Bellingham: The Hub of the Pacific Northwest’s Outdoor Wonderland

by Nick Hilden  |  Published January 12, 2015

Tucked in the northwestern most corner of the Pacific Northwest, Bellingham is situated between Mount Baker of the Cascade Mountains and the San Juan Islands of the Puget Sound. This provides its residents with unrivaled access to outdoor adventure.

Photo: Aubrey Laurence via Flickr

Photo: Aubrey Laurence via Flickr

I grew up in a damp little town in northern Washington State called Mount Vernon. In his strange and wonderful novel Another Roadside Attraction, renowned author Tom Robbins (who actually lives outside of Mount Vernon) hailed this seemingly sleepy agrarian hamlet for a beauty that harkens to the tapestries of the ancient Orient. Beautiful it may be, but that’s not what those of us who grew up there in the 1990’s knew it for.

To us, it was a place of drug violence fueled primary by a combination of boredom and our smuggling-friendly proximity to the Canadian border. It was a place of late-night drag racing, fights in the park, teenage pregnancy, bizarre murders, and cruising the back roads endlessly—because what else was there to do?

For many of us, it was a place that cried out escape! And escape we did. I fled south, others east. But many of my friends went north, just half an hour away to the little city of Bellingham.

A Place Where the Mountains Meet the Sea

When I was young, Bellingham was poised in my mind as the place where families drove to go to the biggest mall in the region—Bellis Fair. When I began visiting my friends who had moved to attend Western Washington University, however, I discovered that there was much more there.

One of the first things I noticed was that all of my Bellingham friends were developing hobbies, and not just any hobbies—healthy, outdoorsy pursuits.

They were all hiking and skiing and learning to sail. With each visit I found that someone had built a new bike (usually using some outlandish design), or was patching up an old boat, or had acquired a slew of fancy camping gear.

This was only natural, as Bellingham is located at the nexus of some of the Pacific Northwest’s most stunning and recreation-friendly regions. To the east looms Mount Baker and the Cascade Mountain Range. To the west are Bellingham Bay, the Puget Sound, and the glorious green mottle of the San Juan Islands. And everywhere in between are lakes, rivers, beaches, and trails.

This location naturally attracts those who love the great outdoors and the recreation and adventures that it has to offer. It’s a town full of like-minded people who are mostly liberal, well educated folks who make their own trail mix and enjoy perusing REI just for the fun of it. And each year in May, Bellinghamians celebrate their passion for outdoor activities with the world-renowned Ski to Sea Race, a 93+ mile relay race that spans seven sports, including cross-country skiing, downhill skiing or snowboarding, running, biking, canoeing, mountain biking, and sea kayaking. Thousands of people participate every year, and their numbers are only growing.

Music, Food, and an All-Around Friendly Atmosphere

Bellingham itself isn’t very large compared to other cities. At 80,000+ residents it’s among the largest in the state, but much of its population is spread out through the surrounding region so it never really feels all that big.

Many of its residents are college students who have come from all over the state and the country to attend WWU and enjoy the easy-access to nature. They and the city’s other inhabitants live throughout sprawling residential areas that surround a small downtown quarter.

Downtown Bellingham is a pleasant little burg. It’s jam packed with shopping, restaurants, and bars, and from some vantages offers a great view of the bay.

Though generally slower during the week, the weekend bar scene can be pretty happening. The 130 year old Horseshoe Café is open 24 hours a day, offering drinks and pub food. Dives like the Grand or Cap Hansen’s fill up on an almost nightly basis. And Bellingham enjoys a fairly thriving music scene, with local and touring acts playing in large venues like the Shakedown and the Wild Buffalo, and up-and-coming musicians playing at smaller rooms like the Green Frog and the Cabin Tavern.

Bellingham is also increasingly famous for its beer. Tap and bottle houses like the Green Frog, Elizabeth Station, and the Copper Hog are all local mainstays, and the region boasts a slew of breweries, most notably Boundary Bay, Kulshan, and Chuckanut.

Take a Ride, Enjoy the View

Speaking of Chuckanut, winding south out of Bellingham and into the lowland farms of the Skagit Valley stretches what is undeniably one of the most scenic drives on the planet—Chuckanut Drive. It’s both a functional if somewhat meandering way to get where you’re going, and if you’ve got no place to be, a highly enjoyable way to spend half an hour or so.

Chuckanut Drive hugs the coastline, providing fantastic views of the Puget Sound and San Juan Islands to the west, and if you’re there at the right time of day, a sunset that puts nearly all others to shame. To the east the road is flanked by the Blanchard Mountain, which is covered by a series of trails such as Oyster Dome, a six mile loop that races upwards 900 feet to the Samish Overlook, from which one is afforded yet-another unparalleled vantage point.

The drive is also dotted by popular restaurants like the Oyster Bar and Chuckanut Manor, which are both renowned for their upscale dining and fantastic views. Over the years I’ve enjoyed many a drive up and down Chuckanut. I’ve parked with friends and made my way down to hidden clearings where I’ve watched meteor showers and listened to the trains go by.

Forget the freeway—Chuckanut Drive is the perfect way to enter and leave Bellingham. For all practical purposes, it’s just another road. But there’s something special about it. Something about the fact that it provides such easy access to nature, recreation, wildlife, good food, and great scenery. Something about its laidback atmosphere.

A lot of my friends who moved to Bellingham years ago did so without the intention of staying, but in the end they never left. And those who did leave or who only just go occasionally to visit are always drawn back, again and again.

Maybe it’s the people, or maybe it’s the atmosphere. Or maybe it’s simply because that glorious drive never gets old.

Whatever the reason, it’s undeniable to any who have been there that there’s something special about Bellingham. When the world goes wrong and things go crashing down every place else, I have a feeling that the people of Bellingham will be just fine, that they’ll keep on going powered by their organic gardens, their self-jarred goods, and their affinity for homebrew.