I’ve known about Whatcom County and the city of Bellingham since I was a kid. We passed through town on our way to Canada, and I visited the forested campus of nearby Western Washington University during my pre-college years, trying to make a decision that would secure my future. Funny how much I missed.
Ever since the Alaska Marine Highway tied up to the ferry terminal at Bellingham’s port last Friday, our family has been surprisingly busy exploring this terminus of the ferry’s 1,300-mile route. We’ve been hiking, biking, strolling, and eating our way through a series of neighborhoods that cause us to sigh with contentment.
Whatcom County feels familiar because people are friendly, athletic, and bent toward outdoor living. It’s comfort lies in beautiful songbirds, swooping cedar trees, and proximity to salt water. Barely two hours from Seattle’s urban frenzy, this corner of Washington state feels like Southeast Alaska. Even the history fits, we learned.
Whatcom County is home to Northwest Coast Indian tribes similar to those found in Alaska’s Southeast panhandle. The area was also similarly settled by Russian, Spanish, and English fur traders and trappers in the 1820’s, several years ahead of the frenzied Fraser River Gold Rush in 1858. The sea has brought in both people and industry, evidenced by the tourism industry alone, with thousands of Alaska visitors hopping aboard the Alaska Marine Highway ferries each year to embark or disembark at the Bellingham terminal.
In my research for an upcoming Anchorage Daily News article about travel aboard the Alaska Marine Highway, Whatcom County has remained a bit elusive in materials detailing the ferry’s journey. Why? Most likely due to the fact that people simply want to get on or off and proceed through the rest of their trip. But to skip Whatcom and the communities within its boundaries would be a mistake, plain and simple. Even an hour spent strolling historic streets or licking an ice cream cone provides a worthy endeavor while the car is parked in a ferry waiting lot.
Here’s what we found during our brief stay:
Whatcom County Tourism provides a wealth of information for the entire area, including historic Fairhaven and Bellingham, where most people spend their time (the ferry terminal is also in Fairhaven). Stop by their office at 904 Potter Street, or call ahead 800-487-2032.
Eat a meal at Skylark’s Hidden Cafe on Eleventh Street in historic Fairhaven. The combination pub-steak house-breakfast establishment features homemade everything, and a dose of live music in the evening. Kids are most welcome.
If microbrews are popular in your family (as they are with ours), try Boundary Bay Brewery on Railroad Avenue in downtown Bellingham. Popular with families for the weekly outdoor live music, excellent kid-friendly menu, and the hula hoops, Boundary Bay kept our crew of three cousins and four grownups busy and happy despite a long wait for a table. Oh, and the food? Delish. I had a yam enchilada that nearly had me licking the plate for crumbs. Ohmygosh.
Whatcom County is nothing if not a bit eclectic, too, and tourist attractions reflect this in the form of Spark Museum of Electrical Invention, located at 1312 Bay Street in downtown Bellingham. Who knew that one museum could hold the history of electricity, radio, television, music, and zipped-zappity excitement of all kinds? I had a hard time pulling the nine-year old and five-year old away from the science experiments led by a retired professor, and the ‘Theremin’, a musical instrument one can play without touching it anywhere. No kidding. Bigger kids and adults should definitely attend the electric show held multiple times a day to show off power that changed the world. Admission to the museum is $7/adults, $5/kids under 11. The show is an extra few dollars.
Hikers, bikers, and walkers should make tracks to Whatcom County’s Lake Padden, managed by the City of Bellingham, and a nice 2.6-mile loop trail around a serene lake full of kayakers, paddleboard enthusiasts, and fisherman. Winding through cottonwood groves, cedar trees, and brush areas full of salmon berries, Lake Padden is a nice way to stretch legs of young and old, alike. I ran, AK Dad walked, and AK Kid and his little cousin frolicked in the side trails and among the hidey holes for rabbits and squirrels. Nice.
We saved the really, really big trees for last at the Stimpson Family Nature Preserve near Lake Whatcom. With four miles of trails leading through old-growth forest, it was a delightful place to talk about nature, trees, and environmental awareness with our Alaska-grown son. Huge trees like this don’t grow in Alaska, save for the panhandle area, so wrapping arms around a 500-year-old douglas fir was special, indeed. Managed through cooperative efforts of Whatcom County Parks and several other agencies, the nature preserve allowed for views of wetlands and wildlife, including an owl and many wee frogs, much to our delight.
It’s a nice step between Alaska and the remaining Lower 48 states, this place. And that has value for us. It might for you, too.