There’s immense beauty along Chuckanut Drive whatever time of day you choose to meander those winding roads. (photo by Robert James)
The spring sunshine is warming your car, tempting you with a day drive on an open road that promises breathtaking scenery and interesting stops along the way. Where do you go? Head south, I say. An hour from Vancouver across the Peace Arch border, just as you veer out of Bellingham, there’s a sign for Chuckanut Drive. Take it. You won’t be disappointed.
The scenic byway that connects Whatcom County to Skagit Valley, Chuckanut Drive begins in Bellingham’s historic neighborhood of Fairhaven. From there, it winds along the rocky shoulder of the Chuckanut Mountains, following the shoreline 200 feet above sea level. On its curvaceous route, it offers incredible views of Chuckanut Bay and Samish Bay, the Olympic Mountains, the San Juan Islands and Lummi Island. We’re not just talking about pretty scenery. These are the kind of views that compel you to stop, take out your camera and marvel at the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, delivering “aha!” moments that remind you exactly why you chose to live in this part of the world.
Some drives can get monotonous, but this is not one of them. Chuckanut traverses two very different landscapes. At its northern end, there are mountains, ocean, cliffs, trees, bays and islands. Its southern end takes you through the delta of the Skagit River, past wide, open farmland. It’s a great route for a long, peaceful drive.
The place to begin is in Fairhaven, an historic district filled with galleries, restaurants, bookshops, crafts and artisans. Consider picking up a picnic lunch for the drive at one of the many delis and restaurants in the village, unless you’re planning to eat at a restaurant on Chuckanut Drive.
Once you leave Fairhaven, don your sunglasses, wind down the windows and set your car stereo to your favorite music. If you’re in the mood for a short hike, pull over at Mile 18, the Teddy Bear Cove trailhead, where a wooden staircase takes you down a steep trail to the beach. It’s the unofficial nudist beach, so don’t be surprised if you encounter a bit of bare skin along the way. The beach is a great place for spotting seals and is full of nooks and crannies where you can enjoy a private picnic lunch surrounded by sea gulls, crashing waves and whiffs of salt in the air.
An alternative place, one where exposed flesh is much less likely to be seen, is Larrabee State Park, a magnificent, 1,885-acre site along the shores of Samish Bay, with a lush growth of Northwest foliage. A short walk gets you down to Clayton Beach and tidal pools. Bring water shoes and a swimsuit – it’s so beautiful that you might even find the courage to defy the cold Pacific with a quick dip. This is another great place for your picnic lunch, if you’re having one. If not, your next stop could be the Oyster Bar on Chuckanut Drive (theoysterbar.net; 1-360-766-6185), a seafood restaurant with ocean views to die for and cuisine that’s just as inspiring. Much of its fare is local and, in fact, some of the non-kosher variety is grown minutes away at Taylor Shellfish on Samish Bay. However, if seafood isn’t your preference, there are more restaurants along the way.
If you are feeling energetic, there are several trailheads leading to hikes that range from three to six miles long. Regardless, make sure you’ve brought along U.S. dollars, as you might need them when you reach Mile 8, at which point organic produce and farm stands come into view, selling local honey, vegetables, cheese and flowers. Miles seven through one careen past farmland, with a few stores along the way, such as the antique shop, espresso stop and hot dog stand at Mile 3. When you reach Burlington, you’ve come to the exhilarating end of Chuckanut Drive, at which point you may well choose to turn around and do it again the other way. If you’re ready for home, though, take the faster route back to Canada on the Interstate 5 – filling up on gas before you hit the border!
If you go:
• Remember your passport! You cannot cross the U.S.-Canada border without one.
• Check border waits before you go to avoid long lines. On the radio, News 1130 AM delivers the wait times every 10 minutes with its traffic report.
• To get to the exit for the northernmost end of Chuckanut Drive, take #250 off the I-5.
• Pick up a driving guide to Chuckanut from Whatcom County Tourism’s Visitors Centre at 904 Potter St. in Bellingham, call 1-800-487-2032 or visit bellingham.org.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.