Whatcom County corners the market on gateways. Not only does it provide stunning, waterway access to the Puget Sound, it grants passage to some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in North America. Throw in the actual Peace Arch gateway to Canada and you’ve got the triple crown of sightseeing. This, in addition to an interior filled with vibrant history, city life and beautiful countryside makes it an excellent place to visit any time of year.
There are many ways to arrive in Whatcom County. The main thoroughfare of Interstate-5 is typically a fairly efficient route, but don’t discount the many smaller highways and scenic byways which lead to and around the county. This applies to travel into Canada as well. The Peace Arch entrance, located on the 49th Parallel (north), off of I-5 is a great place to cross the border, but don’t forget about the smaller Sumas and Lynden crossing points. (Interesting fact: While there are only a few official points of entry between Canada and Washington State, Whatcom County shares its entire northern border with Canada.)
I’ll be covering many of the highways and byways of Whatcom County throughout the article, but let’s first focus on the northernmost part of the county; the tiny, but nationally important town of Blaine.
Set directly on the US/Canada border, it’s fairly safe to say that most Washingtonians are familiar with Blaine for this very reason. Relatedly, I must sadly admit to never having spent much time in the area. If I’ve found myself in Blaine, it’s because I’m lingering in the long line of cars waiting to cross into Canada. (I-5 becomes BC Highway 99 in Canada.) Aside from participating in last year’s Ragnar – NW Passage race, which starts at the Peace Arch Historical Park, I haven’t stopped in to visit Blaine proper. I hereby swear to include Blaine in my future visits to the northern wilds of Washington and Canada.
Downtown Blaine is a lovely destination and a great place for strolling along a historic waterfront area. Quaint shops, tasty restaurant fare and great views of historic Drayton Harbor can easily fill an afternoon. Should you be visiting during the first weekend of August, check out the Drayton Harbor Maritime Festival & Tall Ships for music, food and all things seafaring.
If you’d like to extend your stay in the area, hop aboard the historic Plover Passenger Ferry, operating out of scenic Blaine Harbor Marina during the summer months. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the oldest foot passenger ferry in the state, the Plover can accommodate 20 passengers (including bikes and dogs) on its 25-minute crossing to Semiahmoo Spit. (Named for the Semiahmoo First Nation, the original inhabitants of the area.) It departs on the hour from the Blaine Visitor’s Dock at Blaine Harbor (Gate 2) and on the half-hour from the Plover Dock at the Semiahmoo Resort. Check out the world-class resort for its golf course, spa services and great dining at the Great Blue Heron Grill and Packers Kitchen & Bar. When in the area, be sure to also visit Semiahmoo Park for beautiful views of Semiahmoo Bay and great beach strolls. (Note: Semiahmoo Resort is accessible by boat, car or seaplane)
Back on mainland Blaine, there are several interesting dining and shopping options to explore. Antiques, boutiques and more can be found in the waterfront area and nearby Blaine Marine Park offers great water views with nice areas for picnicking and beach-combing.
A few of the cool spots to check out while visiting downtown Blaine:
- Check out the Drayton Harbor Oyster Company for incredibly fresh oysters, to stay or take out. Additionally, they have oyster stew, local beer and wine and a great view of the water. (Closed Tuesdays – check website for hours)
- For homey breakfast and lunch fare, stop in at downtown Peace Arch City Café & Bar for a relaxing respite from your exploring. (Tues-Sun, 7:30am – 3pm)
- Take in the extensive wine list at The Vault Wine Bar in downtown Blaine. Along with being an events space, they also feature a great restaurant. (Wed-Sun, 3pm – 9pm & 10pm on Fri/Sat)
- Located in downtown Blaine, Café Rawganique is a tasty vegan café and bakery with a lifestyle store on the side. Grab an organic vegan sandwich and a cool pair hemp jeans – all in one spot!
- NW favorite, Woods Coffee can be found in several locations around Whatcom County. The spot I recently visited while refueling for Ragnar was located at Birch Bay Square. I didn’t realize just how much I needed an Americano that morning…
- Located on a farm just outside of Blaine, Atwood Ales brews French and Belgian style saison and farmhouse ales. They grow their own hops and fruit on their farm and produce some very tasty beverages. While they aren’t open to the public, they do occasionally have events such as chef’s nights and tours. Check out their website for upcoming events. Locally, they can be found on Saturdays at the nearby Bellingham Farmers Market.
Just south of Blaine, off of SR-548 lies the little beach town of Birch Bay. It can be somewhat sleepy during the off-season, but that also makes for some pretty peaceful beach strolling. I’ve visited both during the summer and off-season and have always had a lovely time. Birch Bay is a great location all on its own, but as it’s fairly close to Bellingham, it’s also a great jumping-off point for Whatcom County adventures.
If you’re looking for lodging in the Birch Bay area, I’d recommend finding something close to Beachcomber Way. It’s the main road along the beach and is at the heart of coastal activities. (Including the Ragnar course!) A few options for your stay:
- The area has several vacation club condos and on a recent stay with my brother and company, we hit up World Mark Birch Bay. It was located on Beachcomber Way and was incredibly convenient for maximum beach visitation. In addition, there are quite a few great Airbnb’s in the area as well as lodging in nearby towns such as Bellingham and Blaine.
- Should you prefer the comfort of camper or tent, check out beautiful Birch Bay State Park on the bluff overlooking the beach. It’s a very large park with camping, boating, beach access, clamming, crabbing and more. On my last visit I saw several groups clamming and it looked like they were bringing in quite the haul. And don’t miss taking a stroll along the beach areas of the park – beautiful!
- If you’re in the area during the first weekend of August, head to the Birch Bay Music Festival for music, food, craft vendors and beer/wine gardens. (7/31 – 8/2, 2020)
- Head to the yearly Birch Bay Discovery Days for music, family events, food vendors and something called EXTREME CHAINSAW! Bring your biggest chainsaws. (8/29-30, 2019)
- Traveling with kids? Hit up the Birch Bay Waterslides for summer fun in the sun. Waterslides, pools, concessions and more. (Open summers – Early June thru Labor Day)
There are several places to eat and shop along Beachcomber Way. The area is particularly alive during the warmer months, but several places are open year-round. Next time you’re in Birch Bay, consider these spots:
- While only open during the summer, The C Shop makes the most of the warm weather. Offering delicious homemade candy and treats, along with pizza, sandwiches on house-baked bread, coffee drinks and ice cream, they’ve got everything you need for a sunny day. Their Turkish Delight is particularly delicious!
- Located directly next door to The C Shop, The Beach Shack is tiny, but packs a punch with a quirky assortment of gifts, souvenirs, antiques and more.
- Stop in at The Boardwalk Restaurant for breakfast specialties, fish-n-chips, burgers and outdoor seating with a view at this popular Birch Bay spot. (Check website for hours)
- Found just across the street from The C Shop, the kitschy Birch Bay Café serves breakfast and lunch as well as baked goods and coffee. In addition to their menu, they have a gift shop and also rent bikes, kayaks and paddle boards. (Closed Mondays – check website for hours)
- For waterside dining with outdoor seating and a great view, check out the newly reopened and remodeled Bay Breeze. Seafood, burgers and more! (They were forced to close in December after a strong storm brought waves crashing through their windows!)
A little further south off of I-5, we come to the small town of Ferndale. There are many lovely things going on in the Ferndale area, but I immediately think of two things: The crazy beagle I live with, Finley from Ferndale, and running my first leg of the Ragnar race. Since neither of these items are likely on your list, let’s explore a few of the other cool things about Ferndale. (But come on – who couldn’t love such a deviously smart beagle like Finley?? A deviously smart beagle who began her life on a small farm in Ferndale…)
In addition to goofy beagles and running out of breath during Ragnar, Ferndale offers many excellent adventures and distractions. Just a few of the cool things you can check out while in the area:
- I had such a fun time hanging out at Pioneer Park, managed by the Ferndale Heritage Society. It’s a unique, educational and entertaining way to spend an afternoon. During my visit, I had the pleasure of learning more about the area from the very charming tour guides, James and Julie. Dressed in period garb, they gave me a very detailed description of the various structures as well as a great insight into local Ferndale history. (Check out the tiny museum upstairs in the Parker House/General Store.) Make time to visit the well-maintained and restored village and enjoy your step back in time. I’ve been told their annual Olde Fashioned Christmas – Christmas in the Woods (Dec 6-8) is a great bit of winter fun and I’m looking forward to checking it out!
