I Ate the State – Island County

Happy New Year from I Ate the State! I’m quite certain it’s going to be a good one – and chock full of Washington State adventure.

To start the year off in coastal style, I’d like to share my recent adventures to the beautiful shores of Island County. Comprised primarily of Whidbey and Camano Islands and located in the upper northwest part of the state, Island County is a wonderful escape from the mainland commotion any time of year. Full of history, sweeping prairies and shorelines, there’s something for everyone to enjoy on these lovely little islands. Holding court as the second smallest county in Washington (by area), one might think there wouldn’t be much to see and do, but they’d be entirely wrong.

True to its name, Island County is indeed a seafaring destination. That said, there are also routes which quite nicely accommodate the four-wheeled traveler. On my recent journey, I hit up the excellent Washington State Ferry system as well as the bridges connecting both Camano and Whidbey Islands to the mainland. One of these days I’d love to arrive via sailboat… #BucketList

Cama View
Looking out towards the Olympics from Cama Beach

To arrive in Camano Island, I drove north on I-5 and took Exit 212 leading to Stanwood. After following SR-532 through Stanwood, I crossed over moody Davis Slough and the Stillaguamish River via the Camano Gateway Bridge and officially entered Island County. For an excellent day trip from the Seattle area, consider a combo visit to both Camano Island and the Stanwood area. While adjacent to each other, they actually span both Snohomish County and Island County. Travel bonus! There are great restaurants, outdoor opportunities and lodging in both areas, making for a great day trip or weekend getaway. For this adventure, however, I was sticking to the gorgeous shores of Island County.

As one of the two largest islands making up Island County, it can be easy at times to forget you’re actually on an island. Filled with beautiful stretches of farmland and forest, Camano Island is an idyllic slice of Northwest living. Driving around the island is a wonderful way to spend the day and the glimpses you’ll catch of surrounding Possession Sound and Port Susan make for a perfectly picturesque road trip.

One of the first places I wanted to visit was the beautiful Kristoferson Farm. Perched on a hill overlooking scenic farmland, this sixth-generation farm (c. 1912 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places) features organic lavender, hay and fruit crops as well as the zip-line outfit, Canopy Tours NW. While I will admit to still mentally recovering from my jungle zip-line incident near Puerto Vallarta, I plan on returning to conquer my zip-line fears on Camano Island in the near future.

To highlight their bounty, they feature related products in their onsite farm store and gift shop. I picked up some delicious culinary lavender on my visit and have been adding it to various bakery and beverage experimentations ever since. Yum! They also host regular farm-to-table Dinner in the Barn events featuring northwest wineries and chefs as well as lavender craft classes. I do plan on making a triumphant return to zip-lining, but I’d be a liar if I said the barn dinners weren’t absolute tops on my list…

If you’re looking for a unique challenge, but zip-lining isn’t your thing, check out some AXE THROWING action just up the road at Arrowhead Ranch. They feature shared and private axe-throwing lanes as well as various workshops. In particular, their Live-Edge Charcuterie Board class is high on my list of things to check out. Wood-working shenanigans which include hors d’oeuvres and local wine? I’m IN! (I wonder if you drink wine while using power tools…)

While Arrowhead Ranch doesn’t offer onsite food or beverage, they do encourage the bring-your-own plan. Located nearby is the excellent Camano Commons, the local hub for restaurants, coffee, gifts and more. Some of the great options to check out:

There are many excellent spots from which to enjoy the shoreline views as well as Camano’s beautiful forested areas. Peoples of the Coast Salish Native American tribes have been visiting the island for thousands of years to harvest the bounty of seafood, berries and to benefit from the natural wonders. The area has been pivotal to the culture of native peoples as well as Euro-American settlers who began moving to the area in the mid-1800s. Driving, hiking, biking and boating around the island – whatever your mode of transportation – it’s easy to understand the appeal and importance of this beautiful locale.

During my own meandering around the island, I spent a bit of time exploring the lovely Cama Beach Historical State Park. Located on the western side of the island, overlooking the Saratoga Passage and onward towards the Olympic Mountains, the park is a true Camano Island gem. Long a destination for vacationing Northwesterners and included on the National Register of Historic Places, the park has been welcoming visitors to its beach-side cedar cabins since 1934. It felt a bit like stepping into a PNW version of the old-school resort in Dirty Dancing… (And remember: NOBODY puts baby in the corner!)

In addition to the Cama Beach Resort cabins, the charming park features a great picnic area, many miles of beautiful hiking trails, the seasonal Cama Beach Store and an events center. If boating is your thing, the Center for Wooden Boats offers boat-building classes and the park features a boat launch and rentals. (Row, sail and motor) And should cabin or outdoor cooking not be your thing, head to the Cama Beach Café for tasty dining options. (Open daily from June thru Labor Day and on weekends for breakfast/lunch, September thru May)

For further enjoyment of the Camano Island shoreline, stroll up the one-mile trail leading south to neighboring Camano Island State Park. (Or hit up nearby Lowell Point Road via West Camano Drive for a quick car ride) While this park also has a small handful of cabins, they feature a large camping area which accommodates both tent and RV camping. In addition to relaxing in the cozy campsites, check out the boating scene and perhaps do a bit of crabbing or saltwater fishing. And as is the case with all Washington State parks, a Discover Pass is recommended for park access. (Daily passes for $10 are also available onsite)

Since it was such a beautiful day on my visit, I opted for a little beach picnic to make the most of the sunshine. In addition to beach picnics, there are several other great dining options on the island. A few places to consider on your next Camano getaway:

  • Not too far from Camano Island State Park, Journey’s End Café (formerly Kara’s Kitchen) offers great burgers, pizza and more. Grab it to go and head back to the beach! They also host regular game nights and feature live music on weekends.
  • Located just across the way from the Kristoferson Farm, Rockaway Bar & Grill serves NW style fare featuring local ingredients. Fresh oysters, fish and produce make for some very delicious menu options.
  • If you happen to be visiting the island during the first weekend of the month and are feeling parched, check out Dusty Cellars Winery and Edward Lynne Cellars for a bit of wine-tasting enjoyment. (First weekend of each month – check websites for hours)
  • Should you like to extend your Camano stay and further enjoy the local scene, head north of Cama Beach State Park on West Camano Drive to the beautiful Camano Island Inn. They feature well-appointed rooms, stunning views and a great location from which to explore the island.

Pro tip: There are many great lodging options on the island – Hit up VRBO and Airbnb to peruse the many possibilities.

