Cruisin' Chuckanut

One of the West Coast's most scenic roadways leaves Interstate 5 north of Seattle and weaves an enticing 22-mile path to Bellingham.

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Pretty, but not spectacular: Those words came to mind the first time I pulled onto Chuckanut Drive, more than 25 years ago. Sure, there were foals frolicking in green lowland pastures and stands of Douglas firs commanding the route. Mount Baker towered to the east, rocky Lummi Island floated in peaceful Samish Bay, and shorebirds took to the sky. All very nice, in a rustic sort of way.

Then I crossed Blanchard Creek, and I fell in love. The creek had carved a tortuous bed through the tideflats. Gnarled, red trunks of madrona trees clung to sandstone summits glowing in the sun. Ferns sprouted like green fountains, ran below misty waterfalls, and twisted past cliffs polished by the gritty friction of continental glaciers. Stonecrop knit its yellow flowers into mats over stunted shrubs.

Hundreds of outings later along Chuckanut Drive, I can say that this two-lane path seems new every time. Its light is ever-changing against the steel gray of the bay. Buttercups bloom bright yellow in spring, and bigleaf maples turn golden in fall.

Most of what humans have done on this dramatic drive during the past quarter century has been good. New trails and scenic turnouts have been opened. Larrabee State Park, the drive's crown jewel, has been expanded. New houses, concentrated at the southern and northern ends, hide from the road. Far south, someone has put up a sign: "Please drive quietly. Meadowlarks singing."

When completed in 1921, Chuckanut Drive cut a swath through the fertile farmland and rich marshes of Skagit Valley, about 60 miles north of Seattle. The new road headed toward the coast and north along the western flank of Chuckanut Mountain. Predating the interstate, it was a route built for convenience. Today, it is choreography for the eyes of motorists eluding the monotony of I-5 on the popular Seattle-Bellingham corridor. (The southern end of Chuckanut begins near Burlington, exit 231 off I-5.)

Chuckanut Drive can be a destination in itself. Fruit stands, cafés, and small galleries dot the nearby hamlets of Bow and Edison. For simple, inexpensive fare, there's the Chuckanut Valley Store & Cafe; for big breakfasts, the Edison Cafe; and for hearty burgers and oyster dishes, the Longhorn Saloon. Just before the drive begins to hug the mountain, a sign directs to Samish Bay Cheese, which makes excellent aged Gouda, montasio, and its own Mont Blanchard―all perfect picnic fare.

The Chuckanut Manor Restaurant B&B, above the Blanchard Creek estuary, is popular for its Friday evening seafood buffet and Sunday brunch; it also offers lodging. High on a cliff above the bay, The Oyster Bar―reservations essential―dishes up truly memorable Northwest food. I often walk the nearby Pacific Northwest Trail, which crosses a clear-cut and emerges to give sweeping views of Samish Bay, Skagit Valley, and the San Juan Islands. The Oyster Creek Inn, a longtime local favorite that almost slip into Oyster Creek two years ago, has been restored and reopened under new ownership. Windows look out to chum salmon flopping their way up the creek.

Larrabee State Park, seven miles south of Bellingham, unfolds over 2,683 acres of rocky shores and sandy beaches, dense forests and open glades, high promontories and quiet dells. Picnic tables and campsites are ample. At the park's Wildcat Cove, roses cascade onto the beach in spring, and a boat launch lets enthusiasts drift or paddle along the shore. Tide pools beckon at low tide, and it's a fine place for crabbing. Luck once helped me spy a California gray whale grubbing for mussels only feet from the cliffs. Larrabee's hiking trails lead to Fragrance and Lost lakes, hidden high in the lap of Chuckanut Mountain.

Before spooling off the drive into south Bellingham's historic district of Fairhaven, I find it hard to pass by Chuckanut Bay Gallery & Garden Shop. Its splendid local art and crafts never fail to entice. Home again, in Bellingham, I contemplate my next excuse for detouring from the predictable trajectory of I-5 and back onto the graceful lure of Chuckanut Drive. After 25 years of visits, I've rearranged my thoughts: Not just pretty, but spectacular.

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