It was in the spring of 1916, when the bucolic 20-mile scenic drive first opened from Burlington to Bellingham. Today, when you’re coming north on I-5, take exit 231 and follow SR-11, Chuckanut Drive north. This is your best introduction to Bellingham and a sample of what’s in store for you out-of-doors.
I’ll show you the signs to keep an eye out for launching your next adventure along the way. Here we go…
While the state route signs provide markers, nobody says, “Let’s go North on 11 today.” More appropriate, would be, “Let’s hit Chuckanut”. Enough said. At the base of the Chuckanut Mountains, the road crosses the creek and empties into the bay. This is where the mountains meet the sea and it starts to get interesting!
Don’t worry. You’ll have the opportunity to pull out and take some photos of the water and the San Juan Islands floating like mounds of pancake batter poured irreverently on a Boy Scout Camp griddle. Here’s looking east towards Deception Pass.
The road winds around the edges of the Chuckanuts. It’s a popular ride for all types of cruising. Below, a biker is getting out for a sunny day. Riding this section on a road bike is one of my local favorite adventures. If you want to give it a shot, try the Chuckanut Century Bike Ride.
“This dramatic cliff side route hugs the base of Chuckanut Mountain weaving its way through evergreen forests along the rocky shoreline of Chuckanut Bay. From the oyster beds and tidal flats of the Samish lowlands, to the historic Fairhaven District of Bellingham, this byway is known for its exquisite sunsets, secluded pocket beaches, migratory birds, and communities reminiscent of early Northwest settlement.” Chuckanut Drive Scenic Byway (WSDOT).
Oh yea, it’s designated by our great state as one of the many Washington State Scenic Byways. Our state also offers National Scenic Byways- Mountains to Sound Greenway, Strait of Juan de Fuca Highway, Stevens Pass, Greenway and the Coulee Corridor.
Connections and Crossings. Tangent WARNING! The first trailhead you encounter heading north on Chuckanut Drive is actually a segment of the Pacific Northwest Trail– 1,200 miles of trail that connects the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean.
The trail connects the Rocky Mountains, Selkirk Mountains, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Olympic Mountains and Washington’s Wilderness Coast, crossing 3 National Parks and 7 National Forests conveniently happens to go right through our happy corner of the world. As the marker reads a short distance up the trail, The Pacific Northwest Trail – East to the Rocky Mtns. 883 miles; West to the Pacific Ocean 223 miles; 2 miles east to a view of the Olympic Mountains and the San Juan Isles. (Isles, huh- that’s a new way to refer to our “front yard” archipelago)
If you are wondering what you may see while in Whatcom County along the Pacific Northwest Trail, check out Samantha Hale’s story Lookouts for the Stars.
To learn more about hiking the PNT in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest visit Baker Lake, Baker River, Park Butte and Bell Pass trails…and the PNTA Flickr Page. Here’s what waking up looks like at Park Butte, by Andy Porter.
Inside scoop on how to get there: Park Butte Lookout ~ end of tangent.
OKAY! I’m Back. On the Road – Once you cross the border into Whatcom County, you can feel the air get cooler. You are about to enter the bubble. The Bellingham Bubble- once you are inside, it’s all good.
At the next curve, stay to the right and you’ll enter the southern end of Larrabee State Park. The Lost Lake Trailhead Parking Lot provides access to both the land and sea (the beach at least) for your public enjoyment. Make sure you hang your pass when you park.
From the parking lot, you can head down to the beach or up into the Chuckanut Mountains. Fragrance Lake Road provides access to Lost Lake and Fragrance Lake trailheads and the intertwining trails that weave throughout the Chuckanuts.
Larrabee State Park is celebrating its 100th Birthday (October 23, 1915). It was the first state park in Washington. Read the story on HistoryLink.org – The Free Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History.
There are classic trail signs to point you in the right direction. In this case, this sign points to a trail that will lead you down to the beach!
When you pull into the entrance to the park, you’ll first stop at the Larrabee Park office to register, get your day pass or choose your campsite as your base camp for adventure. I hope you enjoy an earlier story of Landing on Your Feet at Larrabee State Park.
From Chuckanut, you can also access the Interurban Trail that connects the park to Bellingham in Fairhaven to the north. As the sign reads, this trail is open to walking, jogging, bicycling and horse back riding only. The Interurban is a great path that connects with trails and parks along the historic route.
After the park you will enjoy the winding turns of the road.
If you want to put a boat in the water, look for the boat launch sign and Launch your Paddle Adventure from Wildcat Cove at Larrabee State Park. This is my favorite public boat launch, whether it’s for an overnight excursion or a day trip up and down the coast in Bellingham Bay. For an overnight adventure you may want to consider Kayak Camping on Lummi Island.
Back on the road! Pay attention if you want to head up Cleator Road. It starts out as Highline Rd., so you may miss it! Look for the state brown “To Cleator Rd” sign to prepare your make your ascent.
The new popular trail at the end of the road is the Rock Trail. It’s a must do in the Chuckanuts!
As you make your way north, you’ll see peek-a-boo views of Chuckanut Bay to the west. Before entering the city limits, keep an eye out for the pullout for Teddy Bear Cove. It’s a gem of a hike.
Keep a close eye out for the Woodstock Farm driveway. There are a few parking spots to stop and get out and explore the old property. It’s become quite the popular spot for weddings!!
Chuckanut Drive brings you into Bellingham, but not without giving you one last chance to get out and get into the woods. The North Chuckanut Mountain Trailhead is a great launching point to head up to the ridges in the forest or even take a shorter route at lower elevations through the lush canopy of Arroyo Park.
Just around the bend from the trailhead is a secret road. There are no signs pointing to the destination. If you want to get down to Mud Bay (formally known at Chuckanut Bay Shorelands), look out for 21st St. as you roll along Chuckanut Drive. According to to Greg Johnston of the P-I, “Sculpted by time and tide, Chuckanut Bay is a joy for kayakers“, I couldn’t agree more.
As you crest your last hill and wind around the corner, the road flattens out. Prepare to head into Fairhaven Park to explore the trails within the park and that connect into the forest! You may enjoy Frolicking in Fairhaven Park Forest.
You’ll hear the buzz of Fairhaven lingering in the distance. It may be the voices of the living or even the dead! This town that became part of the city, was founded in 1883 and retains much of its historical western charm.
You’ll cross a bridge that spans Padden Creek below and the popular Padden Creek Greenways that connects to the Interurban to the south and to the Bellingham Greenways to the north. The trails connect to point near and far within the city and out in the county!
Yes, you know you’ve arrived in good hands when you see the welcoming sign pointing you to shopping, dining and a comfortable place to stay and keep on playing! Welcome to Bellingham.