You can get from Seattle to Bellingham, WA by going 90 miles straight on the highway, but you shouldn’t have to. The best route to this small town nestled where the mighty Cascade mountain range meets the sea may be more scenic and enjoyable. Exit Interstate 5 approximately 15 miles south of Bellingham for the final approach via Chuckanut Drive, one of more than 20 official Scenic Byways in the state.
The Interstate Highway exit for Chuckanut first drops you off in the town of Bow. It’s part of Bow-Edison, which is split between two small shopping districts, but for a bake lover like me, stopping at both is a must. In Bow, the Farm To Market bakery, opposite a vintage light blue cinderblock post office, offers triple chocolate pecan brownies, polenta cakes and other goodies to accompany the freshly brewed coffee on cheerfully painted tables in the bakery’s rhododendron garden. Two and a half miles from Bow Hill Road West, Edison’s Bread Farm offers sweets and fresh bread at the walk-in bakery window. A handful of galleries and boutiques invite visitors to linger in town.
Back at Chuckanut Drive, the sea level farmland of the Skagit Valley opens up to you with views of the western San Juan Islands before the road begins to climb. More than 10 winding miles skirt the cliffs of the Chuckanut Mountains, offering stunning views of the bays and islands of the Salish Sea below as you wind your way through the towering evergreen forest. The route was used during Prohibition by bootleggers 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 get to the bustling farmers’ market before it closes at 2 p.m. , indoor plants, handmade crafts and clothing. Stalls spill out of the official market footprint on and around the nearby sidewalk. Samples of beef jerky from Carnal, a local restaurant, prompted me to buy regular and spicy versions to take home.
Explore by land and sea
Bellingham has increasingly become a magnet for people seeking to escape Seattle’s rapid development and costs. But the compact coastal town is also a great place for a weekend visit. On a recent trip there, I easily enjoyed two full days with only one night in a hotel.
Popular with outdoor enthusiasts, Bellingham has wonderful walking, hiking and biking trails. Minutes from downtown, Whatcom Falls Park offers easy hikes on its four-mile trail system. As you pass the salmon hatchery and playground, a WPA-era stone bridge and a splashing waterfall await. The sweet scent of Douglas fir groves, moss-covered rocks and a profusion of sword ferns make for a great “forest bathing” session.
For more structured recreational activities, the nearby Cornwall Memorial Park is home to a disc golf course, horseshoe pitches and pickleball courts as well as a playground and spray park. If you don’t have your own gear, it’s always fun to watch the players there or just explore the walking trails through the woods.
Another great place to hang out is Western Washington University. The hilltop campus, with stunning views over Bellingham Bay, was founded in 1893 and is now home to 15,000 students. It is also home to 70 species of trees and a world-class outdoor sculpture collection. You can’t miss Mark di Suvero’s 27-foot-tall bright red steel creation, or Isamu Noguchi’s giant spiked cube, 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 in the water at Bellingham is also easy. The Community Boating Center near the Fairhaven District rents small boats and organizes guided kayak tours. The search for bioluminescent sea creatures highlights nighttime excursions. For a longer aquatic adventure, five- to six-hour whale-watching tours depart from the adjacent Bellingham Cruise Terminal, where ferries also set sail for 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.
Local dishes with lots of flair
When you’re ready to relax, it’s easy to slip into the area’s robust craft brewery ecosystem. At Gruff Brewing Co., visitors can sample a rotating cast (about nine at a time) of house beers, including Trash Bird Hazy IPA 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 outfitted with fire pits, cornhole games, and brightly colored seating that makes even a cloudy day feel festive. Gruff doesn’t serve food, but the Brothers Bus Bistro food truck parked outside offers great choices, including a plate of hummus, goat cheese, veggies, and pita.
A wealth of marine life like Pacific oysters and geoduck, a welcoming clam whose neck is so big it cannot close its shell, is harvested by Taylor Shellfish Farms and other local businesses, making Bellingham the perfect place for seafood lovers. Rock and Rye is one of the upscale restaurants that serves oysters, but don’t miss their halibut or chocolate pie. The lively restaurant, with exposed red brick walls and high ceilings, has a second-floor terrace for al fresco dining.
Tasty breakfast options in Bellingham town center can be leisurely or take out. For something quick, you can try a cranberry and pink cardamom scone and a latte at the trendy Camber Cafe. If the wait for tables at the popular Horseshoe Café and Old Town Café brunches is too long, line up at Makeworth Coffee Roasters to order egg sandwiches and waffles. The space has a modern industrial vibe: white walls, bright and airy with second-floor seating overlooking the ground floor.
Bellingham is surrounded by affordable chain hotel choices, but to stay downtown and within walking distance of its dining and leisure options, we chose the Leo Hotel. Originally built in 1929 as the Leopold Hotel, the building fell on hard times with the rest of Bellingham town center in the 1980s. In 2019 it reopened as a hotel (from around $259 for a Saturday in July) and features an old-time social space — a wood-paneled library, pool table, and fireplace. You can show movies in a small theatre.
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 immersed myself in the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention, densely packed with antiques and hands-on activities. Visitors can see a light bulb created by Thomas Edison and a headgear used by charlatans to electrocute patients, and experience an electronic musical instrument, the Theremin, which is controlled without physical contact. The museum’s MegaZapper Electric Show, a live performance on history and science, is a must-see (spoiler alert – bewildering amounts of electric current leap through the air).
A few blocks away, another city gem, the Whatcom Museum, highlights the area’s native arts, history, and 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.