If you ever just want to get outside for a quick and easy walk in the forest without a lot of people, the Whipple Creek-Fairgrounds Connector trail north of Vancouver is a perfect choice. The trail, when fully built out, will eventually link Clark County Fairgrounds, Fairgrounds Park, and Whipple Creek Regional Park. For now, this equestrian and hiking trail is a short, 1 - 1.5 mile out-and-back best accessed from Fairgrounds Community Park on NW 164th Street. The trail was built by an AmeriCorps volunteer team with help from Vancouver-Clark Parks & Recereation and several local equestrian groups.
The trailhead is tucked away in the trees at the north end of Fairgrounds Park. Head down the path a short distance and turn left at the T-junction (continuing forward takes you to parking lot ‘L’ at the county fairgrounds), proceeding through a young maple forest for about a quarter mile. You’ll get a short break from the trees to skirt around a wetland depression (keep an eye out for remote-controlled airplanes doing crazy stunts above you!), and then you’ll veer left back into a lovely forest. The sun makes a golden-green light as it shines through the canopy of maple and hazelnut trees, and the undergrowth is lush with ferns, moss, and salal.
One day while working on the trail in this area I saw a large owl swooping through the trees on a food mission, a thrilling sight for me. The owl sighting was in one of my favorite spots on this trail, where a cluster of hazelnut trees send their branches up to create the effect of being in a cathedral, the sun shining through the “stained glass” of the hazelnuts’ fuzzy leaves. It’s definitely something to be experienced on one of our glorious summer days.
The forest once again changes character as it crosses a former property line. Observant trail users will notice mature Douglas and grand firs mixed in with the large maples, where a few old-growth and second-growth trees must have seen many changes in the surrounding landscape. They’ll see plenty more—the area around the park is zoned to eventually develop into a suburban matrix of strip malls and subdivisions, just like Salmon Creek a couple of miles south of here.
The trail crosses a small footbridge and finally emerges from the forest into a wide open pasture. Proceed a little farther to a grove of gnarled walnut trees left over from an old homestead. If you’re lucky you may see a Northern flicker, one of Washington’s largest woodpeckers, taking in the view from one of the branches. You can just see the high-rises of downtown Portland from here, an interesting juxtaposition with this bucolic landscape in the foreground.
Eventually you’ll be able to follow the trail from here across 11th Avenue to Whipple Creek Park’s five-mile trail network, but there is currently no access between the parks. For now, I recommend a little dispersed hiking down the hill in the direction of downtown Portland, where there is an access gate near a wetland along 164th Street. Near the gate, you’ll find some lush grass growing under a locust tree that makes a great place to stop for a snack or picnic lunch.
Head back the way you came for another enjoyable amble through the forest to Fairgrounds Park. Total time for this adventure is about an hour.