You can get to Bellingham, Washington from Seattle by driving straight up the Interstate for 90 miles, but you shouldn’t. The best route to this small town, tucked away where the mighty Cascade mountain range meets the sea, can be more scenic and enjoyable. Exit Interstate 5 about 15 miles south of Bellingham for the final approach via Chuckanut Drive, one of the state’s more than 20 official Scenic Byways.
The Chuckanut freeway exit takes you first to the town of Bow. It’s part of Bow-Edison, which is split between two tiny business districts, but for a baked goods lover like me, stopping by both is essential. In Bow, opposite an old-fashioned, light-blue cinder block post office, Farm To Market Bakery offers triple chocolate pecan brownies, polenta cakes and other delights served with freshly brewed coffee on cheerfully painted tables in the bakery’s rhododendron garden. Two and a half miles down rural Bow Hill Road West, Edison’s Bread Farm offers sweets and fresh bread at the walk-in bakery window. A handful of galleries and shops invite you to linger in the city.
Returning to Chuckanut Drive, the farmlands of the Skagit Valley lie ahead at sea level with views of the San Juan Islands to the west before the road ascends. More than 10 winding miles hug the cliffs of the Chuckanut Mountains and offer stunning views of the bays and islands of the Salish Sea as you weave through towering evergreen forest. The route was used by bootleggers coming from Canada during Prohibition.
Chuckanut ends north in Bellingham’s historic Fairhaven area, with its eclectic shops, restaurants and Victorian architecture. But if it’s Saturday, the priority should be getting to the lively Farmers Market before it closes at 2pm. More than 100 vendors display a great range of food and merchandise, including kimchi, honey and cheese, home-grown mushroom kits, houseplants, crafts and handmade clothing. The stalls extend beyond the official market footprint on and around the sidewalk nearby. Samples of beef jerky from Carnal, a local restaurant, tempted me to buy both regular and spicy versions to take home.
Explore on land and sea
Bellingham has increasingly become a magnet for people looking to escape Seattle’s rapid development and high costs. But the compact coastal city is also an ideal place for a weekend visit. On a recent trip there I easily enjoyed two full days with just one night’s hotel accommodation.
Bellingham is popular with outdoor enthusiasts and offers beautiful walking, hiking and biking trails. Just minutes from downtown, Whatcom Falls Park offers four miles of easy hiking trails. Past the salmon hatchery and playground, a WPA-era stone bridge and a cascading waterfall await. The sweet scents of Douglas fir groves, moss-covered rocks and an abundance of sword ferns all contribute to excellent ‘forest bathing’.
For more structured outdoor pursuits, nearby Cornwall Memorial Park offers a disc golf course, horseshoe pits and pickleball courts, 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 the trails through towering forests.
Another great place to stroll is Western Washington University. The hilltop campus with sweeping views of Bellingham Bay was established in 1893 and is now home to 15,000 students. It is also home to 70 tree species and a world-class outdoor sculpture collection. You can’t miss the bright red, 27-foot-tall steel structure by Mark di Suvero or the giant tipped cube by Isamu Noguchi, but there are plenty of 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 campus flora, including the umbrella tree with its 20-inch leaves. One of the tallest 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 area rents small boats and offers guided kayak tours. The search for bioluminescent sea creatures highlights the evening excursions. For a longer aquatic adventure, take five- to six-hour whale-watching cruises from neighboring Bellingham Cruise Terminal, which also offers ferries to destinations like Juneau and Sitka in southeast Alaska. Ferry drivers will need to be patient though – the first stop, Ketchikan, is a 36-hour journey.
Home cooking with a lot of flair
When you’re ready to unwind, it’s easy to slip into the area’s robust ecosystem of craft brew pubs. At Gruff Brewing Co., visitors can sample a rotating cast (roughly nine at a time) of craft beers, including Trash Bird Hazy IPA and Viva Verano Mexican lager. ‘Guest Taps’ from nearby drink manufacturers including Bellingham Cider Company round out the selection. Gruff’s backyard overlooks Bellingham Bay and is filled with fire pits, cornhole games, and colorful seating that make even a cloudy day feel festive. Gruff doesn’t serve food, but the Food Truck Brothers Bus Bistro, parked outside, has a great selection, including hummus, goat cheese, veggies, and pita plates.
An abundance of marine life such as Pacific oysters and geoduck, a cozy clam whose neck is so big it can’t close its shell, are harvested by Taylor Shellfish Farms and other local businesses, making Bellingham ideal for seafood lovers. Rock and Rye is one of the fine dining restaurants that serves oysters, but don’t miss their halibut or chocolate torte. The bustling eatery with exposed red brick walls and high ceilings features a second-story patio for al fresco dining.
Tasty breakfast options in downtown Bellingham can be served in comfort or to go. For something quick, try a cranberry cardamom rose scone and latte at trendy Café Camber. If you’re stuck waiting for a table at popular brunch spots Horseshoe Café and Old Town Café, line up at Makeworth Coffee Roasters for egg sandwiches and waffles. 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 to dining and entertainment, we chose Hotel Leo. Built in 1929 as the Leopold Hotel, the building, along with the rest of downtown Bellingham, saw hard times in the 1980s. It reopened as a hotel in 2019 (from about $259 for a Saturday in July) and features a social space from yesteryear — a wood-paneled library, pool table, and fireplace. Guests can stream movies in a small theater.
More for the mind
All Northwest trips need a rain schedule, of course, and my weekend was no exception. As the drops fell hard, I ducked into the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention, packed with antiques and hands-on activities. Visitors can see a lightbulb created by Thomas Edison and hats used by quacks 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—disturbing amounts of electrical current bouncing through the air).
A few blocks away, another city gem, the Whatcom Museum, highlights the area’s art, history and indigenous cultures. The current exhibition, 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.