Camano Island is fairly large, but it’s still possible to cover the entire island on an afternoon drive. In pursuit of this goal, I was driving around the southern tip of the island, enjoying the views of Port Susan to the east, when I came upon the quaint Tyee Grocery and Farms. After picking up a coffee and quick snack, I continued down East Camano Drive, but was inspired to pull over not too far down the road. I spotted a few art installations and a very cool little lending library with a small, adjacent parking area. A beautiful drive, a little Art and some cool books – Nice! Definitely keep your eyes peeled while rambling around the island as there are great finds around so many of its corners.

Upon wrapping up my tour of Camano Island, it was time to head to neighboring Whidbey Island to continue my coastal adventures. Granted, I did end up making an additional trip to Whidbey Island on a later excursion, but it is absolutely possible to do a grand tour of both islands on a long day or weekend overnighter. That said, it’s hard to not to spend a little extra time in the Deception Pass area as it is positively stunning. And that’s exactly what happened on my first trip out…

Island County
Entering Island County! (As seen from Deception Pass Bridge)

If you happen to have a boat, (#LifeGoals) you can indeed head over the Saratoga Passage from Camano Island to get to Whidbey Island, the largest island in Washington State. The Saratoga Passage is a beautiful stretch of water and a popular section of the Puget Sound waterways. There are no ferries that go between Camano and Whidbey, but you can sometimes see private passenger boats like the Victoria Clipper cruising through both Saratoga Passage and Deception Pass when waters are rough in the nearby Strait of Juan de Fuca. There are also great whale-watching tours such as Deception Pass Tours which regularly travel through the area.

The Coast Salish and Lower Skagit tribes (Now recognized within the Swinomish Nation in neighboring Skagit County) have been stewards of these waters and islands for thousands of years. It’s easy to see how this beautiful, bountiful area could hold such importance to coastal living. Camano Island has many treasures to share, but with Whidbey being the larger island, the bounty is even more plentiful. It is entirely possible to enjoy sweeping forests, coastlines and wide-open prairies on a visit to Whidbey; All of these environments providing a wealth of resources to the enduring island community.

Since I wanted to drive over Deception Pass (on the National Register of Historic Places) to arrive on Whidbey Island, I took Exit 230 off I-5 North (near Burlington in Skagit County) to access SR-20. (SR-20 is also known as the North Cascades Highway or the spectacular Cascade Loop) Once heading west on SR-20, I followed the road until it turned off to the left, just before Anacortes. If you prefer a more seafaring route, take the Mukilteo/Clinton Ferry or Port Townsend/Coupeville Ferry and avoid the crowds of the I-5 corridor. (For another travel bonus trip, link your Island County adventures with Port Townsend and beautiful Jefferson County)

Crossing over Deception Pass is quite a spectacular experience. Whether via car, bike, or foot, it is a beautiful sight to behold. If you happen to be leery of heights, walking over it might not be your bag, but it is well worth the consideration. On my Ragnar Northwest Passage adventure, one of our runners had the opportunity to run across the bridge around sunrise and I’m sure it was amazing. I was traveling over the bridge in the team van at the time and even that was an amazing scene. (The sunrise. Not a bunch of stinky runners piled in a van… not as amazing.) I must admit, however, as much as I love heights, I was completely content to merely walk across the bridge on my own adventure. (Details of my actual bridge visit are included in my Skagit County article)

In addition to the bridge itself, Deception Pass State Park is truly beautiful and should be a must-visit on any list of Northwest destinations. Spanning both Skagit and Island Counties via the bridge, the park has a plethora of camping, hiking, boating, fishing and beach opportunities to enjoy. After becoming a state park in 1922, the Civilian Conservation Corps built roads, buildings and trails and many of the park structures are now on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s easy to feel you’ve stepped back into a quieter, less hectic era when visiting the park. (Check out the in-park CCCs Interpretive Center to learn more about the history of the park.) Don’t miss a visit to this spectacular part of the state! (For even more exploration of the area, stop in a few miles down the road at Deception Pass State Park’s sister park, Dugualla State Park.)

After enjoying the striking scenery of the Deception Pass area, I traveled further south along SR-20 towards the largest city on the island, Oak Harbor. Home to the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, Oak Harbor is a bustling and vibrant island community. The area is a fun place to explore as well as a center for tasty dining and fun shopping opportunities – and keep an eye out for the naval planes regularly flying overhead.

Naval Base
Just an everyday scene on SR-20 into Oak Harbor…

As you’re coming through town on SR-20, there are quite a few great dining options. All of that adventuring at Deception Pass can make one hungry and there are several great establishments to check out along the main thoroughfare. Just a few of the delicious options:

  • Stop in at Flyers Restaurant & Brewery for great local beers, tasty burgers and more. Located directly off SR-20.
  • Stock up on delicious smoked salmon at Seabolt’s Smokehouse off of SR-20 or hang out and enjoy their lunch and dinner menu. Their clam chowder and Penn Cover oysters are very tasty!
  • The hours are short, but a visit to Kau Kau Corner is well worth the timing. Specializing in Hawaiian comfort food, they offer tempting dishes such as Kalua pork and Spam musubi. (Mon-Fri, 11am – 4pm – Located directly off SR-20)
  • Don’t let the name fool you. In addition to great, organic coffee, Rock Island Coffee has a full menu which includes beer and wine. Check out their skillet mac-n-cheese! (Open ‘til 5pm, M-Sat and 3pm on Sundays)
  • If you’re looking for a classic Oak Harbor joint, check out Island Café, located directly off SR-20. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner with a classic diner flair.
  • During the late spring and summer, stop in at the Oak Harbor Farmers Market and enjoy some great local produce and artisan goods. (Thursdays, 4-7pm, right off SR-20)

On any visit to Oak Harbor, it’s a great idea to visit the historic Main Street part of town. This waterfront area is filled with fun shops, great restaurants and regular events. It’s the heart of Oak Harbor and can easily accommodate a leisurely day on the town. The full-service Oak Harbor Marina is also located in this area if you happen to be arriving via boat. (#INeedABoat)

On your next visit to Oak Harbor, check out these great spots in the historic downtown waterfront area:

