Interesting day trips, explorations an easy drive from Clark County

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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The day trip is something that’s mastered through carefully crafted itineraries. Visit Vancouver USA, the agency promoting tourism in Vancouver, recently updated its website with itinerary ideas. Locals and visitors alike use the city as a home base for exploring the region.

“Generally speaking, the visitors we’re seeing, they’re staying the night here and they’re using Vancouver as a jumping-off point,” said Jacob Schmidt, director of marketing and communications.

East along the Columbia River Gorge, north to Mount St. Helens and west to the Oregon Coast can be explored within a day’s drive of Vancouver. It’s just a matter of picking a direction and hitting the road.

Mount St. Helens views and trails

Total drive time: 4 hours

Johnston Ridge Observatory is open through October, so if you want to visit this year, fall is your last chance. It usually doesn’t reopen until sometime around May 18, the anniversary of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption.

“It’s just in our backyard, so it’s easy to take for granted,” Heather Ibsen, public affairs specialist with the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. “Johnston Ridge really quiets down after Labor Day.”

With little shade around the mountain, fall can also be a more comfortable time to hike. Hikers on the 8.2-mile Harry’s Ridge trail are completely exposed to the sun. It’s popular for springtime wildflowers but also gets beautiful fall foliage. Johnston Ridge is a pet-restricted area, so don’t bring your furry friend.

Along the drive to the observatory, there’s Coldwater Lake and other viewpoints where cars can pull off the highway. About 5 miles before Johnston Ridge is the Hummocks trail, a relatively flat 2.5-mile loop through alder forests, ponds and wetlands.

A good place to start a mountain-centric day is the Mount St. Helens Visitors Center about 5 1/2 miles from Interstate 5.

Loop the Gorge and mountains

Total drive time: 4+ hours

The Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area gets a whole lot less crowded as summer subsides, and in some ways becomes more interesting. Most of the year as you drive east on state Highway 14, it’s easy to pass Franz Lake National Wildlife Refuge without even realizing it. But in the winter, it’s difficult not to do a double take as the lake becomes dotted with hundreds of tundra swans who call it home for the season. There is space to pull off the highway and park. Bring binoculars and watch the swans dunk themselves to get food.

With cooler temperatures, the trek up Beacon Rock or Hamilton Mountain may be more manageable. There are several other trails in Beacon Rock State Park including the newest, River to Rock, a 1.5-mile trail with chances to photograph Beacon Rock.

Another way to experience the forest is to zip line at Skamania Lodge, which also recently opened an aerial adventure park. History buffs may be more inclined to wander the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center. Continuing east along the highway, you’ll pass the trailhead for Dog Mountain, another popular hike.

Not into hiking? There are multiple golf courses along this route: Beacon Rock, Elk Ridge and Skamania Lodge.

Embarking north off state Highway 14, up state Highway 141 North, is a scenic route that provides fall color, views of Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams, and an off-the-grid experience.

“Once you get in the forest, you cannot count on cell reception,” Ibsen said.

She recommends picking up the free Motor Vehicle Use Map — which shows seasonal forest road closures — available at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site Visitor Center. Otherwise, there is a digital version of the map for cellphones through the Avenza Maps app.

Along 141 is a 650-foot ice cave with ice year-round. Close by is Natural Bridges, a couple of partially collapsed lava tubes that created natural archways. The area gets beautiful fall color, Ibsen said.

Heading south on Forest Road 65, back toward the Columbia River, stop at Panther Creek Falls. A 0.4-mile walk will take you to a viewing platform and back to the parking lot. An option for a longer hike is Falls Creek Falls, a 4.4-mile out-and-back hike that traverses the forest and a cable suspension bridge overlooking the white water of Falls Creek. The trail ends at the waterfall.

Cap off the day with a soak in the mineral soaking pool at Carson Hot Springs or bathe in the resort’s traditional bathhouse.

Beach hopping the Oregon Coast

Total drive time: 3.5+ hours

For those trying to enjoy the coast in a single day, Oregon’s Cannon Beach may be the obvious choice based on its proximity. It’s a 1-hour-and-37-minute drive from downtown Vancouver. (Two minutes shorter of a drive than nearby Seaside, Ore., per Google Maps.) But, it’s also the obvious choice for a lot of people, making it congested at the height of beach season. Going in the fall means fewer people, decent weather and shorter restaurant waits. Downtown Cannon Beach has boutique-y shops, posh restaurants and the iconic Haystack Rock for photo ops.

