I love the diversity of Western Washington and Whatcom County – in a relatively short period of time one can traverse from sea to mountains. From the sandstone cliffs of Larrabee State Park to the serene foothills of Silver Lake, my family has enjoyed the local car-camping scene. But now we’ve traveled to some of the farthest reaches of the county, camping at Colonial Creek.
Many people in Bellingham who hear the term “Go East” immediately think of Mount Baker Highway 542, but by traveling south of Bellingham, then east on Highway 20, you can access the easternmost reaches of the county in the middle of the North Cascades National Park. (Much of the eastern part of Whatcom County is wilderness land inaccessible by road.)
Camping, Hiking and (maybe) Swimming
Colonial Creek Campground is approximately 10 miles east of Newhalem on Highway 20, where suddenly the terrain changes from lush lowland forest to rough, windswept mountain forest, the looming peaks made all the more prominent as many of the trees stand charred, transformed into naked husks after a 2015 fire swept through the area.
A stark beauty still remains, and rounding the corner from Newhalem headed east, the landscape gives way to the jewel-green beauty of Diablo Lake and pristine forest.
Colonial Creek Campground is split into two – North and South, divided by Highway 20. We first stayed in the South campground last October for a Boy Scout trip. It was a damp, rainy day, but that didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for the park.
The Thunder Creek trailhead at the southern end of the campground leads to miles of wilderness hiking. A 1.5-mile trek takes hikers as far as the Thunder Creek bridge, with more stellar views. It also makes a great spot to shoot for with little hikers – or the older, less enthusiastic ones(!).
Situated on an arm of Diablo Lake, our October visit tempted us with views of the pristine water, but it certainly wasn’t the right time of year for swimming or boating. For many, summertime might even be a hard sell for swimming, as the glacial-sourced lake doesn’t typically get above 43 degrees.
But I knew last fall when we visited that I wanted to come back to experience the lake in the summer. I did chicken out when it came to swimming this summer, but I did get my feet in the water and snapped maybe a million photos of the spectacular views all around me.
If you plan ahead and make reservations for the campground, you may be lucky enough to get one of the campsites right on the lake. Imagine that view while you sip your morning’s coffee! Even if you don’t score one of these sites, nothing is more than a few minutes’ walk away.
The lakeside sites require campers to walk their gear to the site, but these are short walks. Other campsites have back-in access; some are standard sites, others have power for RVs. Note that this campground does not have showers.
There’s no shortage of other hikes and attractions within just minutes of the campground, including the drive over the Diablo Dam (an adventure unto itself) to the Ross Lake Ferry or to visit the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Many Whatcom County families are familiar with the institute from fifth grade “Mountain School.”
North Cascades Environmental Learning Center
The town of Newhalem is a fun stop for families. Owned by Seattle City Light, this company town had its start as a construction camp as the Skagit Hydroelectric Project got underway in 1918. Ross, Diablo and Gorge dams were built over the course of the next 40 years, and Newhalem became a thriving town. Today, it’s still home to power company employees, although on a much smaller scale.
Connect to the town’s history with a self-guided walking tour, or check the Skagit Information Center for guided tours of the area’s natural history. Plan ahead and you can reserve your spot on a weekend tour. Note these tours are only appropriate for kids 10 and older.
Even if you miss out on a tour, you can tour the grounds, including the Water Creek Falls Garden. Just be ready for a hike as the garden climbs up the hill.
A favorite attraction in Newhalem is the Old No. Six, a steam locomotive that carried construction materials for the dams and supplies for the town. It now rests next to the general store. Folks are welcome to climb aboard and explore.
On our visit this summer, we discovered a historic hidden gem: the Ross Crypt. The crypt, tucked into the base of the base of the mountain, is located across Highway 20 on the eastern end of the visitor’s parking lot. It is the final resting place for J.D. Ross, for whom Ross Lake and Ross Dam are named; Ross’ wife is interred there as well. Ross was a champion of the hydroelectric project and known as the Father of Seattle City Light. Historylink.org shares more of Ross’s fascinating life.