Exploring Vibrant Vancouver
By Jennifer Coleman
I recently had the unexpected experience of driving on Interstate 5 through Seattle and Tacoma with virtually no traffic. I drove straight through without a single backup or delay! It was mid-week, and I was on my way to Vancouver for work, so I wasn’t taking any chances with the notorious Seattle-metro traffic.
As I made my way south I saw the sign for the Woodland exit coming up in just a few miles. It sounded familiar but I couldn’t quite recall why. Woodland. What’s in Woodland, Washington? Since I had some time to spare before my meeting, I decided to take the exit and explore.
Located just 20-ish miles from Vancouver, Woodland is a quiet little town, tucked in among the trees along the Lewis River. Woodland is also home to one of the most photographed destinations in southwest Washington – the Cedar Creek Grist Mill.
The mill rests on a steep and rocky slope at the bottom of the narrow gorge of Cedar Creek. It’s about 10 or so miles from where I pulled off the Interstate and completely worth the detour. A covered bridge over Cedar Creek draws visitors from all over the United States. Just look it up on Instagram and you’ll see why people flock here, especially during fall when leaves are changing.
The Mill is a working museum, where visitors can get up close to see the methods of a true grist mill from a by-gone era. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this is the only grist mill in Washington that has maintained its original structural integrity, mills with stones, and is 100% water powered.
Out & About In Vancouver
After my Woodland detour I was able to make it to my meeting in Vancouver on time and got some great local tips from my colleague there who recommended a visit to Fort Vancouver and a waterfront walk along the new Grant Street Pier.
Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is located near the Columbia River and its grounds include four distinct sites to visit. Visitors can learn the history of early fur traders of the Pacific Northwest at the reconstructed Hudson Bay Company’s fur trade fort and see the U.S. Army’s frontier outpost at the Vancouver Barracks. Nearby Pearson Air Museum & Jack Murdock Aviation Center connects visitors to the aviation history of Pearson Field.
A self-guided walking tour of the grounds includes the beautiful Officers Row, complete with 22 restored Victorian era homes – all listed on the National Historic Register – that once housed U.S. Army officers stationed at Fort Vancouver.
Another favorite place to stop is the beautifully tended garden right outside the fort’s stockade, and the nearby bastion, a reconstructed wooden observation tower that provides great views of the surrounding area. More information on visiting Fort Vancouver National Historic site here: www.nps.gov/fova
Downtown Vancouver gives off small-town vibes, it's hard to imagine there is a population of over 180,000 people here. There is plenty of parking, fabulous street art and a five-acre park right in the heart of the city. Esther Short Park is one of the oldest public squares in the state of Washington. It was established in 1853 and includes a 69-foot tower with 35 cast bronze bells that chime every quarter hour from 8am-10pm. The brick lined courtyard is a great place to hang out, do some people watching and plan your next move.
I stumbled on an unexpected delight at Little Conejo just a block down from Esther Short Park on 6th Street. If you love tacos, you’ll love Little Conejo! Think of layers of authentic flavors in hand-crafted tacos, made to order. An impressive selection of mezcales (distilled spirits made from agave plants) and craft cocktails complete the menu.
Waterfront: From Rugged to Hip
Vancouver is often referred to as the ‘gateway to the Gorge’. Its proximity to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area – one of only 10 National Scenic Areas in the U.S. - makes it the ideal launching point to the rugged and scenic Columbia River Gorge. This area promises winding trails with scenic vistas, old growth forests, sweeping panoramas and waterfalls galore.
Beacon Rock State Park is a must-see location along the Gorge. Just 33-miles east of Vancouver, this prominent landmark is over 800-feet tall and has a series of switchbacks, handrails and bridges that bring you to the top of the massive monolith, rewarding you with views of the Gorge and beyond.
Vancouver’s new Grant Street Pier juts 90-feet out over the Columbia River, with an architectural design that evokes the billow of a passing sailboat. The sturdy cable-stayed pier is the centerpiece for Vancouver’s vibrant waterfront district and invites visitors to linger at sunset, taking in the gorgeous river views.
A variety of bistros and tasting rooms can be found here, along with a gentle paved path and wide-open lawns at Waterfront Park – a perfect place to bring the kids or pack a picnic for two and enjoy the sights of passing boats. There are plans for a future public market at this location, the waterfront district is growing and is truly a destination that both residents and visitors enjoy.
Vancouver Washington has a little bit of everything - from small town vibes, craft food & beverages, to breathtaking views with breathing room. There is history here and an accessible waterfront that curves along the Columbia River, holding a treasure of scenic, cultural and recreational experiences just waiting for visitors to discover.