- Just south of downtown Ferndale lies the spacious Hovander Homestead Park. Packed into 350 beautiful acres are the historic Hovander House (Tours available), the Hovander River trail (1.9 miles), a boat launch, a FRAGRANCE GARDEN and barn and farmyard displays. Pack a picnic and plan on spending a glorious day exploring the area. Don’t forget to include a visit to adjacent Tennant Lake Park for excellent bird-watching and a lovely boardwalk trail.
- Don’t miss the annual Bellingham Scottish Gathering, put on by the Scottish Dance Society at the beginning of June. It takes place at Hovander Homestead Park and is a great day of Scottish games, piping, haggis and more. Och aye!
- The annual Ferndale Street Festival hosts a great weekend of downtown fun. Live music, food and craft vendors, a car show and a PIE EATING CONTEST are just a few of the features. (Aug 23-24, 2019)
- Stock up on local produce and artisan wares every Friday afternoon at the Ferndale Farmers Market in downtown Ferndale. (Fridays – 2-6pm, June 14th – Oct 11th)
More gratuitous shots of Finley…
Adventures and distractions can make one hungry. To fuel up after your Ferndale explorations, check out these great eateries:
- I am always on the hunt for a good tamale. New Mexico Tamale Company in downtown Ferndale definitely fills the bill with their tasty selections. Be sure to try the traditional pork tamales made with Hatch chile! (Closed Sundays and Mondays)
- Check out the great wine selection and tasty made-from-scratch Italian fare at Leader Block Wine Co. & Eatery on Main Street. They also feature great cocktails, regular live music and special event dinners.
- While not necessarily common these days, I maintain it IS possible to make an entire meal of cheese. And maybe a good bottle of wine… If you concur, head to Twin Sisters Creamery and indulge in their delicious cheese selection. They also host tastings, tours and events. Check out their October Cheese & Brews for a tasty sampling of their cheese along with local beer. (Oct 30th)
- If you can’t get enough delicious cheese, stop by Appel Farms and do a tasting in their cheese shop – or try a grilled cheese sandwich at their café. Come on – a creamery-to-table grilled cheese sandwich? It doesn’t get much better than that. (Tues-Sat, 11am – 6pm)
- Check out Ferndale’s first commercial brewery, the newly minted FrinGe Brewing. They feature regular food trucks at their taphouse and are family and dog friendly. (Closed Mondays)
Heading further south from Ferndale (Exit 260 – Slater Road, off I-5), will bring you to the lands of the Lummi Nation and nearby Lummi Island. On my way to check out Lummi Island, I noted the Silver Reef Casino Resort, directly off of Slater Road. Not only that, I discovered there was a Skippers restaurant located inside the Lummi Bay Market in the same parking lot as the casino. Who am I to ignore both a casino and a Skippers? While I wouldn’t consider Skipper’s to be fine seafood dining, it does remind me of Tuesday nights in the ol’ Tri-Cities and “all-you-can-eat” at the local Skippers. Nostalgia… And come on – you get Jell-O AND coleslaw with your fish basket. Score! But should you not be up for a quick Skippers stop, check out The Steak House in the casino for a more leisurely affair.
Just across the water from the Lummi mainland sits lovely Lummi Island. Take a quick, 20-minute ride on the Lummi Island Ferry and enjoy the solitude of this most peaceful and relaxing locale. (The passenger/Car ferry – leaves every 20 minutes from Gooseberry Point.) This tiny community features a thriving Arts scene, beautiful shorelines and a whole lot of blissful quiet.
There are quite a few Airbnb opportunities on the island, but The Willows Inn is a great place to check out for more traditional lodging. They also feature upscale dining, spa services and additional off-site lodging opportunities. Just across the way from the inn is beautiful Sunset Beach. Overlooking Rosario Strait and nearby islands, it provides an enjoyable and serene way to while away the hours.
As Lummi Island is relatively small, there aren’t a lot of dining options available. That said, the Beach Store Café offers lunch and dinner along with regular live music, a great happy hour and various events. (Their hours and days open vary with the season, so be sure to check their website for details.) If you’re more in need of wine tasting, hit up the Artisan Wine Gallery for a sample of their wares. (Fridays and Saturdays)
Also happening on Saturdays – and a great way to pick up local specialties – is the Lummi Saturday Market. (Marketplace Field 10am – 1pm) Stock up for a picnic and hike up Lummi Mountain via the Baker Preserve Trail to take in the beautiful views of the neighboring San Juan Islands. And if you’re like me and love peonies, don’t pass up a stop at Full Bloom Farm to enjoy their many varieties as well as seasonal organic produce. They can also be found at their Farm stand which is open year ‘round. (You can even stay on the farm!)
Nestled against Bellingham Bay and the Salish Sea, the eclectic city of Bellingham is at the core of Whatcom County commerce and culture. Serving as both the county seat and largest city in Whatcom County, Bellingham is a busy and vibrant hub of activity. (Also the largest, northernmost city in the contiguous US.) Often included on many “best of” lists such as places to visit, live and retire, Bellingham is brimming with things to do and areas to explore. EatLocalFirst is a great resource for things to do, sample and experience in the area and features events such as the Whatcom County Farm Tour (9/7 – 9/8), Culinary Adventures and the Fall Fruit Festival (10/5 – 10/6) to help show off the area’s bounty.
In complement to being nestled between beautiful coastal and mountainous regions, Bellingham prides itself on environmental stewardship and a large variety of outdoor pursuits. Filled with parks, trails and all things lush and green, the area is a nature lover’s fantasy land. A few of the beautiful outdoor areas to visit in and around Bellingham:
- Visible from I-5 while driving south of Bellingham, Lake Samish is surrounded by tree-filled hillsides, with a community of homes dotting its shores. (Hillary Swank grew up in the area and Ryan Stiles presently lives on the lake.) Adjacent Samish Park has a nice day lodge for events, small public docks and a couple of nice trails alongside and above the lake. I took the Lakeshore Loop Trail and very much enjoyed the lakeside view, including the beautiful lily pads and cute picnic areas tucked into the trees. I’d always wondered about the big lake you could see from I-5… Now I know!
- Iconic Whatcom Falls Park is a great place to enjoy deep, forested valley scenery, all within a few minutes of the downtown area. Don’t miss a photo-op next to the historic bridge and be sure to breathe in the fresh air while strolling on the Whatcom Creek Trail. (Pop Culture Note: I was very entertained to rock down to turn onto Electric Avenue to get to one of the park’s entrances. Additionally, someone in the area has It’s A Trap as their Wi-Fi name. HAA!)
- Located just SE of Bellingham, the 10-mile long Lake Whatcom serves as both a great recreation area as well as the county reservoir. Lake Whatcom Park is an excellent escape from the daily grind, especially as experienced from one of its spectacular trails. Hertz Trail (Parking areas 1 or 2) and the newly updated Chanterelle Trail (Parking area 2) are two of the favorites in the area. Additionally, nearby Stimpson Family Nature Reserve and Lookout Mountain Forest Preserve (Just south of Whatcom Falls State Park) offer many trail options and much beautiful scenery.
- While not your traditional nature trail, walking around the beautiful campus of Western Washington University could easily be considered a day hike. Surrounded by forest and beautifully landscaped grounds, it’s a great place to commune with nature, not to mention pursue a stellar education.
Speaking of trails, Bellingham has many types to offer. For instance, the Tap Trail and corresponding Tap Trail Passport are fine ways to explore the local brewery culture. Whatcom County overall hosts an excellent brewery scene and it would be a shame not to visit a few on your next adventure. Some of the great spots to beat a trail to in the Bellingham area:
- Great food, great beer (all organic!) and a very cool space make Aslan Brewing Co. an excellent destination for lunch or dinner. They also have a nice happy hour! I particularly enjoy their seasonal Das Boot. (They also have a great taproom in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood)
- Located just around the corner from Aslan Brewing Co., Schweinhaus Biergarten features a great outdoor beer garden, long happy hours and tasty German pretzels and brats from their outdoor, wood-fired oven. (Family friendly – dog friendly)
- Should you want to branch out from beer, head to Chuckanut Bay Distillery, located in the heart of downtown. Housed in a great old building that used to be JC Penney, they feature several award-winning spirits. Check out their bourbon and seasonal 110 proof Krampus (Closed Tues/Wed)
- Situated directly across from the Farmers Market, the popular Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro features a great menu which includes deviled eggs, classic meatloaf, bangers and mash and more. And two very important words about their taproom Hoppy Hour: TABLE BACON ($1/slice – Hoppy Hour in the taproom only). They are family friendly and the beer garden is dog-friendly.