Those looking for thinner crowds can venture about 3 miles south to Arcadia Beach State Recreation Site, a long beach with rock features and tide pools. At low tide, nearby Hug Point State Recreation Site has a waterfall and a cave to explore. Even farther south, at Oswald West State Park, there’s a short forested trail that leads to the beach, popular with surfers.

Another option is to go north of Cannon Beach to Ecola State Park. Be aware that winter rains washed out part of Indian Beach Trail, which is closed until the end of October.

Cheese, capes and kayaking

Total drive time: 5+ hours

If you’re feeling more ambitious and have more time, Pacific City, Ore., is another destination that can be done in a single day. Along Oregon Route 6 is the Tillamook Forest Center, filled with exhibits on the Tillamook Burn, trails through the forest and a tower overlooking everything. Although the Tillamook Cheese Factory Visitor’s Center is under construction until summer 2018, you can still peruse an exhibit on farming and buy cheese and ice cream at the temporary visitors center. Otherwise, there’s the lesser-known Blue Heron French Cheese Company that has wine and cheese tastings, along with a gift shop and deli.

If you like Vancouver’s Pearson Air Museum, check out Tillamook Air Museum.

The first of three capes on this trek is Cape Meares, home to the shortest lighthouse on the Oregon Coast. The 38-foot tower is open through October and has a gift shop. The 5-mile round-trip hike along Cape Trail at Cape Lookout State Park leads to a whale-watching viewpoint. There are other trails and beach access at this park, but many spots disappear at high tide.

Pacific City’s crowning jewel is the Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area. You don’t have to summit the tallest dune to explore this area. Scramble the shorter one to the left and you can (carefully) check out the interesting rock formations and watch waves crash below you.

For a different vantage point, Nestucca Adventures rents out kayaks and paddleboards on the Nestucca River, near the bay leading to the Pacific Ocean.

Oregon-side Gorge to Hood River

Total drive time: 2.5+ hours

Part of the fun in visiting Hood River, Ore., is the journey to get there. Along Interstate 84 and the Historic Columbia River Highway there are familiar haunts: Multnomah Falls and the less-crowded Horsetail Falls and Latourell Falls.

“It’s a scenic highway, so there’s photo opportunity after photo opportunity,” said Jaime Eder with Travel Oregon. “It’s just fun getting there.”

It’s a good idea to make these places your first or last stops, as they get so crowded, there may not be parking midday on weekends. Downtown Troutdale is a nearby option for dining and shopping.

Once in Hood River, you could venture to Hood River Waterfront Park, or one of the many restaurant, winery and brewery options. The Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail makes for a scenic bike ride. A good turnaround point is the viewpoint just past the Mosier Twin Tunnels.

Eder recommends the Hood River County Fruit Loop, a driving loop that takes you past farm stands, wineries, U-pick farms, lavender fields and (in the fall) pumpkin patches. For adults desiring fermented fruits, Hood River also has a Cider Route.

If you don’t want to do so much driving, try a train ride. Mount Hood Railroad does excursions from Hood River south to Parkdale, Ore., and back.

Willamette Valley museums, wine

Total drive time: 3+ hours

During a drive through Oregon’s Willamette Valley, you’ll surely see signs for local wineries. The valley is home to more than 500 of them.

“I love the vibe of all the winemakers,” said Eder. She recommends starting in Dundee, Ore., the heart of wine country, and stopping at Red Hills Market, a country-style market that also serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

On a fair-weather day, Champoeg State Heritage Area is a worthwhile stop, whether you’re touring wineries or not. The park has a museum, trails and historic buildings. Another historical stop close by is the boyhood home of Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the United States. The home in Newberg, Ore., has been transformed into the Hoover-Minthorn House Museum.

In nearby McMinnville, Ore., is the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum along with the popular Wings & Waves Waterpark that’s open on weekends after Labor Day. McMinnville is also known for its downtown area filled with shops and restaurants.

Besides breweries and wineries, the small college town of Forest Grove, Ore., has the region’s only sake brewery, Sak?One. Forest Grove hosts the annual Sidewalk Chalk Art Festival, which falls on Sept. 16 this year. Heading back toward home is the trailhead for the Banks-Veronia State Trail, a railway that was paved over to create miles of bike paths. The Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals has plenty of fossils and sparkly rocks to ogle. A fun final stop to top off a day spent around the Willamette Valley is Topgolf in Hillsboro, Ore., where you can play a dartboard-like game of golf.

Day trip info

Mount St. Helens views and trails

Total drive time: 4 hours

  • Mount St. Helens Visitors Center, 3029 Spirit Lake Highway, Castle Rock; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Sept. 15, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 16 through the end of October.
  • Elk Rock Viewpoint
  • Castle Lake Viewpoint
  • Loowit Viewpoint
  • Coldwater Lake
  • Hummocks Trail
  • Johnston Ridge Observatory and Harry’s Ridge; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; 24000 Spirit Lake Highway, Toutle; $8 per person age 16 and older, Interagency or Northwest Forest passes accepted for passholders; 360-274-2140.

