel agent help you plan an American or European River Cruise by visiting or calling toll-free 1-888-870-9392
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