- Close to the Whatcom Co. Museum and tucked just off Prospect Street, family-friendly Bellingham Cider Co. is an excellent place to stop in for cider, food and a great view of the Waterfront area. Their menu features an outdoor pizza oven, chicken & waffles, spaghetti w/browned butter and crab and more. I particularly enjoy their Dry Cider and the Blackberry Ginger Cider. (Closed Mondays)
- Not too far from Bellingham Cider Co., the tasty Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen (North Nut location) features a great beer selection and a full menu with tasty sandwiches, burgers, seafood and more. If you enjoy lighter beers, I love their Kolsch and Vienna Lager. Family friendly. (Check out their South Nut location in nearby Burlington, mentioned in my recent Skagit County article)
- With two Bellingham locations, Kulshan Brewing has much to offer the area. The beer hall, found north of downtown on James Street is family (and dog!) friendly and hosts regular food trucks and live music. The main taproom/brewhouse is located across I-5 in the Roosevelt neighborhood and features great outdoor seating, food trucks and live music. (This location is 21+) Check out their tasty Premium Lager and Pilsner brews.
- Closely located to the Kulshan beer hall on James Street, Twin Sisters Brewing offers a tasty beer selection along with Saturday/Sunday brunch and a menu featuring sandwiches, burgers, small plates, tacos and cocktails. Check out their delicious Dufel-Sach Belgian-Style Golden Strong. (Tasting room closed Monday, but the restaurant is open. Family friendly.)
- When wandering through the downtown area, head to Wander Brewing and sample their tasty beer selection. The large brew hall, set in a historic downtown building, features local food trucks and is family friendly. They’re also located just a few blocks up from an excellent sandwich shop, Sandwich Odyssey. (Across from Bellingham High School)
- As an alternative to the beer scene, check out downtown Honey Moon Alley Bar & Ciderhouse for mead, cider and cocktails. They also feature a light food menu and regular live music in their intimate space, located off State Street alley, behind Pepper Sisters. (Great New Mexican restaurant – Closed Mondays, dinner only. They have mashed potato rellenos!)
Bellingham is a very walkable – and bikeable – city. It’s possible to explore much of the downtown and Waterfront areas all within a comfortable afternoon’s worth of walking or biking. (Including important stops at breweries and eateries along the way.) For an interesting trip around the historic buildings, murals, art installations and more, check out the Self-guided Story Maps courtesy of the City of Bellingham. (Also available for Bellingham’s predecessor city, Sehome, nearby Fairhaven and Highway 99)
Even without a map, it’s easy to have a very interesting, informative and delicious walk just by parking downtown and heading off in any direction. The Bellingham Farmers Market (Saturdays, 10am – 3pm, Apr – Dec) is a great place to start. They have an excellent selection of local goods and a covered hall for those rainy northwest days. Just a few blocks away, heading towards the water and Port of Bellingham are several more blocks of great trails to walk and sights to check out. The city of Bellingham has a long term plan to expand and revitalize the waterfront area and they are making visible strides towards their goal.
A few of the cool areas in the waterfront part of town:
- Take a stroll around the newly opened Waypoint Park and enjoy the views looking out towards Lummi Island. The park and surrounding areas are part of the revitalization effort with more development coming soon. Be sure to stop by the very cool “Waypoint” (AKA: “Acid Ball”) art installation.
- The South Bay Trail connects downtown Bellingham with downtown Fairhaven with a great 2-mile trail via the re-purposed Bellingham and Skagit Interurban Railway. It also hooks up w/the Interurban Trail in Fairhaven which goes all the way to Larrabee State Park.
- The Marine Life Center is a great family stop and a must for any lover of ocean life. Great displays, creature exhibits and beautiful views of the bay are all part of the FREE experience. Stop in at nearby restaurants Nicki’s Bella Marina, Latitude Loft at Forty Eight Five, Lombardi’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar and Anthony’s at Squalicum Harbor for delicious fuel to accompany your waterfront adventures.
- If you’d like to extend your waterfront stay, head to the well-appointed Hotel Bellweather with its great spa, beautiful views and tasty dining at in-house Lighthouse Bar & Grill.
Bellingham has a quirky sort of charm. They’ve got their own thing going on and the downtown area celebrates this individuality with great restaurants, museums and more. To experience some of the unique flavors and flair of Bellingham, consider these options:
- Laying claim to the title of “oldest continually operating café and cocktail lounge in Washington State,” the iconic Horseshoe Café (c. 1886) features local ingredients and a menu filled with comfort food classics. Tasty cocktails, a good tap list and open late.
- If you’re craving Russian dumplings (they’re delicious!), head over to Pel’meni in the University district for a tasty experience. They offer a small menu, but who needs more when you have PEL’MENI to serve?! Open late!
- For delicious breakfast, lunch or dinner in a funky, cozy downtown space, check out Cosmos Bistro. Inventive dishes, a great happy hour and locally sourced ingredients make this a fine stop on any downtown excursion.
- The Old Town Cafe has a regular line out the door for their delicious breakfast and lunch fare. The current ownership has been serving tasty food to Bellingham residents for nearly 25 years and here’s to hoping the trend continues. (The space has actually been a restaurant since the early 1900s and known as the Old Town Café since 1967) They feature in-house baked goods, locally sourced ingredients and a great communal setting. They also host a free Thanksgiving dinner every year!
- Old school cocktails and hot dogs, set in a historic downtown building with space-themed decor? What’s not to love?? Orion has a good happy hour, pool tables and they’re open late!
With all of Bellingham’s deep and eclectic history, it’s no wonder they have several excellent museums and antique stores to visit. Next time you’re in the area, bone up on your local knowledge at these great stops:
- Guarding over the downtown skyline, the Whatcom Museum and its corresponding Lightcatcher building feature wonderful exhibits of Bellingham and surrounding area histories and more. The main museum is housed in Old City Hall and is itself an important piece of Washington State history. (First site in the state to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places)
- The very unique and innovative Mindport features fine art and hand-built interactive exhibits. Located just around the corner from the Spark Museum, it’s a great way to spend an entertaining and interactive afternoon; especially as a combo pack!
- Get a fully-charged, up-close look at all things electrical at the Spark – Museum of Electrical Invention in the heart of downtown. Check out the Mega Zapper with its 4 million volts (AKA: Nikola Tesla’s Lightning Machine) and listen in on local KMRE 102.3 FM, the independent radio station operated out of the museum. (Or online at org)
- Head past the iconic rocket ship installation on Holly Street and hit up any of the great antique stores in the area. (Note: The rocket ship sits in front of the now-closed Rocket Donuts. A sad loss for donut lovers everywhere.) Penny Lane Antique Mall (10,000 square feet!), Vintage 360 and Bellingham Bay Collectibles are great shops to explore while in the area.
The Arts are alive in Bellingham and there are many options for expanding your artistic horizons during your visit. Just a few of the great places to help you enjoy the scene:
- Owned by actor Ryan Stiles, the Upfront Theatre features regular improv comedy shows as well as improv classes. Put your comedic skills to the test!
- On the National Register of Historic Places the Mount Baker Theatre (c. 1927) used to be a vaudeville theatre, but now features a variety of Arts and entertainment. Shows include the classic Phantom of the Opera (1925 silent film version) played with a live score on their in-house Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ, Warren Miller’s Timeless (11/9) and the 20th Annual Mt. Baker Film & Arts Festival. (11/1)
- The new Sylvia Center for the Arts features theatre, music and dance performances as well as rehearsal and teaching space for Bellingham’s thriving Arts community.
