You can get from Seattle to Bellingham, Wash., by driving 90 miles straight up the interstate, but you shouldn’t. The best route to this small city tucked where the mighty Cascade mountain range meets the sea can be more scenic and pleasurable. Veer off Interstate 5 about 15 miles south of Bellingham to make the final approach via Chuckanut Drive, one of the state’s more than 20 official Scenic Byways.
The interstate highway exit for Chuckanut, first drops you into the town of Bow. It’s part of Bow-Edison, which is split between two tiny commercial districts, but for a baked-goods-lover like me, it’s imperative to stop by both. In Bow, the Farm To Market bakery, across from a vintage, light-blue cinder block post office, offers triple chocolate pecan brownies, polenta cakes and other delights to accompany freshly brewed coffee on cheerfully painted tables in the bakery’s rhododendron garden. Two and a half miles down rural Bow Hill Road West, the Bread Farm in Edison offers sweets and fresh bread at the walk-up bakery window. A handful of galleries and shops invite visitors to linger in town.
Returning to Chuckanut Drive, the sea-level Skagit Valley farmlands lie before you with views to the west of the San Juan Islands before the road starts rising. More than 10 curvy miles hug the cliffs of the Chuckanut Mountains, flashing views of the Salish Sea bays and islands below as you wind your way through the towering evergreen forest. The route was used during Prohibition by bootleggers coming in from Canada.
Chuckanut ends north in the historic Fairhaven section of Bellingham, with its eclectic shops, restaurants, and Victorian-era architecture. But if it’s Saturday, the priority should be to make it to the lively Farmers Market before it closes at 2 p.m. More than 100 vendors display a terrific variety of food and wares, including kimchi, honey and cheeses, grow-at-home mushroom kits, houseplants, artisan crafts and handmade clothing. The stalls spill over the official market footprint onto and around the sidewalk nearby. Samples of beef jerky from Carnal, a local restaurant, enticed me to buy both regular and spicy versions to take home.
Explore by land and sea
Bellingham has increasingly become a magnet for people looking to escape Seattle’s rapid development and cost. But the compact coastal city also is an ideal place for a weekend visit. On a recent trip there, I easily enjoyed two full days with just a one-night hotel stay.
Popular with outdoor enthusiasts, Bellingham has gorgeous walking, hiking and biking trails. A few minutes from the town center, Whatcom Falls Park offers easy hiking on its four-mile trail network. Passing the salmon hatchery and playground, a W.P.A.-era stone bridge and splashing waterfall await. The sweet scent of Douglas fir groves, moss-covered rocks and a profusion of sword ferns contribute 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 courts along with a playground and spray park. If you don’t have your own equipment, it’s still fun to watch the players there, or just explore walking trails through soaring woodlands.
Another terrific place to meander is Western Washington University. The hilltop campus, with expansive views of Bellingham Bay, was founded in 1893 and is now home to 15,000 students. It also hosts 70 species of trees and a world-class outdoor sculpture collection. You can’t miss the bright red, 27-foot-tall steel creation, by 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 easy, too. The Community Boating Center near the Fairhaven district rents small craft and runs guided kayaking tours. Looking for bioluminescent sea creatures highlights the evening excursions. For a longer aquatic adventure, five to six hour whale-watching trips run from the adjacent Bellingham Cruise terminal, where ferries also embark for destinations like Juneau and Sitka in southeast Alaska. Ferry-riders will have to have patience though — the first stop, Ketchikan, is a 36-hour ride.
Local fare with plenty of flair
When you are ready to unwind, it’s easy to slide into the area’s robust ecosystem of craft brew pubs. At Gruff Brewing Co., visitors can sample a rotating cast (about nine at a time) of homemade brews, including Trash Bird Hazy I.P.A. and Viva Verano Mexican lager. “Guest taps” from nearby beverage makers, including the Bellingham Cider Company, round out the choices. Gruff’s backyard overlooks Bellingham Bay and is kitted out with fire pits, cornhole games and brightly colored seating that makes even an overcast day feel festive. Gruff doesn’t serve food but the Brothers Bus Bistro food truck parked outside offers some great choices, including a hummus, goat cheese, vegetable and pita plate.
A wealth of marine life like Pacific oysters and geoduck, a homely clam whose neck is so large it can’t close its shell, are harvested by Taylor Shellfish Farms and other local companies, making Bellingham ideal for seafood lovers. Rock and Rye is one of the higher-end restaurants that serves oysters, but don’t miss its halibut or chocolate torte. The bustling eatery, with exposed red brick walls and high ceilings, has a second-floor deck for outdoor dining.
Tasty breakfast options in downtown Bellingham can be leisurely or grab and go. For something quick, you can try a cranberry cardamom rose scone and a latte at the trendy coffee shop Camber. If the wait for tables at the popular brunch spots Horseshoe Café and Old Town Café is too long, get in line at Makeworth Coffee Roasters to order egg sandwiches and waffles. The space gives off a modern industrial vibe: white walls, bright and airy with second-floor seating areas overlooking the main floor.
Bellingham is ringed by affordable hotel chain choices, but to stay downtown and within walking distance of its dining and recreational options, we chose The Hotel Leo. Built in 1929 as the Leopold hotel, the building fell on hard times along with the rest of downtown Bellingham 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 its own bygone times — a wood-paneled library, billiards table and fireplace. Guests can stream movies in a small theater.
More for the mind
All northwest trips, of course, need a rain plan and my weekend was no exception. As the drops fell heavily, I ducked into the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention, densely packed with antiques and hands-on activities. Visitors can check out a light bulb created by Thomas Edison and headgear used by quack doctors to shock patients, and experiment with an electronic musical instrument, the Theremin, which is controlled without physical contact. The museum’s MegaZapper Electrical Show, a live performance of history and science is a must-see (spoiler alert — disconcerting amounts of electrical current jump through the air).
A few blocks away, another city gem, the Whatcom Museum, highlights the arts, history and Indigenous cultures of the area. The current show, “Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea,” aims to look beyond the clichés and romantic myths of the West by sharing the perspectives of artists from diverse backgrounds.