Fall is my favorite time of year for walking and hiking in Whatcom County. Cooler temperatures, warmer colors, and fewer crowds make for ideal wandering conditions. During autumn, I find myself walking gentle trails in search of solitude and fall foliage.
Before setting out on an autumn stroll, you’ll want to be prepared for fall weather and think rain! Here are our tips on how to plan and enjoy crowd-free walks and hikes in Whatcom County this Fall.
Hiking During Covid-19
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Bellingham Parks and Recreation is encouraging users to get outdoors safely in their own neighborhood. The best resource for discovering local parks near you is the Whatcom Park Finder. Developed in Bellingham by Recreation Northwest, this tool searches over 180 parks throughout Whatcom County. Just put in your address and search radius, and Park Finder will show nearby parks in your neighborhood.
Insider Tip: Check out our blog “How to Safely Enjoy Bellingham and Whatcom County Parks” for more information on the Whatcom Park Finder.
It’s important to always be prepared with a map and your 10 Essentials including water, rain gear, and sunscreen. During these times we suggest going a little further than just 10. In addition to your essential gear, we recommend you bring wipes, hand sanitizer, and a face mask. For more information on hiking during Covid-19, check out the Recreate Responsibly campaign — which encourages best practices including planning ahead, playing it safe, and Leave No Trace principles.
Check the Whatcom County Health Department website for updated guidance, including information on wearing masks in public.
How to Find Crowd-free Trails
Dispersing trail users is a win-win for outdoor enthusiasts and the environment. Before setting out, consider these tips to find quiet and lesser-known trails in the area.
- Go during off-peak hours. Visit more popular trails on weekdays, early in the morning, and during cool, cloudy days for a quieter outing. Weekends, afternoons, and sunny days are typically the busiest times.
- Do your research. Rather than choosing the most Insta-famous (and busiest) spots, do some digging to find a trail you’ve never heard of. The Washington Trails Association (WTA) website is an invaluable resource for this. Use their Hike Finder Map or mobile app to search for lesser-known trails in Whatcom County.
- Buy a guidebook. Buy a hiking guidebook from a local bookstore like Village Books. These guides often feature hundreds of trails, many of which you won’t find online. Travel Tip: Check out our online Mt. Baker Hiking Guide!
- Drive farther. To really beat the crowds, you’ll have to get away from the city. Take Mount Baker Highway or North Cascades Highway for a scenic drive and a better chance at solitude. If you have a capable vehicle, consider driving forest roads to access far-out trailheads.
- Hike/bike/run farther. Once you’re on the trail, getting a mile or more away from the trailhead can make a huge difference. Check out that side trail that you’ve always wondered about. Always be prepared by bringing a map and the rest of the 10 Essentials!
Where to Walk and Hike
Sehome Hill Arboretum
Rising from Western Washington University’s (WWU) campus, Sehome Hill Arboretum is a fall favorite for students, staff, and the general public. Over 6 miles of trails wind through the forested park, whose bigleaf maple trees provide plenty of crunchy leaves underfoot. Don’t miss the sandstone tunnel, carved out in 1922 to allow vehicle access. And no trip to the arboretum is complete without a stop at the 80-foot observation tower. Consult the park map to find your way to the top.
There are many ways to access the arboretum. Park in the off-street gravel lot on Arboretum Drive (north end of 25th Street) for a longer hike north through the park. Or drive to the end of Arboretum Drive and park atop the hill for easy access to the tunnel and observation tower.
Go Further: WWU Outdoor Sculpture Garden
From the arboretum, take one of the many trails leading down to the WWU campus. Home to more than 36 outdoor sculptures, Western’s collection is acclaimed to be one of the top ten university collections in the entire United States. Wander the red-brick campus in search of art and color. Visit the WWU Outdoor Sculpture Garden site for a handy map, descriptions of each installation, and multimedia tours.
Insider Tip: For more info on Western’s Outdoor Sculpture Garden, check out our blog “Stroll Through the Outdoor Art of Whatcom County.”
New to outdoor recreation in Bellingham? WWU’s Outdoor Center offers gear rentals, excursions, and other resources for university students, staff, and alumni. Find them on the ground floor of the Viking Union.
Lake Whatcom Hertz Trail
Running for 3 miles along Lake Whatcom’s shoreline, the Hertz Trail features covered bridges, quiet beaches, and calming fall colors. This railroad-turned-trail once served the Blue Canyon Mines at the south end of the lake. Today, it’s an easy hike for all ages. Walk along a soft path of orange and yellow maple leaves in the fall on this scenic lakeside stroll.
From the trailhead at Lake Whatcom Park, walk south on the trail. After 1 mile you’ll reach a small waterfall, followed by a covered bridge and beach. This is a great turnaround spot, especially for little legs. You can continue south for 2 more miles from here, where the trail eventually terminates at a private property boundary. Return the way you came.