- Head to the Bellingham Festival of Music for beautiful classical music including orchestral premiers, string quartets, chamber music, world-class soloists and more. (July 3-24, 2020)
Just south of Bellingham lies the endlessly charming Fairhaven Historic District. Founded by “Dirty” Dan Harris in the late 1800s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Fairhaven is a wonderful place to spend a long weekend – or longer. Great restaurants, shops and a gateway to scenic Chuckanut Drive make it a must-visit – and very walkable – destination any time of year.
While strolling about this quaint area, keep an eye out for one of the many murals featured on town buildings. Along with Bellingham, the Fairhaven area sports wonderful murals by artists such as Northwest favorites, Lanny Little and Henry. (Check out the largest hand-painted mural in Washington State at the Bellingham Subaru dealer by artist, Henry) I particularly love how Lanny Little painted himself into one of the murals located in the lovely Village Green, located in the center of town. Nice to be able to recognize an artist for their talent…
Fairhaven has no shortage of great restaurants, pubs, bakeries and dessert spots to check out. On your next visit, add these establishments to your list of places to visit:
- Grab a bite from one of the visiting food trucks or bring your own to enjoy with one of the tasty locals brews at Stones Throw Brewing Co. They’re family and dog friendly and regularly feature live music.
- For the ultimate in dog-friendly watering holes, stop by Paws for a Beer and enjoy a pint. They even kindly allow humans who might not have their dogs with them. For more info on grabbing a beer with your furry buddy, check out their dog membership (21+)
- If you’re up for a delicious burger, hit up the eclectic Filling Station in downtown Fairhaven. Using local ingredients, including custom-made buns from local bakery, Avenue Bread they know how to rock a good burger, not to mention a tasty cocktail. (Also in the Sunnyland neighborhood of Bellingham)
- My new friends, James and Julie from nearby Pioneer Park in Ferndale, highly recommended Fairhaven Fish & Chips in downtown Fairhaven. Located in the center of downtown and run out of an authentic British double-decker bus, they serve some pretty tasty fish-n-chips, indeed.
- Featuring breakfast, lunch and dinner, Skylark’s Hidden Café is a great Fairhaven stop. Throw in award-winning chowder, a great happy hour menu and Jazz on Monday nights and it’s hard to ignore this cozy scene.
- There is never a time I’m not up for fresh crepes – never! Mount Bakery Fairhaven is the place to go if you, too, heed the call of the delicious crepe. Also serving a multitude of scratch-baked goods along with a full breakfast and lunch menu. Yum! (Additional locations can be found in downtown Bellingham and the Bellingham Farmers Market)
- Named after Fairhaven’s founder, Dirty Dan Harris’ Steakhouse in downtown Fairhaven has been serving delicious steak and local seafood for the past 44 years. (Closed Mondays. Open at 5pm, Tues – Sun) And if you’d like to further celebrate Dirty Dan, check out the annual Dirty Dan Harris Festival at the end of April.
- The iconic Colophon Café, with entrances on 11th Street and off the Fairhaven Village Green, offers hearty soups, sandwiches, burgers and great coffee and baked goods. The building (c. 1891), with its (haunted) upstairs ballroom and 1900s hand-operated elevator remnants in downstairs dining area is a gem in and of itself. There is said to have been a speakeasy in the building during the Prohibition era. Cool!
- Directly next door to the Colophon Café and another icon of the neighborhood, Village Books & Paper Dreams offers a wonderful selection of books, gifts and more. (Also in nearby Lynden)
- For a nice spot of tea and a British-inspired lunch or afternoon tea, stop by Abbey Garden Tea Room in downtown Fairhaven. Located in the same space is CreativiTea where you can paint your own pottery and enjoy a lovely cup of tea. (Also in Lynden)
- I am indeed sad about Rocket Donut’s departure from the Bellingham/Fairhaven food scene. However, the fact that ACME Ice Cream has opened their new flagship store in the old Rocket Donut Fairhaven location definitely helps to soothe my soul – and beyond! To say I am addicted to ACME Ice Cream is an (embarrassing) understatement. It is the best ice cream EVER and I’d eat it every day if I could! (Well, I certainly could, but the adult side of me vigorously argues as to whether I should…) Made with local ingredients in the nearby town of Acme, it has a dense, taffy-like consistency that is unlike any other ice cream I’ve tried. It is DELICIOUS. (Great. Now I need/want some ACME Ice Cream… Shut up, adult side!)
To add to the delicious temptations lurking around every corner in downtown Fairhaven, there are an equal number of fun shops to explore and activities to check out. A few notables from my recent visit to the downtown area:
- My wallet and I needed to get out of Current & Furbish fairly quickly as I could’ve easily taken home quite a few wonderful items. Home décor, gourmet foods, restored furniture and more make for a lovely bit of browsing and potential home redecorating projects.
- The same goes for Three French Hens in that I could’ve easily gotten carried away with the credit cards. Fun clothing, home décor, gift ideas and more fill the shelves of this fun shop in the heart of downtown Fairhaven.
- They make pretty awesome bikes, but I will admit to being more entertained by their company name and logo – And the limitless opportunity for puns, memes and overall humor. The Evil (Bikes) headquarters can be found in downtown Fairhaven, just across from the ferry terminal. I wish I could afford one of their Evil bikes, but for now I’ll just have to dream of owning something Evil… I’d also like to point out the rather evil looking trees directly across the street – as well as the wild apple trees. Coincidence? But don’t worry – it’s all located just past the peace marker. Where there’s evil, good is likely hot on its heels. Or down the sidewalk…
- Something that’s been on my bucket list for quite some time is taking the ferry from Bellingham/Fairhaven to Ketchikan, Alaska. That’s right, you can take a ferry from Washington State all the way to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Chain! It’s part of the quite extensive Alaska Marine Highway System. The trip to Ketchikan is 38-hours long and there are options to stay in one of the ship’s staterooms, “camp” on the deck or sleep in the solarium area. If this sounds as AMAZING to you as it does me, head to the Bellingham Cruise Terminal and hop aboard! (But best to first make a reservation.) Located across the street from Evil. (I’ll make an effort, but it’s probably going to be a while before I stop making Evil jokes…)
- If you’d like to extend your exploration of downtown Fairhaven, check out the quaint scene at the Fairhaven Village Inn, located just across from the Village Green. During your stay, be sure to visit Galloway’s Cocktail Bar, the Art Deco cocktail bar located on the street level of the Inn.
Fairhaven offers many excellent ways to celebrate and explore the area throughout the year. A few fun ways to experience what this quaint village has to offer:
- Head to the Village Green during the summer months and enjoy the Fairhaven Outdoor Cinema. (Saturday evenings, June 20 – August 29, 2020)
- Set in conjunction with the epic Ski to Sea relay race, the Historic Fairhaven Festival takes place in downtown Fairhaven and celebrates the town in grand fashion with an all-day street fair, live music, a beer/wine garden, local food vendors and more. (May 26th / Memorial Day weekend)
- Stroll around the Village Green, take in the summer air, enjoy the view out to the water and savor a fine glass of wine at the annual Vino in the Village Wine Walk. Sounds like a pretty great way to spend a summer evening… (August 8th)
- Celebrate all things holiday at the yearly Fairhaven Winterfest. Hop in one of the horse-drawn carriages and take in the lights and holiday displays. Be sure to check out the Holiday Market on November 30th in the Village Green. (Winterfest runs Nov 29th thru Dec 21st)
- If you like learning all the hush-hush, behind-the-scenes details about a town, hit up the Good Time Girls tour company for any of their well-researched tours of Bellingham and Fairhaven. Their Sin & Gin and BellingHistory tours are quite popular and very entertaining. In October they offer a special Gore & Lore tour – don’t miss it!
Sure, I-5 is a relatively efficient way in and out of the Bellingham and Fairhaven areas. There’s even quite a bit of lovely scenery along the way. However, why take I-5 when you can cruise along one of the state’s most beautiful and scenic drives? Chuckanut Drive (AKA: SR-11, a designated Scenic Highway), running along the Whatcom County coast between Fairhaven and Skagit County is a spectacular drive and has been awing motorists since the turn of last century.
Even before it became an official (gravel) road in 1916, Chuckanut Drive has been an important fixture in the area. In conjunction with Highway 99 and later I-5, it was an integral link in joining together routes from British Columbia all the way down to San Francisco. (It was paved in 1921.) As it winds its way through the coastal Chuckanut Mountains and into the Skagit Valley, it continues to provide a beautiful and interesting route through the area. (The fall is a particularly lovely – and popular – time to take the drive!)