  • Not far before turning off SR-20 to head towards the waterfront, hit up Wicked Teuton Brewing Co. & Homebrew Supply for a tasty local brew or craft soda. This family and pet-friendly taproom is open daily at 11am – Check website for closing times.
  • There are several fun shopping stops to make in the downtown area. A couple of my favorites are the ridiculously cute Popsies with their excellent selection of treats and Purple Moon with their eclectic selection of gifts and more. And don’t forget to stop in at Whidbey Beer Works to peruse their large selection of specialty beers, ciders, wine and meads. (They also do occasional tasting events)
  • Grab a great cup of coffee for your stroll around the waterfront at Whidbey Coffee Co. In addition to their downtown location, they have 11 others in Western Washington. Fun fact: Contrary to their name, they are actually headquartered across the water in Mukilteo, whereas the excellent Mukilteo Coffee Roasters is based on Whidbey Island in nearby Langley. Shenanigans!
  • Closed for the holidays on my recent visit, Chris’ Bakery (since 1948) has been – and will hopefully continue – making delicious pastries, pies, cakes and more for many years to come. Their sweet treats are delicious, but don’t miss out trying their meat pies and amazing bread as well!
  • I enjoyed a tasty, diner-style breakfast on my last visit to Oak Harbor at the Riverside Café. Classic décor and a small, adjacent bar make this a cool spot to visit any time of day. (Breakfast, lunch and dinner)
  • On the finer dining side, head to Rustica Café & Wine Bar (Open at noon, 10am on Sundays for brunch), the Terrace Wine Bar and Bistro (3-10pm, closed Sun/Mon) and lovely Fraser’s Gourmet Hideaway (Tues – Sat, 4:30 – 9:30pm, closed Sun/Mon) for a tasty day or night on the town.
  • If you’re looking to celebrate all things Oak Harbor, be sure to hit up their annual Holland Happening International Festival every April. Pioneer Way and the waterfront is blocked off for craft and food vendors as well live music and beer gardens. (April 23-26, 2020)
  • If you’d like to work off some of that downtown decadence, head a little further towards the water and check out the Wildwood Farm B&B. This equestrian-friendly, 80-acre farm features horse boarding, instruction, training and indoor/outdoor arenas. Guests can also stay in a remodeled 1914 bunkhouse and enjoy beautiful walking trails during their stay. Dreamy!

Heading further south on SR-20 will bring you through some magnificent scenery. There are beautiful farms, pastures and sweeping vistas around every turn and one would be hard-pressed to get bored of the views. The drive itself is interesting, but there are several great stops along the way. One such destination is the awesome Blue Fox Drive-in Theater. Entertaining Whidbey Island since 1959, they feature movies, go-karts, concessions and arcade games. When was the last time you went to a drive-in movie?? Sigh…

In keeping with my, “Hmmm – maybe there’s something cool off in that direction – I should check” plan, I turned off SR-20 onto Hastie Lake Road. I had no idea where it would lead, but the landscapes were gorgeous and I thought maybe it would head towards the water. (But then, most paths on an island typically do at some point…) I’m very glad I did as the drive was stunning and beyond idyllic. Along the way, I passed lovely farmland and spots where I’m pretty sure time had stood still. Around one bend, I stumbled upon the charming Hennrich Tree Farm, busy in full-operation for the holiday season.

Not too far past the tree farm and much as expected, I reached the shoreline. Conveniently located at the intersection of Hastie Lake Road and West Beach Road was the tiny, but perfectly-positioned Hastie Lake County Park. Situated on the shoreline in between private beaches, it was a beautiful spot to pull over and enjoy the view and it brought back some wonderful, unexpected memories.

When I was very young, my family made a couple of visits to Whidbey Island to visit friends. (All the way from very non-coastal Eastern WA) I have vivid memories of their house overlooking the water and a cool rope ladder leading down the bluff to the private beach below. Standing on the shores of Hastie Lake County Park and looking down the beach at the homes overlooking the water brought me right back to my 5-year-old self. I remember being absolutely charmed by coastal living and can honestly say that nothing has since changed. Just dreamy…

Just as I’d hoped, it was both an easy and beautiful loop drive back to SR-20 beginning on West Beach Road. Once back on the highway, I continued south towards my next planned destination, Fort Ebey State Park and Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. I’d been wanting to visit these areas for quite some time and since there was a fortuitous break in the rain, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Pro tip: As helpful as on-board and mobile GPS can be, it’s always good to have a map or printed directions of the area on hand. It’s common to lose satellite or mobile connections in the more remote and forested areas – be prepared! And in the least, have a full tank, water and SNACKS at the ready. Mmm… Snacks…

The first area I visited was Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. On the National Register of Historic Places and the first National Historic Reserve in the US (established by Congress in 1978 and one of only three presently in the country), the entire area is a one of the most remarkable stretches of land in the state. (And beyond!) I’m sad I hadn’t visited sooner, but am completely grateful to have finally experienced this stunning, expansive beauty in person.

Driving up the access road, the view of gorgeous prairies began to stretch out in front of me as I gained elevation up the hillside. While the prairies expanded, so did the amazing view of the shoreline, making room for the glimmering skyline in the distance. The way the sun was lighting the horizon was exquisite and I can definitively say it was one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen.

Ebey Landing
Looking out towards the water from Ebey Landing

The Lower Skagit Tribe has been gazing out over these vistas for thousands of years with western settlements beginning to populate the region in the 1850s. One of the first homesteads was plotted by Whidbey pioneers, Isaac Ebey and his wife, Rebecca Davis. After having established himself in the Olympia area, Isaac brought his family over from Missouri to cultivate the sprawling farmland which is now known as Ebey’s Landing. Their home still stands along with defense blockhouses and acres of presently farmed area.

A leisurely hike through the area via the Ebey’s Landing trails is a must for any Whidbey Island visit and nicely showcases a landscape that has scarcely changed over the last few hundred years. Even just a drive up to the Prairie Landing Overlook to enjoy the coastal and farmland views is well worth it. (Located just across the road from Sunnyside Cemetery (c. 1865) and the Davis Blockhouse. Isaac Ebey and Rebecca Davis as well as Coupeville’s namesake, Thomas Coupe are laid to rest in this cemetery.)

