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PDX Runs: Frenchman's Bar Trail & Vancouver Lake

Frenchman's Bar Park Vancouver WA

On a recent Thursday morning my three-year-old son and I went in search of a stroller friendly run in Vancouver. We needed a flat, uncrowded path, no running on roads allowed.

We found exactly what we were looking for, plus fascinating scenery and wildlife viewing, on the Frenchman’s Bar Trail.

In short, the Frenchman’s Bar Trail is a 3-mile path connecting Frenchman’s Bar Regional Park on the shores of the Columbia River with nearby Vancouver Lake Regional Park. You can easily extend the run or walk, however, within the boundaries of either park. On this day we covered nearly 9 miles.

Volleyball Courts Frenchman's Bar Park Vancouver WA
Volleyball courts at Frenchman’s Bar. Columbia River beyond.

Frenchman’s Bar is a 120-acre waterfront park—mostly lawn and sandy beach—with lots of recreational opportunities; picnicking, fishing, and playing beach volleyball are popular here.

Park near the south end of the Frenchman’s Bar parking area. Follow the path north along the dike between the beach and the parking lot. Cross the park entrance road near the host’s campsite. Proceed east on the winding path, and you are on your way!

After passing through some grassland, you’ll come to WA-501/NW Lower River Road and go right. The path will parallel the road for most of your journey to Vancouver Lake.

Frenchman's Bar Park Vancouver WA
Off we go!

This place is interesting! You are in the lowlands, between properties that belong to either the Shillapoo Wildlife Area or the Columbia Land Trust’s Crane’s Landing Conservation Area. These are transitional lands that are a combination of low-impact farming (corn, peas, alfalfa, sorghum) and wildlife habitat.

Birds are abundant here. We were buzzed by fishing osprey several times. In late winter, Sandhill Cranes stop here on their way to Alaska.

On top of all this, a clear day affords views of our Cascades volcanoes. Just try to keep your eyes on the path!

Frenchman's Bar Park Vancouver WA Tempo run, anyone? A good spot for marathon training.

Your straightaway turns left at the Blurock Landing Trailhead. Stop to peer across the water to Kelly Point Park and the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers.

Resume your run along a dike planted with exotic looking Catalpa trees (big bean-like fruit and broad leaves). Next to you is the channel that flushes Vancouver Lake. Across the way there’s a charming farmhouse and huge wooden barn.

Farm Frenchman's Bar Trail Vancouver Lake WALooking across the channel to the farm.
Frenchman's Bar Trail Vancouver Lake WA
Path along the flushing channel.

You’ll cross the road twice near the Vancouver Lake Aquatic Center. (Is this rowing club’s motto the first rule of Fight Club in Latin?) You’ll then enter Vancouver Lake Park.

Vancouver Lake Park pathIn Vancouver Lake Park.

Enjoy the shaded arbor and maybe a drink of water as you head north alongside Vancouver Lake. The path will turn to gravel north of the beach and lead you into a leafy corridor of established oak, ash, cottonwood and willow.

Vancouver Lake Park Vancouver WAVancouver Lake

When the wider path turns left, you can continue straight for another 1.2 miles north on the narrower Vancouver North Trail. This new trail (est. 2016) twists and turns through the undergrowth—but remains stroller friendly. Birds dart and flit all around in these woods. Of note for runners: One of the plants thriving here is jewelweed, which can be used to treat athlete’s foot. Just saying.

Vancouver Lake North TrailNear the start of the Vancouver North Trail.

We turned back before the end of this trail, but I read that if you keep going to a T junction, you can turn left for Buckmire Slough and a chance to see waterfowl, nutria, and muskrats.

My young companion fell asleep on the return leg to Frenchman’s Bar, testament to the peaceful surroundings and the smoothness of the surface.

Directions and Notes 

To Frenchman’s Bar, where we started our expedition: From Portland, take I-5 north to Exit 1C-1D for WA-501. Turn left on Mill Plain and just stay on this road as it becomes first E 15th Avenue, then Fourth Plain Boulevard and finally NW Lower River Road (always WA-501). Stay on NW Lower River by turning left at a three-way junction by the Vancouver Lake Aquatic Center (rowing club).

It costs $3 to park in (but not to enter) either park. Both have water and bathrooms.

Dogs are not allowed in Vancouver Lake Park between April 1 and Oct. 31. Swimming is discouraged at Frenchman’s Bar and sometimes prohibited at Vancouver Lake, the latter due to cyanobacteria blooms. Sunscreen up for this run; it’s pretty exposed except in Vancouver Lake Park.

-Ryan Heal