Chuckanut Drive is brimming with amazing areas to explore and enjoy. A few beautiful spots to check out on your next Whatcom County adventure:
- There are so many amazing hikes and strolls to be found around Chuckanut Drive and Chuckanut Mountain Park. The excellent Washington Trails Association also has a great, general guide for the area.
- Perched on a bluff overlooking Chuckanut Bay and Teddy Bear Cove, the lovely Woodstock Farm (c. 1905) and its sprawling estate is a wonderful spot to stop and explore. Original owner of the farm, Cyrus Gates, one of the leads in creating Larrabee State Park as well as portions of Chuckanut Drive and the Mt. Baker Highway, definitely lent his scenic vision to the creation of the farm. After investigating the beautiful grounds, enjoy the great views of Lummi Island and the San Juans.
- On the topic of Larrabee State Park, it’s just down the road from Woodstock Farms – and very big! (The southern part of the park is the Whatcom/Skagit County border) It was the first designated state park in Washington and is an excellent place to spend the day. Camping, boating and great hiking are just a few of the reasons to visit. Discover Pass
- If you’re heading south on Chuckanut drive with a destination of Skagit County, consider adding a bonus stop in the tiny, but delicious Bow-Edison It’s a foodie paradise!
Heading back up north, towards the Canadian border, will allow us to check out the Whatcom County scene to the east of I-5. The coastal, west side of Whatcom County has plenty to offer and countless activities to keep one busy. However, when you add in the picturesque towns, winding rivers and soaring mountain scenery of Whatcom County’s east side, the ante gets considerably upped. Epic vacation plans for the win!
A short drive northeast of Bellingham on SR-539 brings us to the wonderfully quaint town of Lynden. From its serene, tree-lined Front Street to its Dutch-inspired downtown, Lynden is an excellent town to explore. Windmills, Dutch bakeries and pastoral backroads and farms make it a dream for bicycle excursions and leisurely country drives. It’s also host to one of the three border crossings in Whatcom County, known as the Aldergrove Crossing. (SR-539 becomes BC Highway 13 in Canada) So many great areas to explore are packed into this quiet swath of northeast Whatcom County. (Interesting fact: Known as America’s Raspberry Capitol, Whatcom County is responsible for growing 65% of the nation’s red raspberries and 95% of the state’s red raspberry crop. YUM! Many raspberry farms can be viewed along the Lynden area backroads.)
A great place to begin your Lynden adventures is via the downtown area. It’s a relatively small part of town, but is brimming with great restaurants, shops and more. (Note: Many businesses in the downtown area are closed on Sundays) A few places to check out during your visit to Lynden:
The Waples Mercantile Building (On the National Register of Historic Places), located in the center of downtown, is home to several great businesses. I had a delicious breakfast and great cup of coffee at Avenue Bread. The ambiance is very cool and it was a nice place to relax on a Sunday morning. (Also in Bellingham) They are connected within the building to The Inn at Lynden, a cozy boutique hotel and the stellar Village Books and Paper Dreams. (I picked up some luxurious soap from Samish Bay Soaps and a rather cool Octopus glass) Connected on the other side of Village Books is the Cheeks clothing shop. (Closed Sundays) And on the side of the building, don’t miss grabbing a pint at Overflow Taps. (Also in Bellingham) They are part of the excellent Charity Pints Program which benefits clean water and building drinking wells in Africa. (Additional Whatcom County brewers participating include Aslan Brewing, Atwood Ales, Wander Brewing, North Fork Brewery and Boundary Bay Brewery)
Just across the way from the Waples Mercantile Building are several more wonderful food and shopping options. The famous Dutch Mothers Restaurant and gift shop has been wooing diners with their scrumptious Dutch pancakes and homemade pies for years. (Closed Sundays) Not to be outdone in the area of delicious Dutch baked goods, the nearby Lynden Dutch Bakery has been serving tasty Dutch baked goods to a dedicated crowd of patrons for the past 125 years! (Closed Sundays) And in a fully dedicated tribute to the town’s Dutch heritage, The Mill by Perfectly Paired serves bistro-style lunch and dinner along with sporting a full-size Dutch windmill as part of the building.
Lynden offers many ways to celebrate the history and bounty of the area. Some of the year-round opportunities to explore Lynden include:
- To sample the best of area farms and local artisans, head to the Farmers Market every Saturday in the center of downtown at Centennial Park. (6/1 – 9/28, 10am – 2pm)
- Celebrate Whatcom County and Lynden’s favorite berry at the annual Northwest Raspberry Festival in July. Be sure to take home some of the delicious jewels from one of the many U-pick farms such as Haugen’s Raspberry Farm (U-pick raspberries and blueberries), Koetjes Blueberries and Kamm Creek Farm. (U-pick organic raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and currants.)
- Learn more about the area and its Dutch connections at the Lynden Pioneer Museum on Front Street in downtown Lynden. (Closed Sundays)
- The Northwest Washington Fair features entertainment, rodeo, adjudicated exhibits, carnival rides and more. Fun for the whole family! (Aug 17-22, 2020)
- Bundle up, grab some hot cocoa and head down to Front Street for the annual Northwest Lighted Christmas Parade in December. (12/7/19, 6-7pm)
While you’re ambling your way through the backroads and byways of the Lynden area, keep an eye out for hidden gems along the way. Great food, wine and adventure await! Some of the fun spots to seek out:
- As you head into Lynden on SR-539, be on the lookout for Bellewood Farms. Home of the largest apple orchard in western Washington, they feature a “farm-to-glass” distillery, a farm store and tasty breakfast and lunch in their café. During the harvest season, they feature u-pick apples, a pumpkin patch and corn maze.
- Not far from Lynden in the Everson / Nooksack area, in between SR-9 and SR-544, are several spots worth checking out. For a delicious steak and all manner of German schnitzel, stop in at Herb Niemann’s Steak & Schnitzel House. (Since 1973) If you’re a fan of meat pies (Kristen, I’m lookin’ at YOU.), Good to Go Meat Pies is the place to go! (Also at Bellingham and Everett Farmers Markets) For a bit of wine tasting and relaxing in a beautiful locale, be sure to visit Samson Estates Winery in the Nooksack area. They feature award-winning fruit wine created from the abundance of local Nooksack berries.
- Heading into nearby Sumas via SR-9 will bring you to the final Whatcom County border crossing into Canada. (Sumas/Huntington Crossing – SR-9 becomes Hwy 11 in Canada) While in the area, stop in at the famous Edaleen Dairy for a scoop or several of their delicious ice cream. (Also in Lynden, Ferndale, Blaine and Fairhaven/Bellingham) If you want to eat your meal before your dessert, head to nearby Bob’s Burgers & Brew for a juicy burger and a pint. (Also in Birch Bay) Work it all off by learning a little bit about the Sumas area at the Sumas Historical Society and Museum. (Monday, 10am – 1pm, Friday & Saturday, Noon – 4pm)
Traveling south on SR-9 will bring you to the junction of one of the most spectacular drives in the state, the Mount Baker Highway. (SR-542) As you head into the wilds of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the road winds through gorgeous farmland as the promise of towering mountain peaks rise in the distance. Mount Baker (10,781 ft), the second most active volcano in the Cascade Range behind Mount Saint Helens, dominates the area with the spectacular Mount Shuksan (9,131 ft) guarding its flank. Whatever manner you choose to experience the area, whether by car, foot or other, it is impossible to leave without being profoundly moved by this immense beauty.
Driving east on SR-542, there are a multitude of things to see and do. The ultimate destination is often the Mount Baker ski area, but as there are so many excellent distractions, it’s easy to make a few stops along the way. Deming and nearby Glacier are the tiny towns closest to Mount Baker and are surrounded by stunning scenery and filled with many camping, hiking and outdoor opportunities. Deming is also the tribal seat of the Nooksack Tribe, who have been living in the area for thousands of years. Spending time at Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker proper is never a bad idea, but definitely allow time to stop and smell the fresh mountain air on the way up. (Pro tip: As you’re driving along the Mount Baker Highway near the Kendall area, be sure to stay on SR-542 at the round-about intersection. If not, you just might find yourself on SR-547 and heading towards Sumas and the Canadian Border. Which can come up on you very quickly… Not to say I’ve ever done such a thing.)
