A detour worth taking: Your mile-by-mile guide to scenic Chuckanut Drive
Need a break from Interstate 5? Explore cliff-hugging Chuckanut Drive's scenic, gastronomic and recreational wonders.
Special to The Seattle Times
From logging path to scenic highway
The earliest version of Chuckanut Drive shows up in 1896. Then, it was a rutted dirt logging road gouged into the side of Chuckanut and Blanchard mountains — often referred to collectively as the Chuckanuts — linking Bellingham and Bow. It wasn't until 1921 — after numerous fits and starts, including one in which chain gangs from local jails were put to work — that a paved Chuckanut Drive was finished.
Nowadays it's one of the state's most popular drives, offering not only world-class vistas, but everything from fine-dining establishments to terrific hiking, biking, camping and beachcombing spots, plus excellent seafood gathering and even a cool place to see roadside fossils. Lots more, too.
What's in a name?
Depending on your source, Chuckanut is a Native American word that means "beach on a bay with a small entrance" or "mountain by the bay."
Maybe Vancouver's Winter Olympics have you doing the old Seattle-Vancouver-Seattle shuffle. And you're looking to somehow break up the Interstate 5 fast food joint-big box store-casino-outlet mall monotony.
Or maybe you just want to while away an afternoon — possibly a whole weekend, even — by visiting someplace that's off the beaten path. If so, Chuckanut Drive, that 20-mile cliff-hugging roadway that snakes along the lower flanks of Chuckanut Mountain high above northern Puget Sound, makes for a terrific detour-slash-destination.
At Burlington, where the freeway continues north toward Bellingham, Chuckanut Drive veers hard to the northwest like it's making a getaway — escaping to greener pastures and better views, which it offers in spades: forested islands rising from the glistening waters of Samish Bay like the great backs of giant whales; eagles, herons, and ancient forests; far-off peaks forever cloaked in snow and ice. Best yet, it's a detour with a purpose, for it ends up the same place the freeway does: in Bellingham.
Here are some of the road's highlights corresponding to milepost markers, starting from the south:
Rhododendron Cafe — This popular café-restaurant-gallery is famous for its rotating menu, which each month features cuisine from a different part of the world. As the sign says out front, it's "Where Northwest and Ethnic Foods Meet." February is Italy month, to be followed in March by France and Western Europe, and American regional cooking in April. Recent blackboard specials included eggplant parmigiana with herbed penne and chicken saltimbocca. Next door, the Rhody Too Gallery features works by Northwest artists, as well as gifts and curios from around the world. More information: rhodycafe.com or 360-766-6667.
Chuckanut Manor — Just north of the Samish flats, where the road starts to climb, this restaurant, lounge and bed-and-breakfast has been drawing Chuckanut Drive day-trippers for close to 50 years. Steaks, seafood, a popular Sunday brunch and out-of-this-world Samish Bay sunset views are just a few of the Manor's calling cards. Also offers a two-bedroom suite that sleeps four and includes a Jacuzzi spa. Rates start at $160 per night. 360-766-6191 or www.chuckanutmanor.com.
Bat Caves Trailhead — See those cars parked on the west side of the road? They belong to folks heading up (or down) the popular Bat Caves trail, also known as the Oyster Dome trail. It's steep and rugged in parts, and densely wooded, too, but when the trail swings out into former clear-cut areas, the San Juan Island-Samish Bay views are tops. You're on Blanchard Mountain here — Chuckanut Mountain is the hump just to the north — and both are the only inland mountains that rise straight out of Puget Sound, Blanchard to over 2,200 feet in spots.
The Bat Caves themselves are a jumble of boulders at the base of a 300-foot rock face — Oyster Dome — and home to some Townsend's big-eared bats. A round-trip hike to the caves is about five miles; to the top of the Dome (highly recommended), about six miles, with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Trails are signed, and a map is available on the Pacific Northwest Trail Web site: www.pnt.org.
The Oyster Bar on Chuckanut Drive — Once just a shack where oysters were sold to passers-by, these days the Oyster Bar is the epitome of fine dining. Clinging to the side of a wooded cliff overlooking Samish Bay, the setting is hard to beat and every table has a water view — and sunset, too, if you time it right. With a name like Oyster Bar, it's not surprising that oysters feature heavily on the menu, but they're not all. There's seafood of all kinds, steaks, as well as some surprises, e.g., pumpkin ravioli. The wine list — really a book with more than 25 pages in it — is impressive. And in fact the Oyster Bar earned Wine Spectator's Best of Award of Excellence in 2009. Info: 360-766-6185 or www.theoysterbaronchuckanutdrive.com.
Oyster Creek Inn — After being closed for two years, this popular seafood spot located at Chuckanut Drive's hairpin turn reopened two weeks ago with new owners, Thomas and Danielle Palmer, who also own Palmer's in La Conner. Also a cliffhanger, the inn overlooks the Oyster Creek gorge, where tumbling waterfalls make like Slinkies on their way to the bay. The mostly Northwest menu is seafood-heavy with many items from next door's Taylor Shellfish Farms. 360-766-6179 or oystercreekinn.net.