See Washington Trails Association for driving directions and additional trail information.
Go Further: Chanterelle Trail
If you’re looking for a longer hike from Lake Whatcom Park, try the Chanterelle Trail. Originally built as a 2.4-mile (one way) trail to an overlook above the lake, this trail was extended during the summer of 2019 for an additional 2.6 miles. You can now hike up to 10 miles (round-trip) on the Chanterelle Trail.
Whatcom Falls Park
Bellingham’s favorite waterfall is perhaps best viewed in the Fall. As rain returns to the region, the falls swell beneath a canopy of colorful leaves. Walk along several miles of forested trails throughout the park, or simply stop by to see the falls from a 1939-built Stone Bridge — located just a few hundred paces from the parking lot.
Insider Tip: Get the inside scoop on Whatcom Falls: “Exploring the Hidden Treasures in Whatcom Falls Park.”
Drive the scenic Mount Baker Highway for 54 miles east of Bellingham to take in one of the finest views in Whatcom County: Mount Shuksan reflected in Picture Lake. With a fresh dusting of snow on Mount Shuksan and an array of Fall colors, Picture Lake is especially picturesque during autumn. Walk the 0.5-mile, ADA-accessible loop trail around the lake for views from every angle. This trail tends to get busy, so be sure to visit during off-peak times.
Go Further: Bagley Lakes
Continue driving 0.5 miles beyond Picture Lake on Mount Baker Highway to reach Heather Meadows and the trailhead for Bagley Lakes. Situated in a cirque beneath towering Table Mountain, these sparkling alpine lakes can be explored via an easy 2-mile loop trail. Or you can simply take the views in from the Heather Meadows Visitor Center. Whichever you choose, you’ll be treated to seasonal fall colors galore. This area may be inaccessible due to snow after October — check the latest conditions before setting out.
Among the many hiking trails that traverse the Chuckanut Mountains, the Interurban Trail is the most gentle. At 6 miles (one way) in length, this mostly flat former trolley line is wide and well-used by walkers, bikers, and joggers. Running from Fairhaven to Larrabee State Park, the trail parallels Chuckanut Drive — another hotspot for Mother Nature’s Fall show. For access, park at Fairhaven Park to begin near town. Or, drive south on Chuckanut Drive from Fairhaven to access the trail from its Arroyo Park and North Chuckanut Mountain trailheads.
Go Further: Chuckanut Trails
Several hiking trails spur off of the Interurban Trail, reaching deep into the Chuckanut Mountains. At the north end (near Arroyo Park), consider visiting Chuckanut Falls after a good rain. From here you can continue along the Hemlock Trail to Raptor Ridge and Pine and Cedar Lakes for a more challenging hike. Further south in Larrabee State Park, the Interurban Trail intersects with the popular Fragrance Lake Trail — another favorite fall hike.
Baker Lake Trail
Accessed via North Cascades Highway (State Route 20), 9-mile long Baker Lake is a buzzing recreational hub during summertime. Come Fall, it chills out (literally) and brightens with the colors of the season. Take an easy 2-mile (one-way) hike along South Baker Lake Trail to Anderson Point for views across the lake to Mount Baker. Or continue to Maple Grove for an 8-mile roundtrip hike. Watch for vibrant mushrooms along the leaf-lined path. You can even backpack in for year-round camping at either destination. In total, the Baker Lake Trail runs 14 miles (one way) along the lakeshore.
For more fall foliage walks and hikes in Whatcom County, visit the Washington Trails Association Hike Finder Map. Select “Fall Foliage” under Trail Features, and zoom in on Whatcom County for dozens of ideas. Also check out our blog: Favorite 5 Fall Hikes in Whatcom County
North Cascades National Park
Some of the most accessible sites in the North Cascades National Park Complex are located within Whatcom County. Visit the Ross Lake National Recreation Area (NRA) to experience Ross Lake, Diablo Lake, Gorge Lake, and Newhalem. These lakes are actually dammed sections of the Skagit River. You can visit all three lakes (and their respective dams).
Walk across Ross Dam on the Ross Dam Trail to access Ross Lake Resort and an extensive network of long-distance trails. Or drive across Diablo Dam to access the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center — located on the shores of Diablo Lake.
Insider Tip: Check out our blog to learn more about the Institute and their fall program: “North Cascades Institute Reopens with In-person and Online programs.”
Fall Hikes in the North Cascades
For an easy, family-friendly fall hike in Newhalem, check out Ladder Creek Falls. Kids will love the evening light show! You’ll likely also find Fall colors along Diablo Lake Trail, Thunder Creek Trail, Thunder Knob Trail, and many others in the Ross Lake NRA.