A few of the great distractions to enjoy as you make your way up the Mount Baker Highway:
- If you find yourself driving towards Mt. Baker on SR-542 out of Bellingham, make a stop at Rome Grocery. They’re a great place to stock up on supplies for your adventure as well as a great place to grab a quick bite.
- If you’re in the market for Icelandic or Shetland sheep (And who isn’t?), consider Lydia’s Flock, a sheep farm located off SR-542 around the Deming area. They offer classes, shearing, volunteer events and more. I’m particularly interested in their Wool 101
- The North Fork Brewery and Pizzeria, located directly off SR-542 is a must-stop for tasty pizza and a pint after a hard day of hiking, skiing, taking pictures, etc. Family friendly with outdoor seating, a wedding chapel and a beer shrine! In addition to their delicious beer, they make barleywine and root beer. I’m partial to their BRP Pilsner.
- Graham’s Restaurant and adjacent store have been greeting Mount Baker travelers for many years. The store features a small selection of groceries, gifts, camping supplies, a coffee counter and baked goods. The restaurant has a tasty menu of comfort food favorites and servers breakfast on weekends. Always a great spot to visit!
- Located directly off SR-542 in the Deming area, Rifugio’s Country Italian Cuisine serves rustic Italian food and regularly hosts “Feast” themed events. Open Thursday thru Sunday for dinner with brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.
- Heading closer towards the mountains, Chair 9 – Woodstone Pizza & Bar in Glacier offers a great pub and pizza menu. If you’re in need of lodging, check out their adjacent Blue T Lodge and enjoy not having to drive home after a long day of skiing or hiking.
- While there isn’t lodging at the Mt. Baker Ski Area, there are many Local accommodations available in the Deming and Glacier areas. Find a cabin, bring along a few friends and enjoy a sublime mountain getaway in one of the most peaceful areas in the state. (And beyond!)
- Take a break from your hike and check out some summer music jams at the Baker Blues Festival (July 31 – August 2, 2020) and the Subdued Stringband Jamboree (August 6-8, 2020) Both events take place at the Deming Log Show Fairgrounds (SR-542) near Nugents Corner and the Nooksack River.
Pro Tip: As you venture further into the mountains, make sure you’ve included the 10 Essentials in your backpack. Whether summer or winter, it is imperative to be ready for any type of off-roading, be it on foot, ski, bike or other exciting means. Weather can change quickly, water sources might be far and few between and you never know when that loose rock on the trail might have other plans for your day. Be prepared!
Not too far past the Glacier area, look for a signpost directing you to the gorgeous Nooksack Falls area. It’s a short jog off the highway and well worth the stop. The beautiful Nooksack River flows through the area and drops, via a series of stunning waterfalls, 88 feet to the canyon floor below. Be sure to check out the information kiosks telling about the former Great Excelsior Mine and old town of Excelsior. Also pay heed to the warnings about NOT climbing over the fenced areas overlooking the falls. Seriously. (Interesting fact: The falls were featured in the hunting scene of The Deer Hunter. The nearby North Cascades Highway and spectacular Diablo Lake were also included in the film.) If you’re looking to get to know the Excelsior area even better, check out the hike to Excelsior Pass. It’s a moderate hike with great views of Mt. Baker and flower-filled meadows with access to the Damfino Lakes. For bonus points, hike up further to the former fire lookout at Excelsior Peak.
Past Nooksack Falls, the highway begins to gain elevation and the switchbacks come with more frequency. I love windy, mountain roads and the Mount Baker Highway is one of the greats. I will admit, however, to feeling my heart in my stomach on a few of those switchbacks closer towards the top; especially if it’s raining or snowing. Yowsa! That said, the WSDOT does keep the road well-maintained and it’s open year-round up to the ski area.
As you get almost to the end of the road, look for the entrance to the parking area for Picture Lake. One of the most photographed locales in the state, it is an absolute must-stop. Mt. Shuksan towers alongside the area, gloriously reflected in the lake. The path next to the lake is fully accessible and great for an easy-going stroll and with little effort and the simplest of cameras, your pictures are guaranteed to be amazing. I could honestly just sit on the shore and watch the mountain all day long…
If you happen to be in the area during the summer, make a point to go all way to the end of highway at Artist Point. The mountain views are spectacular and on a clear day, it’s easy to see Canada to the north and Mount Rainier to the south. Head to the easy-going Artist Ridge Trail for breath-taking scenery and be sure to stick around for the dazzling sunsets. The portion of the highway leading to Artist Point closes for the winter, but it’s still possible to head up to the area for beautiful snowshoeing opportunities.
Just short of Artist Point, lies the consummate ski hill, Mount Baker Ski Area. They get an average annual snowfall of 701 inches and due to their somewhat remote location, the crowds are never huge. It’s possible to get fresh tracks throughout the day! If you’re not up for tackling the crazy mountain drive in the winter, the day lodge is open in summer and is a great addition to area hiking adventures. (Interesting fact: Call of the Wild (1935) with Clark Gable and Loretta Young was filmed near Mt. Baker Ski Resort and helped expand the popularity of the area.)
There are countless hiking, climbing and adventuring opportunities in the Mount Baker / Mount Shuksan area. A few to consider on your next visit:
IMPORTANT NOTE: Never hike or climb on any glaciers or permanent snow fields without the appropriate alpine climbing gear and know-how.
- If you’re up for a challenge, check out the Heliotrope Ridge Trail off of FS Road 39. The hike offers pretty amazing views overlooking the crevassed, glacial moraine of Mount Baker. (Not good for early summer hiking) A Recreation Pass is required at the trailhead.
- Another strenuous, but rewarding hike is the Lake Ann Trail with its great view of Mount Shuksan, Mount Baker, sub-alpine meadows and marmots! A Recreation Pass is required at the trailhead.
- As is to be expected, there are a lot of climbing opportunities for Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan. Hit up local climbing outfits such as RMI, Alpine Ascents or the American Alpine Institute for excellent guide services, information and gear. American Alpine Institute offers snowshoeing tours as well. (Note: You will need a permit to make a summit climb.)
- For an epic challenge, grab a few friends and enter the annual Ski to Sea relay race over Memorial Day Weekend. It’s an ambitious trek from the Mount Baker Ski Area to Bellingham Bay consisting of teams of three to eight racers, competing in seven different sports. (Cross Country Ski, Downhill Ski/Snowboard, Running, Road Bike, Canoe (2 paddlers), Cyclocross Bike, and Sea Kayak.) This is an absolute bucket-list goal of mine. Care to join me?
In order to get to the North Cascades National Park and Diablo Lake in the eastern part of Whatcom County, it is necessary to first travel through Skagit County. The mountains are beautiful, but they do occasionally add a bit of travel time and obstacle to the adventure. (It’s also possible to reach these areas from the eastern side of the state via beautiful Okanogan County. Look for the I Ate the State article coming soon!) For my most recent adventure to the area, I opted to approach via Skagit County.
For the most direct route from western Washington to the North Cascades Highway – North Cascades Loop (SR-20 – a designated Scenic Byway) hit up I-5 Exit 230 in the Burlington area. If you’re looking for a more leisurely approach, take SR-9 to get to SR-20. Any route you take to get to SR-20 will be worth it as the North Cascades Highway is truly one of the most spectacular drives in the county. (Note: The North Cascades highway is closed past Lake Diablo and west of Mazama during the winter. Check the WSDOT website for opening/closing details.)
If you happen to be coming down SR-9 (the Valley Highway) from the north, be sure to explore the areas around Acme and Wickersham. Bring your swimsuit and take a dip – or a float – in the South Fork of the Nooksack River. (River floating is a popular summer pastime in the area. Many cars were parked on the side of SR-9 near Acme and the Mosquito Lake Exit to access the river.) SR-9 and adjoining backroads are fairly quiet around the Acme and Wickersham areas and there is beautiful scenery everywhere you look. Prairie Road is particularly lovely and will eventually lead you back out to I-5 and the Bow Hill Road Exit. (Exit 236) It’s an absolute beauty of a weekend drive or ride.