Not too far north up the coast and included within the National Historical Reserve lies Fort Ebey State Park. If you’re up for camping, this is a great location from which to explore the area. Not only is there ample camping, the area is popular with paragliders and surfers and the beaches serve as great seaweed gathering spots in the spring. If you’d like to do some smallmouth bass fishing, check out lovely Lake Pondilla, found in the park’s interior. (Note: Until a recent double-check on my research, I was convinced the name was actually Lake PondZILLA. And that’s what I’ll be personally referring to it as moving forward… But hey, score one for double-checking your research! I had a whole backstory worked out in my head and everything! A fisherman must’ve caught a GIANT fish at some point and told his buddies he caught a Godzilla fish in the pond… Come on, it makes sense! I can’t lie – I feel a little let down…)

While visiting the park, be sure to check out the WWII era battery and gun emplacements. Bring a flashlight and snake through the darkened corridors of the island’s military history. Continue your explorations along the stunning Kettles Trail System which connects the park to the reserve as well as the epic Pacific NW National Scenic Trail. The views and vistas found along these coastal trails are gorgeous and not to be missed. (Even minus the Godzilla Fish…)

Just over from Fort Ebey State Park and off SR-20, lies the historic center of Whidbey Island, the ever-charming Coupeville. While not incorporated until 1910, it is actually the second oldest town in the state. (Steilacoom is the oldest incorporated town in the state) Western settlement began in the 1850s and was led by the city’s namesake, Captain Thomas Coupe. Serving as the county seat and featuring a wonderful, historic waterfront and wharf area (c. 1905), Coupeville is a wonderful town to explore and an excellent look into the evolution of Washington State. Be sure to stop in at the Island County Historical Museum located near the waterfront for an in-depth look at the area’s fascinating history.

Nestled alongside beautiful Penn Cove, Coupeville is fairly compact, making it easy to explore. That said, there are many treasures packed into its tiny downtown and it’s advisable to plan on spending at least a day in the area. The Coupeville Wharf (on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve, along with Coupeville in general), is a great place to start your explorations. The views of Penn Cove, downtown Coupeville and Front Street are picture-perfect and the subject of many a northwest photo op.

Grab a cup of coffee at Coffee on the Cove, housed inside the wharf building and enjoy investigating the interpretive displays and exhibits courtesy of the Marine Education Center. Also housed in the historic building is the funky Harbor Gifts shop as well as newly reopened restaurant, The Cove. (Formerly the Cove Café. Note: As of this writing, Yelp and Trip Advisor say they’re closed, but the new owners have recently reopened the spot…) When you’ve finished your visit, head back down to the sailboat you’ve moored nearby and enjoy the beauty of Penn Cove. (#BoatDreams)

Coupeville’s downtown Front Street is an absolutely delightful place to spend an afternoon. Packed into a few blocks are charming shops, restaurants and galleries, all nestled along the shores of beautiful Penn Cove. Consider checking out the walking tour offered by the Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association or discover the area at your own leisure. Either approach will be filled with great finds and tasty treats. A few of the intriguing spots you’ll find along the way:

  • Located next to the wharf boardwalk, Collections Boutique features clothing, accessories and beach-themed gifts.
  • If you’re looking for a cool, local bookstore, check out Kingfisher Bookstore. The building, itself, constructed in 1874 is alone worth a visit and once housed the popular, Benson’s Confectionery. (c. 1915)
  • For all things quirky and hilarious, Far From Normal is the perfect stop. I picked up everything from vintage sheet music to soap and old school candies. Definitely my kind of place…
  • For a lovely selection of clothing, shoes, gift items, soaps and more, stop in at the very quaint Aqua Gifts.
  • Celebrate the NW Dutch influence at A Touch of Dutch. They feature Dutch foods and tasty treats, blue Delftware and more in their incredibly cozy shop.
  • Sporting an excellent view of Penn Cove, Front Street Grill offers tasty seafood and NW coastal dining in their lovely waterfront building. Try some of the famous Penn Cove mussels!
  • Take a break from exploring the shops and enjoy a nice glass of wine at the Vail Wine Shop & Tasting Room. A great glass of vino and an amazing view of Penn Cove – sign me up!
  • Oh, wow… the bread! Stop in at super cute and deliciously tasty Little Red Hen Bakery for fresh baked bread and bakery specialties. Community supported and island sustained!
  • Recently rescued and now under restoration, the Haller House provides a great look at Coupeville’s past. Built on the original land claim of Thomas Coupe, it is an important piece of Coupeville’s history and will be a fine re-addition to the Front Street scene.

For more great shopping and dining options, check out the blocks just above Front Street and the Waterfront area. There is also a nice public parking area adjacent to the Coupeville Library, located just past the Bayleaf shop…

  • The Bayleaf shop features the stuff of foodie dreams. Wonderful artisan meats and cheeses, specialty foods and a great wine selection. Grab things to go or order one of their amazing sandwiches to enjoy in-house.
  • Stop in at Currents Bistro for delicious NW-inspired fare and island ambiance. Featuring locally sourced ingredients, their dishes are delectable.
  • I’m going to have to return to Coupeville soon so I can again try to visit The Oystercatcher. I’ve heard many great things and was excited to stop in, but the line was literally pressed up against the door when I peeked in. Next time!! Mmmm… Oysters… (Their bread has such a following it inspired the creation of the aforementioned Little Red Hen Bakery!)
  • While their local lavender farm doesn’t re-open for the season until June, the lovely Lavender Wind Farm shop is open in downtown Coupeville. (Just across from the Oystercatcher) Walking into the store is like walking into the French countryside. Sigh… Along with a wide variety of culinary and home-based lavender goods, they also feature a coffee bar and baked goods. I greatly enjoyed their lavender caramels and can’t wait to get my hands on some more!
  • Check out Ciao for deliciously crafted pizza, salads and fresh seafood as well as a great lounge area and regular live music. Located just up from downtown on North Main Street.
  • Located on South Main Street, a mile of so west of the downtown core, Penn Cove Brewing Company is an excellent place to take a break. They feature tasty brews, a small menu and various weekly specials. (Also in nearby communities, Oak Harbor and Freeland)

The Coupeville area has many wonderful lodging opportunities, including several traditional B&Bs. You can’t miss the stately Anchorage Inn B&B on North Main Street, just before you enter the Waterfront area and the lovely Blue Goose Inn B&B can be spotted just before. The Compass Rose B&B, with its charming, minty green exterior can be found on South Main Street and for something a little less traditional, consider the rustic, shoreline cabins and rooms at the wonderfully unique Captain Whidbey Inn. They also feature a restaurant and tavern as well as accessibility via boat and seaplane! (Additionally, the drive there via coastal Madrona Way is beautiful!) If camping is your thing, Rhododendron Park, located in Coupeville proper, offers tent and RV camping and great access to local hiking trails.

