It's the easiest of summer pleasures: a picnic.
Throw some sandwiches into a cooler and set off in search of the perfect spot. Then spread out your goodies, dine alfresco and relax.
Even more than the food, the key to a great picnic is the location. Here are five suggestions for spots within an hour of Vancouver.
For swimming: Saddle Dam Park
It's not summer until you've swum in a lake and let the sun dry your hair. Saddle Dam is the perfect place to do just that. A row of picnic benches sit in the shade under trees, with a view of the white stub of Mount St. Helens and the sun glittering on the blue waters of Yale Reservoir. A shallow swimming area is roped off, and is close enough to the picnic tables that parents can prepare food while keeping a close eye on kids frolicking in the water.
Need to know: The park is for day use only. Parking costs $3 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between Memorial Day weekend and Sept. 15. The restrooms have showers.
How to get there: From Battle Ground, follow state Highway 503 north, turn right on Frasier Road, and then turn left onto Yale Village Road.
For a view: St. Cloud Picnic Area
They don't call it the Columbia River Gorge Scenic area for nothing. Picnic tables are interspersed with apple trees at the former St. Cloud Ranch homestead, which the U.S. Forest Service acquired in 1990. You can gaze across the Columbia River at the steep cliffs of the Oregon side of the Gorge.
Need to know: The Forest Service day use area costs $5. The Gorge is windy, so bring a jacket.
How to get there: From Vancouver, take state Highway 14 eastbound to about milepost 29. When you see the sign for the park, be prepared to make a quick right turn.
For a couple: Lucia Falls Park
Picnic tables overlooking Lucia Falls provide the perfect spot for a romantic dinner for two. You can listen to the water crashing over the rocks and watch the steelhead leap the falls. This is one of the quieter parks on the East Fork of the Lewis River because water play is barred to protect fish.
Need to know: The picnic spots are shaded. It's a great place to escape the heat, but bring a jacket if you tend to feel chilly. Even though we're billing this as a good spot for a romantic dinner, don't be tempted to pack Champagne. No alcohol is permitted at county parks.
How to get there: From state Highway 503, take Rock Creek Road and follow it until it becomes Lucia Falls Road. The park is at 21803 N.E. Lucia Falls Road.
For big gatherings: Lewisville Regional Park
This is a favorite for family reunions because there's plenty of space, as well as grills for burgers and activities for everyone. The park encompasses both forest and meadow along the East Fork of the Lewis River. You can swim, fish and play horseshoes or softball.
Need to know: Picnic shelters are booked on weekends through the summer months, but you can still find picnic tables on a first-come-first-served basis, and may even score a shelter on a weekday. To plan for next year, keep in mind that the parks department takes reservations for the 13 shelters beginning in February.
How to get there: Just off state Highway 503 north of Battle Ground at 26411 N.E. Lewisville Highway.
For little kids: Marshall Community Park
This park offers play equipment on a truly impressive scale, with slides and monkey bars galore. A smaller structure for toddlers is shaped like a fire engine. But don't be surprised if the kids abandon all that metal to clamber on the stumps that comprise the Nature Play area.
Need to know: The shelter may be reserved. Even if all the picnic tables are occupied, there's plenty of space on the grass to spread out a blanket.
How to get there: Just east of Interstate 5 between Mill Plain and McLoughlin boulevards at 1015 E. McLoughlin Blvd.