It’s a fairly quiet part of the county, but there are indeed great places to visit. Some of the spots to check out on your next trip through the area:
- The Blue Mountain Grill features a pretty spectacular view and is a popular stop for travelers through the area. They serve lunch and dinner and feature burgers, seafood and fried chicken with all the fixins’.
- A favorite along the Valley Highway (SR-9) in Acme is the ACME Diner. Stop in and enjoy their classic diner fare and all-day breakfasts. (Closed Mondays)
- Hop aboard the Lake Whatcom Railway and experience the past while riding in their Pullman Company cars. They’ve been in continuous operation for over 100 years! They make sightseeing stops along the way, so don’t forget your camera. They also host various events throughout the year. Located in the Wickersham area off SR-9.
A drive up the North Cascades Highway is an adventure in and of itself. The highway winds through beautiful farmland and fertile valleys, all nurtured by the mighty Skagit River. The Skagit River is the state’s second largest river (after the Columbia River) and generally follows along the highway corridor. Starting in the Canadian Cascades at Allison Pass, it flows down to the Ross Lake area, into Diablo Lake and heads out to the Puget Sound close to the La Conner area. (For spots to check out along the way in Skagit County, check out my recent I Ate the State article.)
As you make your way east on the North Cascades Highway, there are scores of places to camp, hike, fish and generally enjoy the area. Many are accessible year-round and are the perfect escape from the noise and grind of the city. An excellent, general area for all things outdoors can be found off the North Cascades Highway on the Baker Lake Road (FS Road 11) in the Baker Lake / Middle Fork Nooksack area. The region is known for good Sockeye fishing, spectacular hiking trails and winter recreation including snowmobiling, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
There are many campgrounds in the Baker Lake area along with excellent hiking and backpacking opportunities. Just a few of the many options to explore on your next trip:
- Located on the west side of the lake, the Bayview South and North Campgrounds are a good jumping off point for hikes in the area. (You’ll need to bring drinking water.) Also on the west side of the lake, the Horseshoe Cove Campground features sites close to the lake as well as a swimming beach and boat launch.
- Heading North on the west side of lake will bring you to the Boulder Creek Campground. (You’ll need to bring drinking water.) Panorama Point Campground is close by and features a paved boat launch.
- Just past Panorama Point is the Swift Creek Campground. It’s a larger campground with spots for tents and RVs and features a large, paved boat launch and 20-slip dock. Just over from Swift Creek lies the Park Creek Campground. It’s smaller, but situated close to the creek as it flows out to the lake.
- Continuing towards the north part of the lake will bring you to the Shannon Creek Campground. It has a small boat launch and is a stop along the way to the Shannon Ridge Trailhead which is a little further north, up the Shannon Creek and forest service roads. The trailhead a popular starting point for Mt. Shuksan climbs and backcountry camping. Backcountry permits are required for overnight stays in North Cascades National Park. (No pets allowed in park) A valid Recreation Pass is required within National Forests. (At trailhead)
- At the end of the Baker Lake Road, park and hike in to the remote Sulphide Creek Campground via the Baker River Trail, along the Baker River. (In Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest) Old-growth forest and a huge amount of solitude await the weary hiker. A valid Recreation Pass is required within National Forests. (At trailhead)
- On the east side of the lake, hit up the Baker Lake Trail #610 to hike to lakeside campsites such as Anderson Point and Maple Grove. This trail eventually hooks up with the Baker River Trail #606 which will take you deeper into the wilderness. A valid Recreation Pass is required within National Forests. (At trailhead) (The Baker River Trail is also accessible via the end of the Baker Lake Road)
Not far past the small area of Marblemount in Skagit County, you’ll officially enter Whatcom County and just after, the glorious North Cascades National Park. Keep your eyes peeled for the exit to the North Cascades National Park Wilderness Visitor & Information Center. There is much to be gained from even a brief stop to the area. The park celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018, but the history and majesty of the area far surpasses the last fifty years.
It’s easy to glance out the window of your car or take in the scene as you hike along a trail, but the sheer size and content of the park would be near impossible to absorb in a lifetime – or be accessible. There are 312 glaciers in the park – more than Glacier National Park! (Sadly, the glaciers have decreased by 50% in the last 100 years.) The park is comprised of 98% wilderness and has the most bio-diversity of any other national park with the exception of Great Smokey Mountains National Park – and only by a few varieties of grass! Since there are few roads within the park, many trails and campsites are only accessible by hiking or driving on Forest Service roads outside of the park to get close to trailheads and campsites. You have to really want to explore the inner reaches of the park, but it certainly is a worthwhile and rewarding endeavor.
While at the visitor center, take the short Sterling Munro Trail from behind the building and marvel at the beautiful Picket Range in the distance. Take in the uniquely formed Chopping Block and the highest (and most awesomely named) peak in the range, MOUNT TERROR. (What could possibly go wrong?) For a great list of hikes and campsites to help you get closer to these amazing peaks, check out the NPS site.
Heading further northeast on SR-20 brings you to the tiny town of Newhalem. To this day it is a “company” town in that it is owned by Seattle City Light and populated entirely by employees of the nearby hydroelectric projects. It is, however, open to visitors and makes a great last-stop for gas and snacks before heading over the passes to eastern Washington. Be sure to stop in at the Skagit General Store, the Skagit Information Center and take a stroll around the town to visit the “Old No. 6” steam engine and the interesting art installations around the park areas.
It is also possible to tour the Gorge Powerhouse with the Skagit Tours outfit. Beginning in the 1920s, Seattle City Light originally gave tours around the area, including Diablo Lake and Ross Dams which included their famous Dam Good Chicken Dinner and tour of Ladder Creek Falls at night. (Offered to this day!) The tours were meant to drum up interest in the hydroelectric projects and were a popular tourist and investor attraction – and the guests got to take home the leftover pies! Stop in Newhalem and learn about the history of the area and the history of the Seattle City Light’s tenure in the North Cascades in a very unique way.
In recent decades, the Newhalem area has attracted more than hydroelectric dreams and has served as the backdrop in a few notable artistic endeavors. For you 80s film nerds (me), part of War Games was filmed in an old Newhalem gravel quarry. (Specifically, the Cheyenne Mountain Complex scene.) Additionally, Tobias Wolff, author of This Boy’s Life (The film version starred Robert De Niro, Ellen Barkin and Leonardo DiCaprio) lived in Newhalem and nearby Concrete and based the book off of his life there. (Check out my I Ate the State Skagit County article for more info about Concrete and surrounding areas)
There are many great locales about which to hike, camp and explore in the areas surrounding Newhalem. For great access to the Skagit River and cool interpretive trails, check out the nearby Newhalem Creek Campground. If you’re up for fishing and hiking in a glorious location, check into the Gorge Lake Campground and enjoy. (Boat launch, no potable water) While in the area, hit up the nearby Stetattle Creek or Sourdough Mountain trails for a beautiful – and challenging – hike. An absolute must for any North Cascades visit is a stop at Gorge Lake Overlook/Gorge Creek and interpretive trail. The waterfalls truly cannot be represented by photo. You need to stand on the bridge overlooking the falls and experience the thrill of gorge and the thundering water. I love heights and they rarely get me, but WOW – that’s quite a drop!
Wrapping up our adventures in Whatcom County brings us to, in my humble opinion, one of the most spectacular areas in the country, Diablo Lake and the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. The turquoise waters are mesmerizing and the towering mountains surrounding the reservoir lakes are beyond compare. I would have no problem setting up permanent camp in the area. No problem at all…
The area is chock-full of amazing trails and panoramic views, but if you’re not in the mood for a bracing hike, stop in at the North Cascades Institute for beautiful views of the area. Situated directly on Diablo Lake, they not only offer classes on a variety of nature-friendly topics and more, they also have lodging and regularly host events. Additionally, they are the base for the exceptionally entertaining Diablo Lake Dam Tour and pick-up point for the Diablo Lake Ferry which carries passengers to the nearby Ross Lake Resort.