Shellfish tip: If you’d like to try your hand at gathering some of the famous, local shellfish, the area near Captain Whidbey is wonderful. Check out the West Penn Cove and Twin Lagoons areas, located at the base of Penn Cove. West Penn Cove has clams, mussels & oysters (Mid-July thru Mid-Sept only) and Twin Lagoons has clams, mussels and oysters year-round. Be sure to check the DOH website on day of harvest to ensure the beach is open for shellfish harvesting.

There are already countless things to do in the Coupeville area, but they up the ante with several annual festivals in addition to many surrounding farms to visit and enjoy. A few more reasons to spend some time in Coupeville:

  • Celebrate the jewels of the area at the yearly Penn Cove MusselFest (March 7-8, 2020)
  • Celebrate the waters that host the jewels of the area at the annual Penn Cove Water Festival (May 16, 2020)
  • Many artists and craftspeople call the island home and a great place to check out their wares is at the annual Coupeville Arts & Crafts Festival (August 8-9, 2020)
  • Since 1946, Bell’s Farm has been providing delicious strawberries, produce and more to the island. Head over to their Strawberry Daze celebration in late June and stop by their Honesty Stand to stock up on baked goods, produce, eggs, lamb and strawberries.
  • Stop in at the 3 Sisters Family Farm (c. 1910) for all-natural, ethically and sustainably raised beef, pork, lamb and chickens. The beef and lamb are 100% grass-fed, the pork is fed barley raised on the Island and the chickens are cage-free. Visit their market for all products, snacks, local goods and beverages
  • For a great selection of goods from local farmers and artisans, head to the Coupeville Farmers Market for all things delicious. (Saturdays, April – Oct, 10am – 2pm)

Mirroring its sister, Fort Worden, across the way in Jefferson County, the fascinating Fort Casey Historical State Park is a must-add to your Whidbey Island itinerary. Built in the late 1800’s, Fort Casey, in combination with Fort Worden and nearby Fort Flagler (on Marrowstone Island), formed a very important part of the western US coastal defense network. It is easy to spend hours combing through the catacomb of bunkers and darkened corridors. (Don’t forget to bring a flashlight!) It is also easy to check out both Fort Casey and Fort Worden on a long afternoon. Just hop aboard the nearby Port Townsend/Coupeville ferry and you’re on your way! (Reservations are recommended for this ferry crossing.)

In addition to the military aspect of the park, be sure to pay a visit to the Admiralty Head Lighthouse and learn about the area’s importance to seafaring traffic through the years. There is also great camping, boating and saltwater fishing accessible from within the park and several excellent picnic areas to enjoy. If you’re more interested in checking out historic lodging and grounds, the Fort Casey Inn, located just down the road from the park, is absolutely beautiful.

Heading south on SR-20 towards Fort Casey State Park, the road becomes SR-525 when you hit the turn-off for Fort Casey. (SR-20 continues to and ends at Fort Casey State Park) Continuing south on SR-525 will shortly bring you to the completely charming Greenbank area. The drive is beautiful, showcasing beautiful forested and coastal scenery; a fine area to hit up for a weekend drive. In addition to the wonderful drive, there are several excellent spots to hit up in the Greenbank area. A few of my favorites:

  • It would be entirely enjoyable and advisable to spend an afternoon at historic Greenbank Farm. Beautiful gardens, trails, sweeping farmland, two galleries and glorious picnic ops await you on your next visit. Throw in a stop at the onsite Greenbank Farm Wine Shop and delicious Whidbey Pies Café and you might be there longer than the afternoon. The farm was actually a major stop on the Ragnar race trail and I can’t tell you just how much I enjoyed that giant piece of loganberry pie… WOW! (Mon-Fri, 11am – 6pm, Sat/Sun at 10:30am)
  • The beautiful Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens, located just south of Greenbank Farm on SR-525 is a lovely and colorful way to while away an afternoon. The Rhododendrons, Washington’s state flower, are glorious and plentiful when in bloom. (I keep looking at the name and seeing Meerkat Gardens, which would also be awesome. Just sayin’.)
  • Great wine, beautiful scenery and a relaxing atmosphere can be found at Holmes Harbor Cellars in the Honeymoon Bay area. (Check website for hours) They are also part of the Whidbey Island Wine & Spirits Trail and annual Red Wine & Chocolate Tour.
  • Don’t miss a stop into this tiny gem of a store. The Greenbank Pantry and Deli is chock full of delicious meats and cheeses as well as local specialty items, a deli counter, baked goods and more. Their Prosciutto Mozz sandwich was SO delicious! They also carry delicious bread from the Little Red Hen Bakery in Coupeville. (Closed Sunday)

A beautiful side-route in the Greenbank area can be found via South Smuggler’s Cove Road along the west side of the island. There’s a wonderful view over to Marrowstone Island in Jefferson County and glorious peeks into hidden coves and shoreline. We drove through this area as part of the Ragnar route and while I was glad to not have to run uphill through the area, I was more than happy to enjoy the scenery from my tired spot in the van. South Whidbey State Park is a nice place to stop along the way if you’d like to hike amongst some very large, old trees. There is sadly no camping due to tree disease, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying their beauty. One of the cedars is 500-years old!

Continuing south on SR-525 will bring you to the tiny town of Freeland. For as tiny a town as Freeland is, it is impressive how many cool antique and thrift stores they feature. The same could be said for cool spots to stop and grab a delicious beverage! Throw in a tasty meal and perhaps a stay at the local vegan B&B and you could have a most excellent adventure. A few places to check out on your next Freeland adventure:

