Climate-change driven increases in water temperature pose challenges for aquatic organisms. Predictions of impacts typically do not account for fine-grained spatiotemporal thermal patterns in rivers. Patches of cooler water could serve as refuges for anadromous species like salmon that migrate during summer. We used high-resolution remotely sensed water temperature data to characterize summer thermal heterogeneity patterns for 11,308 km of second–seventh-order rivers throughout the Pacific Northwest and northern California (USA). We evaluated (1) water temperature patterns at different spatial resolutions, (2) the frequency, size, and spacing of cool thermal patches suitable for Pacific salmon (i.e., contiguous stretches ≥ 0.25 km, ≤ 15 °C and ≥ 2 °C, aooler than adjacent water), and (3) potential influences of climate change on availability of cool patches. Thermal heterogeneity was nonlinearly related to the spatial resolution of water temperature data, and heterogeneity at fine resolution (< 1 km) would have been difficult to quantify without spatially continuous data. Cool patches were generally > 2.7 and < 13.0 km long, and spacing among patches was generally > 5.7 and < 49.4 km. Thermal heterogeneity varied among rivers, some of which had long uninterrupted stretches of warm water ≥ 20 °C, and others had many smaller cool patches. Our models predicted little change in future thermal heterogeneity among rivers, but within-river patterns sometimes changed markedly compared to contemporary patterns. These results can inform long-term monitoring programs as well as near-term climate-adaptation strategies.