The Diablo Lake Dam Tour is absolutely worthwhile and a great way to spend an afternoon. I recently went with my frequent adventure buddy, Beth and her entire family and we had an excellent time. (Shout out to Mr. Skoczen for organizing everything!) The tour guide was well-informed and added an entertaining narrative to the tour. We learned about the history and geology of the area as well as early Seattle City Light superintendent, J.D. Ross’ contributions. He was largely responsible for bringing interest and investment to the area through his inventive tours and events. (Dam Good Chicken Dinner!) He even brought exotic animals to the lake as an incentive to visit. The island he named Monkey Island fittingly housed monkeys from Woodland Park Zoo and neighboring Deer Island housed white Asiatic deer. It’s said a few of deer escaped the island and ended up breeding with local deer and some of the descendants can still be spotted today.
Cruising around the lake was a fine way to learn about the area’s environment. From the amazing views of towering Colonial Peak and Pyramid Peak and a close-up look into the stunningly turquoise water, the 3-hour tour was entirely enjoyable. We learned the color of the lake is due in part to particles of mica in the glacial “rock flour” and minerals refracting light and bouncing it back. There are 52 area glaciers feeding into the Thunder Arm portion of the lake and 25% of the lake in general is from glacial melt. It was amazing to see the hidden waterfalls tumbling into the lake as we leisurely made our way towards the Ross Dam. The rocky shorelines and inlets of the lake, which can only be reached by small boat, were entirely intriguing and I hope to return via kayak someday.
Included in the cruise, along with a tasty lunch at the North Cascades Institute, is a tour of the Ross Dam and its inner-workings. (c. 1949) It was interesting to learn the distinct waffle-pattern of the dam was originally meant to be filled in and the dam was planned to be 125 feet higher. However, the discovery of 800 year-old cedar trees in the area halted the plans in 1968. (At the same time the area was becoming a National Park) The continuing work would’ve flooded an additional 8,000 acres and drastically altered the makeup and historical bounty of the land. The current 540-foot structure with its giant waffle-squares will just have to do…
For a nice hike down to the Ross Dam area, check out the Ross Dam Trail which is just under 2 miles down to the dam and back. This trail is often used as a starter to the much longer Big Beaver Trail. (Both trails can be accessed from the Ross Lake Trail head parking off of SR-20 near milepost 134.)
There are many places to hike, camp and explore in the Diablo Lake region. The Thunder Arm section of the lake is particularly nice for camping and there are several great hikes in the area. (SR-20 crosses over the Thunder Arm portion of Diablo Lake.) Thunder Point Campground as well as several other campsites on both Diablo and Ross Lake offers boat-in camping. Nearby Colonial Creek South campground also has a vehicle-accessible boat launch and a large campsite layout. Check out the NPS site for boating and fishing regulations for the area. (Note: Boat-in camping requires a backcountry permit.)
A few of the many amazing hikes and panoramic views to experience in the area:
- The Thunder Knob Trailhead is an easy-going trail with great views of Diablo Lake and surrounding peaks. Perfect for a jaunt with the kids or a picnic lunch with a view.
- Head to the Thunder Creek Trailhead for a great day hike, or continue on to Thunder Campground or Neve Campground for a longer adventure. The Fourth of July campground and nearby Fourth of July Pass hike are also excellent. (Note: Backcountry permits are required for camping)
- A nice day-hike heading out of the North Cascades Institute and Sourdough Mountain trail is the Diablo Lake Trail. Spectacular views of the dams, lake and surrounding peaks will be your reward.
- For the ultimate in low-key exploration, stop in at the Diablo Lake Vista Point on SR-20 at mile marker 132. The views are extraordinary and there are several interpretive signs describing the area and its history.
As part of the vast Skagit River, Gorge Lake, Diablo Lake and Ross Lake all combine to form the Ross Lake National Recreation Area; an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. The largest of the three reservoirs, Ross Lake is an impressive 23 miles long with its northern section located in Canada. (The only way to drive in to Ross Lake is by gravel road on the Canadian side, via Hope, B.C.) It is dotted with excellent camping opportunities and beautiful hikes. It would be easy to continually return to the area and not exhaust the prospect of discovery.
One of the great ways to experience the area is at the very unique Ross Lake Resort. Built entirely on floating log booms, it is only reachable by boat or foot. You can arrange for water taxis and truck portage from nearby trailheads or take the Diablo Lake Ferry from the North Cascades Institute – and then the resort truck picks you up. (Note: The Diablo Lake Ferry is cash only and the water taxis must be reserved and paid for in advance.) Make sure plan in advance and bring supplies as there are no amenities, not store and no cell service at the resort. Total, blissful isolation… Yeeeaaaahhhh.
In addition to Ross Lake Resort, there are many excellent campgrounds such as the boat-in Green Point Campground, Roland Point Campground, Cougar Island Campground and more. For an interesting hike, take the boat transport from Ross Lake Resort to the Desolation Peak trailhead. Head up to the Desolation Peak Lookout and take in the view of nearby Hozomeen Mountain. While you’re there, pay tribute to the great Jack Kerouac and the time he spent as a fire lookout in the area. His novels The Dharma Bums, Lonesome Traveler (“Alone on a Mountaintop”) and Desolation Angels reference that period of his adventures. (Interesting fact: Hozomeen Chert is a type of flint rock found exclusively in the North Cascades areas of Washington and British Columbia. It means “sharp, like a knife” and was used to make tools for thousands of years by the area’s indigenous peoples.) Another trail close to Desolation Peak and Hozomeen Lake – and currently on my hiking bucket list – is the 31-mile East Bank Trail which goes almost to Canada. SOON! (Note: Permits are required for all backcountry camping.)
Alas, now it is time to leave one of my most favorite areas in the state. I love all of Whatcom County, but ending with the North Cascades just seems appropriate. The county offers a little bit of everything and it would be a surprise if anyone were able to exhaust its possibilities; especially in the North Cascades. (But what an amazing endeavor to try and undertake!) Delicious food, excellent breweries, deep histories and beauty beyond compare create a truly spectacular adventure, any time of year. Even if you have to drive a little longer from eastern Washington in the winter months, I guarantee it will be worth it. Eat the state! Eat Whatcom County!
Until next time!
For tunes on your next Whatcom County trip, check out my playlist on SPOTIFY
- O-o-h Child – Nina Simone (from Here Comes the Sun)
- Here We Go – Jon Brion (from Punch-Drunk Love (Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack)
- These Days – Jackson Browne (from For Everyman)
- Midnight in Harlem – Tedeschi Trucks Band (from Revelator)
- Bullet Train – Stacey Kent (from I Know I Dream: The Orchestral Sessions (Deluxe Version))
- Travels – Pat Metheny Trio (from Trio 99-00)
- Mah Na Mah Na – Sesame Street (from Sesame Street All-Time Favorites 1)
- Down I-5 – Neko Case, k.d. lang, Laura Veirs (from case/lang/veirs)
- Cast Your Fate to the Wind – Earl Klugh (from Hand Picked)
- Captain Bacardi – Harry Allen (from Something About Jobim)
- Our House – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (from Déjà Vu)
- Don’t Give Up – Feist, Timber Timbre (from And I’ll Scratch Yours)
- Mining for Gold – Cowboy Junkies (from The Trinity Sessions)
- I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today – Dusty Springfield (from Dusty…Definitely)
- Back in Time – Val Gardena, Chris Botti (from Back in Time)
- As – Becca Stevens, Jacob Collier (from Regina)
- Across the Great Divide – Kate Wolf (from Close to You)
- You’re My Favorite Waste of Time – Marshall Crenshaw & The Handsome, Ruthless and Stupid Band (from This Is Easy: The Best of Marshall Crenshaw)
- Buckets of Rain – Live – Neko Case (from Live from Austin, TX)
- 4 A.M. – Herbie Hancock (from Hands)
- Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps – Halie Loren (from They Oughta Write A Song)
- Samba de Orfeu – Cal Tjader (from Soul Sauce)
More I Ate the State adventures!
- Special Edition – Victoria B.C.
- Thurston County
- Special Edition – Puerto Vallarta: THE RETURN
- Skagit County
- Snohomish County – Part I (The Mountain Side)
- Snohomish County – Part II (The Sea Side)
- Grays Harbor County
- Special Edition – Scotland – Part I (w/special guests – London & Reykjavik!)
- Special Edition – Scotland – Part II (w/special guests – London & Reykjavik!)
- Clallam County
- Kitsap County
- Jefferson County
- Mason County
- Kittitas County
- Yakima County
- Chelan County
- Special Edition – Puerto Vallarta
- Special Edition – Ode to A Bygone Seattle