  • If you’re up for a truly epic thrift store outing, don’t miss a stop at Senior Thrift, located just off SR-525. It’s remarkable what they’ve packed inside that building! Mutiny Bay Antiques and Red Rooster Antique Mall are both chock full of excellent finds and the Habitat for Humanity Store has amazing bargains to cover your home project needs and more. (Also in Oak Harbor)
  • For a tasty breakfast, lunch or dinner, head to the local staple, Freeland Café & Lounge. Big breakfasts (All day!), tasty burgers, delicious seafood and more have been gracing their tables since 1977.
  • Rocket Taco serves delicious traditional and “deluxe” tacos with all the accoutrements along with tasty margaritas in their cozy Freeland spot. They also have Mexican Chocolate Pots de Crème and Key Lime pie IN A JAR. YUM! (Closed Monday. Also located in Seattle on Capitol Hill!)
  • Take time to wet your whistle at one of Freeland’s fine beverage establishments. Blooms Winery & 5115 Bistro (Closed Tues/Wed, 11am – 8pm otherwise, Fri – 9pm) and Mutiny Bay Distillery (Mon, Thurs-Sat, 11am – 5pm, Sun – Noon – 5pm, Closed Tues/Wed) both offer wonderful wine and spirits – and the 5115 Bistro at Blooms is delicious. Nearby Dancing Fish Vineyards also has lodging should you want to have that extra glass of wine while enjoying a bit of live music. (Thurs, Sat, Sun, Mon – 11am – 6pm, Fri – 11am – 8pm, Tasting room closes at 5pm – Music in bar, 5:30-7:30)
  • Set on 70-acres of beautiful farmland, the Someday Farm Vegan B&B features lodging, walking trails and plenty of farm animals to commune amongst. (They ask you don’t bring animal products with you on your visit to the farm.)
  • Not too far from Freeland is the spectacular, 72-acre Earth Sanctuary. Designed by Chuck Pettis, the sanctuary features stone circles and sculptures, wetlands, a labyrinth, medicine wheels and more. They are presently working on an innovative 500-year Plan to restore the area to its original ecological and environmental best. (Open during daylight hours)
  • Just a little further south in the Mutiny Bay area off SR-525, the Double Bluff Beach & Off-leash Area features a lovely 4-mile round-trip walk along an extensive sandy beach for you and your pooch. There are few things more joyful than watching a dog experience the beach for the first time.
Country Roads
Country roads stretching out for miles…

Nearing the end of my trek across the island, I landed in the lovely town of Langley, known affectionately as The Village by the Sea. Long an important location for trade, resources and artistic endeavors on the island, it remains a mainstay of activity today. If you are heading to the island from the Seattle/Mukilteo area, it is also the first larger town you’ll come to after disembarking in nearby Clinton.

Forged largely of the will and determination of young immigrant, Jacob Anthes, Langley began development in the 1890s and became an incorporated town in 1913. The town continued to grow (including the rabbit population due to a 4-H fair display going amok) and has thoroughly established itself as a vital link from the mainland to Whidbey Island. To learn more about the history of Langley and its founding father, stop by the South Whidbey Historical Museum, housed in a logger’s bunkhouse constructed by Jacob Anthes in 1902. (Interesting note: Jacob Anthes was founder of the unique Whidbey Telecom, still in business and one of the only US telecom companies to have always been privately owned and operated. They were also the first telecom company west of the Rockies to offer Internet services via phone in 1994. All hail the Internets!)

Langley is an excellent and easily accessible get-away from the fast-paced mainland, just 40-minutes away. There are many wonderful things to see and do in the Langley area as well as many delicious restaurants to try. On my recent trip to Langley, I arrived in the evening, so dinner was tops on my to-do list. I happened upon the iconic Bayview Cash Store building (c. 1924) and was very drawn in by the scene. I’m SO glad I stopped as it’s a veritable treasure trove of shops, restaurants and art. A few of the places to check out on your visit:

  • On my recent visit, I was very in the mood for fresh seafood and good beer. The Taproom at Bayview Corner deftly filled both needs and beyond. The delicious crab cakes were accompanied by a very unique and tasty jicama slaw which I’ll fully admit to attempting to recreate at home. Delicious! It should also be noted their tap list is great. They even had my all-time favorite Belgian-style (By way of Quebec’s Unibroue) beer, Maudite on tap. Dreeeeaaaaamy…
  • The charming Farmer & the Vine features a large wine selection as well as small plates and live music.
  • Not only do they serve delicious doughnuts, Whidbey Doughnuts also offers all-day breakfast and tasty sandwiches – including a Monte Cristo. (Note: I’m ever-vigilant and always on the lookout for a good Monte Cristo. Because they are DELICIOUS.) (Sunday thru Wednesday, 6am – 3pm, Thursday thru Saturday, 6am – 8pm)
  • Every July through September, the Island Shakespeare Festival keeps the island entertained with the Bard’s prolific words. The festival headquarters are housed inside the Bayview Cash Store. Pop in and learn about the festival as well as enjoy the revolving art displays inside the main lobby and stairwell areas, hosted by onsite Front Room Gallery.
  • Sharing a parking lot with the Bayview Cash Store is the Bayview Farm & Garden and Flowerhouse Garden Café. The shop, gardens and café, along with the wonderful old farm buildings and community hall make for the quintessential island farm scene. (Café open 8am – 4pm, Garden Store open 9am – 6pm, Mon-Sat, 5pm on Sunday)
  • Situated just past Bayview Farm & Garden lies the excellent Orchard Kitchen. Not only do they serve locally-sourced, seasonal menus featuring their onsite farm, they also host regular cooking classes in their kitchen. Cool! (Open Thurs – Sat in fall/winter and Thurs – Sun in spring/summer)
  • In addition to being a general hub of awesomeness, the Bayview Cash Store also hosts regular street dances during the summer as well as the Bayview Farmers Market on Spring/Summer Saturdays. (April 25 – Oct 16, 10am – 2pm, 2020. Keep an eye out for special Holiday Market hours during the winter months.)

In addition to the great beverage options available at the Bayview Cash Store, there are many other places in the Langley area to enjoy a tasty libation or great cup of coffee. A few of the great spots to check out while you’re visiting the Village by the Sea:

  • If you’re a fan of berries, don’t miss a visit to the lovely Whidbey Island Distillery and its 9-acre estate located just off SR-525. Try their famous liqueurs, particularly the blackberry and be sure to sample their great Rye. (Open daily, 11am – 5pm)
  • In addition to a lovely glass of wine in their tasting room, Comforts of Whidbey Winery also features lodging in their 6-room Bed & Breakfast. Set atop the tasting room with views of the vineyards and Puget Sound, it’s completely justified to include “comforts” in the name. (Thurs/Fri – 1-6pm, Sat – 11am – 6pm, Sun – Noon – 6pm)
  • Stop in for wine and a cabaret show at Ott & Hunter Wines in the heart of downtown Langley with great views of the water. If they don’t already, I deeply hope they feature “Cabernet & Cabaret” evenings. It seems only fair… (Sun-Thurs – 1-8pm, Fri/Sat – 12-10pm, closed Wed)
  • If you’re visiting Langley on the weekend, stop it at Spoiled Dog Winery for a glass of delicious Pinot Noir in their tasting room and enjoy the idyllic surrounds of their estate. (Sat/Sun, Noon-5pm, outside food and non-alcoholic beverage welcome in the outdoor seating area.)
  • Located in the heart of downtown with a great view, Village Wine Shop & Tasting Room offers tastings, a well-stocked selection in their wine shop and regular events. (Wed – Sun, 11am – 6pm)
  • Also found in the lovely downtown area, Double Bluff Brewing features several of their tasty beers in their tap room and cozy outdoor seating area. Kid and dog friendly, outside food welcome. (Mon-Thurs, 3pm – 8pm, Fri/Sat, 2pm – 8pm, Sunday – 2pm – 7pm)
  • For the caffeine lovers in the bunch, Whidbey Island has no shortage of great options. Head to Useless Bay Coffee in the downtown area or Mukilteo Coffee Roasters located near Whidbey Airpark for a delicious cup o’ joe and tasty eats.
Mukilteo Coffee
Excellent coffee from Mukilteo Coffee Roasters!

