You can get from Seattle to Bellingham, Wash., by driving straight 90 miles onto the Interstate, but you shouldn’t. The best route to this small town, tucked between the mighty Cascade mountain range and the sea, can be more beautiful and pleasant. Cruise on Interstate 5 about 24 miles south of Bellingham to make the final approach via Chuckanut Drive, one of the over 20 official Scenic Byways†
The highway exit to Chuckanut will take you first to the town of Bow. It’s part of Bow-Edison, which is split between two small commercial districts, but for a pastry lover like me, it’s imperative to drop by both. In Bow, de Bakery from Farm To MarketOpposite a vintage, pale blue cinder block post office, triple chocolate pecan brownies, polenta cakes, and other treats are served over freshly brewed coffee on brightly painted tables in the bakery’s rhododendron garden. Two and a half miles along the rural Bow Hill Road West, the bread farm in Edison offers sweets and fresh bread at the bakery counter. A handful of galleries and shops invite visitors to linger in the city.
Returning to Chuckanut Drive, the Skagit Valley farmlands lie at sea level with views of the west of the San Juan Islands before the road begins to ascend. Over 10 winding miles hug the cliffs of the Chuckanut Mountains, offering flashy views of the bays and islands of the Salish Sea as you make your way through the towering evergreen forest. The route was used by bootleggers coming from Canada during Prohibition.
Chuckanut ends north in the historic Fairhaven area of Bellingham, with its eclectic shops, restaurants and Victorian architecture. But if it’s Saturday, the priority should be to get to the lively Farmers Market before it closes at 2pm More than 100 vendors display an amazing variety of foods and wares, including kimchi, honey and cheeses, mushroom packs to grow at home, houseplants, artisan crafts and handmade clothing. The stalls run over the official market footprint on and around the nearby sidewalk. Samples of beef jerky from Carnala local restaurant, tempted me to buy both regular and spicy versions to take home.
Exploring by land and sea
Bellingham has increasingly become a magnet for people looking to escape the rapid development and expense of Seattle. But the compact coastal town is also an ideal place for a weekend away. On a recent trip there I easily enjoyed two full days with just a one night hotel stay.
Popular with outdoor enthusiasts, Bellingham has beautiful walking, hiking and biking trails. A few minutes from the city center, Whatcom Falls Park offers easy hiking on its four-mile trail network. Along the salmon farm and playground, a WPA-era stone bridge and a splashing waterfall await. The sweet scent of Douglas fir forests, moss-covered rocks and an abundance of sword ferns add up to an excellent session of “forest bathing”.
For more structured recreational activities, nearby Cornwall Memorial Park is home to a disc golf course, horseshoe pits, and pickleball courses, as well as a playground and spray park. If you don’t have your own gear, it’s still fun to watch the players there, or just explore hiking trails through soaring forests.
Another great place to wander is Western Washington University† The hilltop campus, with expansive views of Bellingham Bay, was founded in 1893 and now houses 15,000 students. It also houses 70 species of trees and a world-class collection of outdoor sculptures. You can’t miss the bright red, 27 meter high steel creationby Mark di Suvero, or giant tipped cube by Isamu Noguchi, but there are many other works by artists, including Richard Serra and Beverly Pepper. Washington State Takes Its Trees Seriously, and the University Offers online tree tours so you can learn about the campus flora, including: the umbrella tree with its 20-inch leaves. One of the largest giant sequoias in the state stands there at 120 feet.
Getting on the water in Bellingham is also easy. The Community Boating Center near the Fairhaven neighborhood, it rents small craft and organizes guided kayak tours. The search for luminescent sea creatures marks the evening excursions. For a longer aquatic adventure, there are five to six hour whale watching trips from the adjacent Bellingham Cruise terminal, where ferries also embark for destinations such as Juneau and Sitka in southeastern Alaska. Ferry drivers will need to be patient though – the first stop, Ketchikan, is a 36-hour drive.
Local dishes with a lot of flair
When you’re ready to relax, you can easily slip into the area’s robust ecosystem of craft brewery cafes. Bee Gruff Brewing Co., visitors can sample a rotating cast (about nine at a time) of homemade brews, including Trash Bird Hazy IPA and Viva Verano Mexican lager. “Guest taps” from nearby beverage producers, including the Bellingham Cider Company, round off the choices. Gruff’s backyard overlooks Bellingham Bay and is outfitted with fire pits, cornhole games and brightly colored chairs that make even a cloudy day feel festive. Gruff doesn’t serve food, but the ? Brothers Bus Bistro food truck parked outside offers some great choices including a plate of hummus, goat cheese, vegetable and pita.
A wealth of marine life such as Japanese oysters and geoducka domestic clam whose neck is so large that it cannot close its shell is harvested by Taylor Shellfish Farms and other local businesses, making Bellingham ideal for seafood lovers. Rock and Rye is one of the more expensive restaurants that serves oysters, but don’t miss the halibut or chocolate cake. The bustling eatery, with exposed red brick walls and high ceilings, has a second-floor terrace for outdoor dining.
Tasty breakfast options in central Bellingham can be at ease or go fast. For something quick try a cranberry cardamom rose scone and a latte at the trendy coffee shop Camber† When you have to wait for tables at the popular brunch spots? Horseshoe cafe and Old Town Cafe is too long, get in line at Makeworth coffee roasters egg sandwiches and waffles to order. The space exudes a modern industrial vibe: white walls, light and airy with seating areas on the second floor overlooking the ground floor.
Bellingham is surrounded by affordable chain hotels, but to stay downtown and within walking distance of the restaurants and leisure options, we chose Hotel Leo† Built in 1929 as the Leopold Hotel, the building along with the rest of central Bellingham went through hard times in the 1980s. In 2019, it reopened as a hotel (starting at about $259 for a Saturday in July) and features a social space from a bygone era — a wood-panelled library, pool table, and fireplace. Guests can stream movies in a small theater.
More for the mind
All northwestern trips need a rain plan, of course, and my weekend was no exception. As the drops fell heavy, I dove into the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention, densely packed with antiques and DIY activities. Visitors can view a light bulb made by Thomas Edison and headgear used by quacks to shock patients, and experiment with an electronic musical instrument, the Theremin, that is controlled without physical contact. A live performance of history and science, the museum’s MegaZapper Electrical Show is a must-see (spoiler alert – disturbing amounts of electrical current are jumping through the air).
A few blocks away, another town gem, the Whatcom Museum, highlights the art, history and indigenous cultures of the area. the current show, “Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea”, wants to look beyond the clichés and romantic myths of the West by sharing the perspectives of artists from different backgrounds.