SILVER STAR MOUNTAIN — After a scorching summer and precious little rain, will hot, dry, pooped-out leaves bring early fall colors to the Pacific Northwest? Or will they just quickly shrivel and drop?
“There are some trees out there that are all brown and dried up already, that would otherwise be getting dressed up in their fall colors,” said Ryan Ojerio, Southwest regional manager for the Washington Trails Association. “But (that is more) in the city, where the heat stress was the worst. In the forest where the trees are better protected by the shade of their neighbors, they seem to have fared better.”
Ojerio took a colorful, exploratory hike late last month with colleagues from the U.S. Forest Service and the Chinook Trail Association who intend to improve the trail network approaching this remote, not-too-difficult, incredibly scenic summit in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. I tagged along with a camera to enjoy soaring views of multiple regional peaks, as well as carpets of yellow, red, purple and gold on the slopes below. Getting there requires navigating several final miles on rough, rocky roads straddling the Clark-Skamania counties line.
Driving all the way to Silver Star to gape at colorful leaves is a tall order, even for serious autumn worshippers. Fortunately, when we put out a request for local leaf-peeping suggestions, many color connoisseurs — from seasoned hikers to landscape painters — answered the call. Thanks to them, here’s your guide to fall leaf peeping in Clark County and beyond. Some of these sites are well known and beloved. Others are hidden gems, now revealed.
Fallen Leaf Park, Camas. As its name suggests, this small park centered around a 15-acre lake is rich with deciduous trees that give plenty of bang for your color buck, especially maples and alders. Fallen Leaf Park also connects with an extensive network of similarly colorful trails at Lacamas Lake, Round Lake and Lacamas Regional Park, where there’s a beautiful waterfall.
Vancouver Lake Park and Frenchman’s Bar. The northwestern edge of the lake boasts a new riparian trail network, where colorful ash, willow and cottonwood trees go big with color in autumn. There’s also the paved multiuse pathway between Vancouver Lake and the Columbia River, tastefully lined with a row of oaks and flowering catalpas that turn brilliant yellow and gold in fall.
Whipple Creek Park, Ridgefield. A deep, tranquil forest just west of the Clark County Fairgrounds, featuring 4.3 miles of shared pedestrian-equestrian trails. The gravel trails stay open to horses and bikes year-round, but the dirt side trails are restricted to foot traffic only as of Nov. 1. Clark County and an all-volunteer Whipple Creek Park Restoration Committee have been improving these trails for over a decade now, and the results are impressive.
Oaks to Wetlands Trail, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently decided to revise the landscape of this popular trail by eliminating 600 tall Douglas fir trees, allowing sadly scraggly oaks sunlight and space to grow and thrive like they should. It’s still early in this process, but checking to see how all those Oregon white oaks are enjoying their newfound freedom makes for a nice hike into fall colors. (White oaks don’t usually go bright with color, tending instead toward dark purple and plain brown. Not all drop their leaves, but when they do you can see why their wide, skeletal crowns earn them the nickname “ghost oaks.” That’s a different sort of autumn sight, the spooky sort.)
Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Washougal. The state Highway 14 entrance remains closed during a big wetland-reconstruction project, but you can still get to Steigerwald via the scenic waterfront dike trail; park at Steamboat Landing or Captain William Clark Park. The payoff is beautiful riparian strips of white oaks and cottonwoods that gleam in the autumn sun.
Salmon Creek and Burnt Bridge Creek greenway trails, Vancouver. You can’t go wrong with these diversely forested, stream-hugging, paved pathways. There’s something to see in every season, especially fall.
Columbia Gorge. It’s scenic in every respect, including a color palette that’s always changing. Stay near to Clark County and try the rugged, brilliantly colorful hikes at Cape Horn or Beacon Rock State Park’s Hamilton Mountain; go farther east to watch different hues emerge from a tilting, drying-out landscape. For great autumn colors and views, try Catherine Creek, Lyle Cherry Orchard or the upper reaches of the 31-mile-long Klickitat Trail.
Lake Sacajawea, Longview. Not a likely destination for Clark County folks, but several locals whispered that this colorful park is the hidden gem of Longview and worth a day visit. Maybe now’s the time.
Cedar Creek Grist Mill, Woodland. Plein air painters like Jean Hauge of the Southwest Washington Watercolor Society flock to this working mill every autumn because of the tableau formed by a historic building, covered bridge and dark water, all surrounded by a fiery halo of red, yellow and gold. Parking can be tough on weekends, but the scene is simply timeless.
Downtown Vancouver and Uptown Village. Don’t forget the pleasantly leafy neighborhoods on both sides of Main Street, up to Fourth Plain Boulevard and beyond. Focus your downtown tour with an educational visit to the Clark County Historical Museum, or if you must, a stop at a cafe for something tinged with pumpkin spice.
Portland Japanese Garden. “I think this is the most beautiful and authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan,” said watercolorist Mikiko Flynn, a Japanese native who is now a U.S. citizen. “It is beautiful and serene all year round, but fall is one of the best seasons to visit.”
The garden has lots of trees that change colors in autumn, but the showstopper is the Japanese maple tree near the pond and tea house.
Find your own. OK, Clark County isn’t exactly Vermont, where fall colors practically qualify as a surplus commodity. But, when you’re sensitized to the search, fall colors start popping out everywhere you look, even in unlikely urban settings. I recently cycled below reddening leaves on West Mill Plain Boulevard while inhaling the perfume of the adjacent sewage treatment plant. A member of the Society of Washington Artists, who only gave the name Sue, recommended the south side of the Target store on Hazel Dell Avenue, where there’s a line of trees that turns a gorgeous red.