It is very easy to find a delicious meal in Langley. The downtown area holds the key to many a tasty night (or day) out with a good variety of options from which to choose. Some of the excellent spots to hit up on your visit to the Village by the Sea:

  • Set in a quaint location in the downtown area, The Braeburn features locally sourced ingredients and delicious breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their Bloody Marys and Eggs Benedict (w/crab!) are fabulous and the atmosphere, welcoming and relaxed.
  • Featuring an outdoor kitchen in the back and a beautiful view, Portico Latin Bistro serves cuisine inspired by Mexico, South America and the Caribbean as well as delicious sangria and a great wine list. (Closed Mon/Tues)
  • A good friend and fellow foodie regularly visits Langley and highly recommends the French-inspired Prima Bistro. I haven’t been able to visit as of this writing, but it is high on my list for the next visit. The menu looks amazing and there’s the matter of an Absinthe service they offer… Yes, please!
  • Fresh oysters, clams, mussels, crabs and MORE can be enjoyed at the downtown Saltwater Oyster Bar. Add in delicious clam chowder, oyster po’ boys and hand-cut and battered fish and chips… Yowsa!! Oh, and their ‘Whale Tale Mary’ with its house Mary mix, jumbo shrimp, oyster and salmon jerky? I’M IN!!
  • If you’d like to meet the purveyors of the delicious local goods you’ve enjoyed during your Langley outings, stop by the seasonal Langley Farmers Market located in the downtown area on Frick Lane. (Thursdays, May – August, 2pm – 6pm) If you happen to be in town on a Sunday, pay a visit to the incredibly cool South Whidbey Tilth Market for all things organic. (May – October, 11am – 2pm)
  • I personally believe it is hard to dispute the deliciousness of ice cream and the importance it plays in happy living. Sprinklz, located in the downtown area, serves the key to said happy living as well scores major bonus points with their arcade area. (If you happen to be heading for the ferry, don’t miss their sister location in neighboring Clinton.)

Arcade hot tip: Continue your downtown arcade crawl at the amazing Machine Shop. Featuring vintage pinball and arcade machines as well as the new hotness, the Machine Shop is a step back into your gloriously misspent youth. (Translation: I spent way too many quarters on arcade machines in my glory days… But whatever.) They also feature live music, comedy and other entertaining events on weekends.

Langley has long been known for its eclectic and broad Arts scene. The stunning beauty of the area makes it completely understandable and the artistic inspiration, endless. Even if you’re simply taking photos with your phone, the Langley and greater Whidbey Island area is captivating. Here are just a few of the ways you can explore your artistic side on your next Langley visit:

  • Entertaining the cinema-goers of Whidbey Island since 1937, the Clyde Theatre is still going strong. Regularly showing first-run features as well as hosting special film and community events, the Clyde continues to be beacon of the island Arts scene.
  • Stop in at Museo when in downtown Langley and enjoy their beautiful displays. All manner of fine art from regionally and nationally known local artists can be found on display in this lovely gallery.
  • Enjoy beautifully crafted jewelry, rugs, textiles and more from around the world at the eclectically curated Music for the Eyes in downtown Langley. The owners regularly travel around the world to bring back unique treasures for their shop.
  • If you fancy yourself a prolific solver of crimes, head to the 36th annual Mystery Weekend in February. (Feb 22-23, 2020) On Saturday morning, a crime scene and murder are announced and it’s your job to discover clues in stores, around town and from costumed townsfolk. The “crime” is solved on Sunday afternoon and prizes are announced!
  • If you love Jazz, particularly the catchy jangle of Django Reinhardt, don’t miss the annual Djangofest Northwest every September at the Whidbey Island Fairgrounds. (Organized by the excellent Whidbey Island Center for the Arts) In addition to a celebration of Jazz, there are concerts and workshops of all variety. Fully immerse yourself in the scene and camp at the fairgrounds while enjoying great food and ongoing jam sessions. (Sept 23-27, 2020)
  • Everyone loves a great county fair and Whidbey Island certainly represents. Head to the Whidbey Island Fairgrounds in July for the annual Whidbey Island Fair. Food, farm animals, displays, rides and more greet you in this charming, island fairground. (July 16-19, 2020) Don’t miss the annual Country Christmas event every year around Thanksgiving!

To make the most of your Langley visit, there are several great lodging options and ways to enjoy the beautiful island setting. It is of course entirely possible to make an excellent day trip of Whidbey Island and I’ve done it many times. However, having the luxury of waking up on this very welcoming island is a truly wonderful thing. In addition to the scores of excellent Airbnb and VRBO listings for island lodging, consider adding these great spots to your list:

  • While I haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit, the Inn at Langley is high on my dream-stay bucket list. Upscale lodging, spa services and locally-sourced tasting menus which include table visits from the chef make this a pretty special place to experience. A reliable foodie friend told me it was “the best place he and his wife had ever stayed…” I completely trust him, but I’m looking forward to investigating the delicious scene myself…
  • Just a short stroll from the downtown core and located directly on the water, the Boatyard Inn is a wonderful escape from city life. Located next to the South Whidbey Harbor/Marina, it’s a great spot to drop in your kayak or moor up your boat. Enjoy a glass of wine and the stunning water views from your private deck. Sigh… For kayak rentals as well as info about guided tours and more, stop in at nearby Whidbey Island Kayaking for details. (Opens seasonally in March)
  • If you feel like pitching a tent or swankin’ out in your RV while in the Langley area, head to the nearby Whidbey Island Fairgrounds campground area. The fairgrounds are within walking distance of the downtown core and provide ample room and campsite amenities to make for a comfortable stay.
Ferry
The Clinton ferry arriving in Mukilteo

I hate to admit it, but I don’t often stop in the small town of Clinton. It’s not fair, but I’ve gotten too accustomed to breezing through Clinton on my way off or onto the ferry. (Granted, sometimes there isn’t much breezing, per se, if I happen to be stuck in a long ferry line.) However, even if it’s only because you’ll be spending a bit of extra time waiting for the ferry, Clinton has some great spots to check out and is well worth exploring. And you can’t beat that shoreline view! I’ve officially promised myself to spend more time getting to know the Clinton area…

Pro tip: Sunday afternoons and early evenings can be fairly busy for the ferry. Plan your travel schedule accordingly.

