North Clark County has a breadth of options for those outside the area looking for a day trip. From wine tasting to mountain bike trails, the cities and communities north of Vancouver can hold their own when attracting the attention of tourists outside of big-city fare.
That became evident through several conversations between locals in different industries and The Reflector in an effort to get an understanding of what North County has to offer to those passing through.
Though centered on Vancouver, as evidenced by their name, Visit Vancouver USA Communications Manager Erica Thompson said her agency promotes North County for its smaller, family-owned businesses and outdoor recreation potential.
Thompson said that outdoor excursions are a hallmark of North County, as she explained web traffic showed photos of spots like the Cedar Creek Grist Mill as big hits on social media. She noted her agency published maps of Lewis River and North Clark County scenic drives, featuring stops along the way.
“I would say the overall vibe is like outdoorsy plus historical,” she said.
Fitting squarely in that experience of history and the outdoors are the seasonal train rides along the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad. For this year starting Mother’s Day weekend steam trains run along the northern section of the railroad. The railroad’s event season includes several themed excursions for Halloween and Christmas, showing off the forested parts of Clark County for those seeking some scenic sights.
In terms of lodging, most of those who aren’t camping stay at hotels closer to Vancouver if they’re having a multi-day trip. Thompson noted plans for a hotel at ilani as well as plans for one in Ridgefield which could shift some of those stays northward, though she said a good deal of visitor traffic is from day trips — people who live close enough to North County to not need a place to stay when the activities are done.
“We are very much a ‘drive’ market,” Thompson said.
Battle Ground is for vintage
The major draw for Battle Ground in the city proper is vintage and antique market scene.
Kari Huegel, owner of Urban Basics & Company on Battle Ground’s Main Street, said that over the years the approach to stores selling older items has changed, going from dark and dingy to bright and lively. Part of that shift comes from more of a focus on vintage items — pieces that are old, but not that old in comparison to antiques.
Items don’t necessarily have to be old, even, as “upcycled” pieces that take ostensible junk and with a little work are transformed into something desirable, Huegel said.
The “barn” portion of Urban Basics opened about five years ago and now features more than 100 vendors. The store is one of several vintage and antique specialty shops along, or just off, of Main Street, offering a destination for those looking for the old and interesting.
Though Urban Basics is far from the only business in town catering to vintage-minded consumers, Huegel said that it isn’t so much competition as cooperation, intentional or not, when multiple stores are in the same place.
“It is very nice to have a group of us,” Huegel said, explaining it made Battle Ground a destination for people seeking vintage.
Battle Ground’s notoriety for vintage has caught the attention of city government, as Mayor Mike Dalesandro is looking at putting together a full-on festival celebrating the businesses. Though the details are still in the works, the mayor said a vintage and arts fest is on the horizon, potentially debuting this fall.
“I think it’s a great fit, and everybody seems to be pretty excited about it when I mention it to them,” Dalesandro said. Joining local vintage shops, (and other businesses keen on participating) the Battle Ground Art Alliance would also be a key player — Dalesandro said after their recent annual art show he was spurred to seek their involvement.
“I think it will be great, we just got to get it all together,” Dalesandro said, adding the goal would be to have an annual event.
Ridgefield is for wine
Where Battle Ground has vintage shops, Ridgefield has wineries. The city’s website lists half a dozen of the businesses based in or around Ridgefield, though that number should be higher if it’s going to become a national-caliber destination, according to local enologist (the technical term for winemaker) Gary Gouger.
Gouger runs the appropriately-named Gouger Cellars out of a former firehouse on the east side of town. He moved to the location in 2012, having started in downtown Vancouver in 2009. Apart from more space, Gouger said he wanted to move closer to the other wineries in Clark County given the destination aspect of the business.
Ridgefield makes for a good location given its proximity to Interstate 5, Gouger explained. He also pointed to potential hotels at ilani and in Ridgefield which he said could help grow the wine industry.
“I think that this is really going to be the wine center of Clark County,” Gouger remarked.
Gouger said that the big locations in wine destinations of the Napa Valley and Sonoma have a level of name recognition that Ridgefield and Clark County, in general, could aspire to. He said wine has a broader appeal than some other niche tourism markets, adding that when wineries start opening up in a region other industries follow to give tourists a variety of things to do.
The city has fully embraced its connection to winemaking, as part of its new infrastructure bears the literal fruit of vintners’ labor. Ridgefield Roundabout Red has its first batch of bottles this year, aptly named because of the grapes’ locations in the middle of the city’s Pioneer Street roundabouts.
“Although this might not be a Sonoma County in the near future, I think that the whole wine industry is going to prosper significantly,” Gouger remarked.
Yacolt is for mountain biking
Eric Albers, president of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance Southwest chapter, knows the Clark County trails well. He started mountain biking about two decades ago, spurred on by a suggestion based on his own love of skiing, and the mountain bike club followed a few years later, which he has been president of since its inception.
The bulk of Clark County trails run through the east of the county past Hockinson, mostly through the Yacolt Burn and on Bells and Larch mountains.Those trails tend to be for intermediate or experienced mountain bikers, though there are some ones more for beginners near Whipple Creek and Lacamas Lake, according to a map on the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance website.
One of the hardest runs is the Thrillium Trail, a one-way downhill ride starting at the Larch Mountain Trailhead. Albers said the Southwest chapter built the trail a few years back, adding he believed it was the most technically difficult of any of the mountain bike trails in the region.
Albers also mentioned Trail 6, another run completed and paid for by his chapter’s members alongside a $5,000 grant from the statewide Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance and support from the state Department of Natural Resources.
Since the club’s inception, Albers has noticed significant growth. He said that it grew from a club of about 15 people to one that brought in more than 100 volunteers working about 2,000 hours on trails in 2018.
Through the club’s growth, Albers said the mountain bikers were able to foster a good relationship with the DNR, allowing for a more robust trail scene in the county by virtue of having the land managers involved.
North County’s trails have some regional and national attention, as Albers said the trails are part of the Cascadia Dirt Cup race series that has tour stops in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. He added that the Thrillium Trail was featured in a video for Fox Racing, which makes equipment for mountain biking and motocross bikes.
Outside of the work of local mountain bikers, Albers said the geography makes Clark County an attractive stop for those looking for a ride.
“We’ve got great dirt, which is a fundamental element of a mountain bike trail, and we’ve got big mountains that are (near) town,” Albers said.
A mix of big and small
Other current or soon-to-be attractions Thompson mentioned were the Holland America Flower Gardens tulip fields and the related Blooms to Brews footrace event in Woodland. She also said that the Ridgefield Outdoor Recreation Complex will likely draw in people from across the region, as the Ridgefield Raptors baseball team, made up of regional college players, is set to have opening day June 4.
Thompson said the bottom line she delivered during a recent Northwest Travel Writers Conference was that Clark County as a whole offered a mix of both urban and rural that covered the breadth of offerings that those looking for a Pacific Northwest experience could want.
“You don’t have to go across the bridge anymore to get all of those big-city amenities, yet you can still walk into one of those wineries and talk to the owner and they’re going to be there,” Thompson said.