Loop the Washington Gorge and mountains

Total drive time: 4+ hours

  • Franz Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
  • Beacon Rock State Park; $10 day pass or $30 annual Washington State Park pass.
  • Skamania Lodge zip line and aerial park, 9 a.m. to close daily; 1131 S.W. Skamania Lodge Way, Stevenson; $69 to $99 per person; 509-427-0202.
  • Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; 990 S.W. Rock Creek Drive, Stevenson; $10 adults, $6 children, $8 seniors and students; 509-427-8211.
  • Dog Mountain; $5 day pass, Interagency Pass or Northwest Forest Pass.
  • Ice cave; $5 day pass, Interagency Pass or Northwest Forest Pass.
  • Natural bridges.
  • Panther Creek Falls.
  • Falls Creek Falls.
  • Carson Hot Springs, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily; 372 St. Martin’s Springs Road, Carson; costs vary; 509-427-8296.

Beach hopping the north Oregon coast

Total drive time: 3.5+ hours

  • Downtown Cannon Beach and Haystack Rock.
  • Arcadia Beach State Recreation Site.
  • Hug Point State Recreation Site.
  • Oswald West State Park.
  • Ecola State Park; $5 day use or Oregon State Parks pass.

Cheese, capes and kayaking

Total drive time 5+ hours

  • Tillamook Forest Center; fall hours 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday; 45500 Wilson River Highway, Tillamook, Ore.; 503-815-6800.
  • Tillamook Cheese Factory Visitor’s Center; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; 4175 Highway 101 N., Tillamook, Ore.; 503-815-1300.
  • Blue Heron French Cheese Company; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; 2001 Blue Heron Road, Tillamook, Ore.; 800-275-0639.
  • Tillamook Air Museum; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; 6030 Hangar Road, Tillamook, Ore.; $9.75 adults, $8.75 seniors, $7.75 military, $6.50 youth; 503-842-1130.
  • Cape Meares; inside of lighthouse open May to mid-October; tours 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday, closed 2 to 2:30 p.m. daily.
  • Cape Lookout State Park; $5 day use or annual Oregon State Parks pass.
  • Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area.
  • Nestucca Adventures; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday; 34650 Brooten Road, Pacific City, Ore.; $20 and up per hour; 503-965-0060.

Oregon-side Gorge to Hood River

Total drive time: 2.5+ hours

  • Multnomah Falls.
  • Horsetail Falls.
  • Latourell Falls.
  • Downtown Troutdale.
  • Hood River Waterfront Park, 650 Portway Ave., Hood River, Ore.
  • Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail; $5 day use fee or annual Oregon State Parks pass.
  • Mount Hood Railroad; boards 10:30 a.m.; 110 Railroad Street, Hood River, Ore.; $30 and up; 800-872-4661.

Willamette Valley wine and museums

Total drive time: 3+ hours

  • Champoeg State Heritage Area; visitor center open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; 7679 Champoeg Road N.E., St. Paul, Ore.; $5 day use or Oregon State Parks pass; 503-678-1251.
  • Hoover-Minthorn House Museum; 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; 115 S River St., Newberg, Ore.; $3 to $5 per person, children under 10 free; 503-538-6629.
  • Red Hills Market; 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily; 155 S.W. Seventh St., Dundee, Ore.
  • Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; 500 N.E. Captain Michael King Smith Way, McMinnville, Ore.; $27 adult, $19 youth, $24 senior; 503-434-4180.
  • Wings & Waves Waterpark; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday, open Labor Day; 460 N.E. Captain Michael King Smith Way, McMinnville, Ore.; $10 dry pass, $20 to $29 swim pass depending on height; 503-687-3390.
  • SakéOne; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; 820 Elm St., Forest Grove, Ore.; 503-357-7056.
  • Sidewalk Chalk Art Festival; 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 16; downtown Forest Grove, Ore.
  • Banks-Veronia State Trail Trailhead, Banks, Ore.
  • Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday through Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 26385 N.W. Groveland Drive, Hillsboro, Ore.; $10 adults, $9 senior, $7 military, $7 students; 503-647-2418.
  • Topgolf; 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 9 to 1 a.m. Friday, 8 to 1 a.m. Saturday; 5505 N.E. Huffman St., Hillsboro, Ore.; $25 to $45 per hour for up to six players; 503-549-5197.