There are many wonderful places to grab a bite and enjoy the view. On your next stop in Clinton, be sure to consider these great locations:

  • Bringing the tradition of the Scottish Isles and Highlands to Whidbey Island, Cadee Distillery & Tasting Room produces several delicious whiskies out of its Clinton distillery. They recommend calling ahead to visit the tasting room. I very much enjoy their Cascadia Rye Whiskey – very tasty! Located very close to the ferry terminal and just off SR-525.
  • Visit the Cultus Bay Distillery on the southern tip of Whidbey Island, just south of the ferry terminal. The tasting room is open daily from 11am – 4pm, but it’s recommended to call ahead to tour/taste. If you happen to miss them, they also set up at the seasonal Bayview Farmers Market on Saturdays. They offer several varieties of spirits, but their Irish Poitin whiskey is particularly interesting.
  • Located just a little north of Cultus Bay Distillery, is Ogres Brewing. (Taproom – Thurs – Sat, 3-7pm – Also featuring gaming and music events) Stop in and enjoy some Ogress Blonde on tap or head over to the very unique, island institution Bailey’s Corner Store and enjoy a pint at the onsite beer garden.
  • Specializing in an international mix of noodle dishes such as Pad See Ew (my favorite!), Mac-n-Cheese and German Späetzle, Island Nosh is a great spot to grab a meal and tasty beverage. Located close to the ferry terminal and just off SR-525. (Winter hours: Mon-Tues, 3:30 – 8pm, Wed-Fri, Noon – 8pm)
  • Set in a building constructed in 1900 and operating as Cozy’s Roadhouse since 1932, this classic Whidbey Island restaurant offers great pub-style food featuring local and NW ingredients. Open daily at 11am and located just off SR-525 near the ferry terminal.
  • If you’re thinking of making Clinton a jumping-off spot for your Whidbey Island adventures, consider a stay at The Quintessa. This large estate overlooking the water features rooms in the main house as well as a lovely cabin. It is also possible to rent the entire estate for larger gatherings.

As I drive onto the welcoming decks of the ferry to Mukilteo, I bring this chapter of my ongoing Island County adventures to a close. There is a special feeling experienced only in the island communities of Washington State that will always bring me back. The amazing combination of history, people, forest, ocean and the Arts is intoxicating and I can’t imagine ever tiring of it. Regardless of wherever I am in the state – or in the world – Island County will always be a place to which I will continue to return and enjoy. And one of these days, I’ll return to its shores… on my boat! (#FutureBoatOwner)

Happy New Year – and GO EAT THE STATE!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Check out my Island County playlist on SPOTIFY

  • Here and Whole – Joan Shelly (from Cost of the Cold b/w Here and Whole)
  • This Sky – The Derek Trucks Band (from Songlines)
  • The Last Drive – Michel Bisceglia (from Bluebird)
  • The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress – Radka Toneff (from Some Time Ago (A Collection of Her Finest Moments))
  • Around and Around – Mountain Man (from Sings John Denver)
  • Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding – Jesse Winchester (from Love Filling Station)
  • The Carnival of the Animals, R.125: The Swan – Camille Saint-Saëns, Lucille Clifton, Bill Murray, Jan Vogler (from New Worlds)
  • On A Marché Sur la Lune – Anthony Strong (from Me and My Radio)
  • The Fear – Los Lobos (from The Fear)
  • I Forgive It All – Mudcrutch (from 2)
  • Short Trip Home – Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall, Sam Bush, Joshua Bell (from The Essential Joshua Bell)
  • Putty Boy Strut – Anat Cohen, Jason Lindner, Joe Martin, Daniel Freedman (from Luminosa)
  • Unconditional Waltz – Calexico (from The Thread that Keeps Us – Deluxe Edition)
  • The Fox – Laura Veirs (from Hello I Must Be Going)
  • Can’t Find My Way Home – Blind Faith (from Blind Faith)
  • Everyone Knows – Mipso (from Old Time Reverie)
  • It’s Hard to Be Humble – Willie Nelson w/Lukas Nelson & Micah Nelson (from Ride Me Back Home)
  • As – Becca Stevens (from Regina)
  • Roll On – The Little Willies (from The Little Willies)
  • Sailing – Christopher Cross (from Christopher Cross)
  • Beautiful That Way – Noa (from Beautiful That Way)
  • I Don’t Worry About A Thing – Most Allison (from I Don’t Worry About A Thing)
  • All Some Kind of A Dream – Josh Ritter (from All Some Kind of A Dream)
  • Tempelhof – Yann Tiersen (from All)
  • Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time – Gene Austin (from The Best of Gene Austin)
  • An Old Guitar and An Old Refrain – Roger Wolfe Kahn (from Collection: 1925 – 1932)
  • Sweet Little Mystery – John Martyn (from Grace & Danger)
  • Buckets of Rain – Bob Dylan (from Blood on the Tracks)
West Beach
A beautiful coastal view from West Beach at Deception Pass State Park

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Check out more I Ate the State adventures:

I Ate the State: Whatcom County

Greetings!

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.)

Peach Arch Park
One of the Whatcom County gateways between the US and Canada – Peach Arch Park in Blaine

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)

PeachArchPark
Looking out to Semiahmoo Bay from the Peace Arch Historical Park

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.

Birch Bay
Great memories from a family vacation a few years back!

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!)

Lummi Beach
Beautiful shore finds of Lummi

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:

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)
Soapbox
Stand on a soapbox and speak your mind! (Located across from the Farmers Market in downtown Bellingham)

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 Village Inn
Check out the lovely Fairhaven Village Inn and grab a classic cocktail at Galloway’s Cocktail Bar – and ice cream from Edaleen’s!

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
Great hiking through the Chuckanut Mountain trails near Larrabee State Park

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)
Creek
Lovely little scenes around every corner in the North Cascades

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.)