Taylor Shellfish Farms — Along with growing oysters on some 1,700 acres of Samish Bay Tideland, Taylor sells seafood by the seashore. And they've been doing so on this spot for about 100 years. Visit the retail shop for locally grown clams, mussels, geoducks and oysters, as well as halibut, salmon, Dungeness crab, scallops, prawns and more. Heading north on Chuckanut Drive, the entrance is on the left, just past the Oyster Creek Inn. Follow the road down for about a half-mile to the bay. Info: 360-766-6002 or taylorshellfishfarms.com.
Vista pullout — On the west side of the road, a large pullout parking area offers spectacular views across Samish Bay to islands by the dozen, as well as Mount Erie near Anacortes and the Olympic Mountains beyond. Look for windsurfers and parasurfers down in the water. Interpretive signs here tell of Chuckanut Drive's history.
Heritage marker pullout, fossils — Another large pullout on the west side of the road offers picnic tables and spectacular views of islands and water, thus making for a nice lunch or snack spot. To see some cool fossils from the Eocene epoch (some 55 million years ago) carefully — that is, very carefully — walk across Chuckanut Drive (to the mountain side) and walk about 50 yards south to the obvious road cut. There you'll see impressions in the rock of ancient palm fronds, leaves, ferns and roots.
Clayton Beach parking lot — This large parking lot on the east side of the road provides access to the southern reaches of Larrabee State Park, which in 1915 became Washington's first state park. Then it was a mere 20 acres; these days, it's 2,700 acres with 1.5-miles of saltwater shoreline, two freshwater lakes, dozens of miles of hiking and biking trails, and a campground with nearly 100 sites. Park here for the Interurban Trail, a mostly flat rail trail that parallels Chuckanut Drive and leads six-plus miles north to Bellingham's Fairhaven district; Fragrance Lake Road, a former logging road (no cars allowed) that leads to the Lost Lake trail (about eight miles round-trip), and Clayton Beach. The last is a tucked-away oasis with tide pools, sandy beaches and Chuckanut sandstone cliffs, which make for fun scrambling. To get to Clayton beach, carefully — that is, very carefully — walk across Chuckanut Drive and hike the obvious trail south for about a half-mile.
Larrabee State Park main entrance/Fragrance Lake trail — Just north of Clayton Beach, on the west side of the road, is the main entrance to Larrabee State Park. Enter here to camp or meander the easy paths through stands of madrona trees down to water's edge, where the tidepool exploring is always fun. The Fragrance Lake trailhead and parking lot are directly across the road from the park entrance. This popular, wooded hike boasts a rain-forest feel and, after climbing for about 1,000 feet, leads to a peaceful rock-rimmed jewel of a lake. About five miles round-trip. The Interurban Trail can also be accessed from this parking lot.
Hiline Road (Cleator Road) — About a quarter-mile up Hiline Road is another access point and parking lot for the Interurban Trail. Just past the parking lot, the road (now Cleator Road) continues up for another three miles and some 1,500 feet, to the Cyrus Gates Overlook, but recent landslides have made it impassible to vehicles. Hikers and bikers still make the climb, though.
North Chuckanut Mountain Trailhead — This trailhead parking lot just inside Bellingham city limits provides access to several outdoorsy gems. Among them, the Interurban Trail, Arroyo Park, Teddy Bear Cove, the numerous trails that crisscross Chuckanut Mountain, and Woodstock Farm. Though small, Arroyo Park is like a mini rain forest, with moss-hung evergreens blocking out the sun and Chuckanut Creek racing down the middle of a deep, rocky gorge. Teddy Bear Cove, famous in former days as a clothing-optional beach, boasts a couple of secluded pocket beaches on tidal water; a small bluff above offers spectacular sunset views. Woodstock Farm, among the newest of Bellingham parks, is a heritage site high on a hillside overlooking Chuckanut Bay. The former estate of Cyrus Gates, one of Bellingham's early civic leaders, it's gradually being opened to the public. As of now, visitors can enjoy about two-thirds of a mile of walking paths through an old country estate and terrific bay and island views.
From the North Chuckanut Mountain Trailhead, both Teddy Bear Cove and Woodstock Farm require a half-mile walk south on the Interurban, then crossing and walking along Chuckanut Drive for a short stretch. A trailhead map kiosk points the way.
Chuckanut Bay Gallery and Sculpture Garden — A melding of art and nature, this unique spot features hundreds of works by Northwest artists — glass, pottery, handmade jewelry, wood crafts, prints — as well as a relaxing garden with water features, wind chimes and sculptures. Stop by for a serenity-now moment. More info: 877-734-4885 or www.chuckanutbaygallery.com.
Fairhaven Park — One of Bellingham's oldest and most popular city parks offers tennis courts, a kids' spray park and playground, lots of grassy lawns for tossing the Frisbee, as well as access to the Interurban Trail.
Fairhaven — Bellingham's southside neighborhood is the northern terminus of Chuckanut Drive.