Chuckanut Drive Scenic Byway: Evergreen Forests & Emerald Bays
Chuckanut Drive Scenic Byway is a twenty-two mile stretch of road that features lush evergreen forests and gorgeous emerald bays. The curvy road hugs tall sandstone cliffs as it travels alongside the shoreline of picture perfect Samish Bay.
This beautiful byway, which has been dubbed Washington’s version of Big Sur, is the state’s first ever scenic byway, and is special for so many reasons, one of them being that this area is the only place where the Cascade Mountains actually touch the sea.
Chuckanut Drive begins off Interstate-5 and travels through coastal flat farmlands in Skagit County before gaining elevation and entering Larrabee State Park where the byway ends not long after in Fairhaven, just south of Bellingham.
Picturesque views seem to appear around every bend, so don’t let the sights distract you from driving. There are several pullouts along the way so you won’t miss out on seeing the enchanting scenery.
Larrabee State Park, the first ever designated state park in Washington, offers plenty of outdoor pursuits for active folk, as well as some nice viewpoints of Samish Bay and the San Juan Islands. However, if you don’t have time for activities, this is still a lovely drive that is worth doing and makes a fantastic detour between Seattle and anywhere north of Bellingham.
Map of Chuckanut Drive Scenic Byway Including Stops
- Distance: 22 miles
- Drive Time: 1 hour
Who is this road trip for? Because this byway isn’t very long in terms of mileage, the drive is a perfect day trip destination from Bellingham for residents looking for things to do because it can easily be completed as a return trip in just a few hours.
If you’re planning a visit to Bellingham, consider taking Chuckanut Drive on the way there as it will be a nice introduction to the area and allow you to become more familiar with this corner of Washington.
Chuckanut Drive is also a terrific alternative to Interstate-5 for Seattle residents looking to break up the monotony on the way to or from Vancouver.
This drive is one of our favorites, and we have spent a lot of time in the area mostly in summer and fall. However, we recently did this drive in winter when my mother came to visit and it was surprisingly just as beautiful, although we did get lucky with some sunshine.
While this drive is a nice detour and day trip destination, it could easily be turned into a weekend getaway, perfect for both couples looking for a relaxing escape or for outdoor enthusiasts wanting to take advantage of the abundance of recreational activities in the area.
For outdoor folk, there is a campground on State Route 11 and plenty of places to hike, mountain bike, or get on the water if you are willing to bring your paddleboard or kayak. For couples, there are a few charming hotels and bed and breakfasts in Fairhaven perfect for unwinding and romance.
Where Does Chuckanut Scenic Byway Start?
Chuckanut Drive Scenic Byway starts in Burlington off Interstate-5 at exit 231, and travels along Washington State Highway 11 through to Fairhaven, a district of the city Bellingham. The drive can be started from either the south or north, however this driving itinerary will detail the best stops along the byway beginning from Fairhaven.
When Is The Best Time To Visit Chuckanut Drive?
Ideally, the drive along Chuckanut Scenic Byway is best taken in summer because there is very little chance of rain, and also because sunset is around 8pm which gives ample time to spend on outdoor activities.
However, autumn is equally as beautiful when maple and alder trees are ablaze with color. Winter drizzle won’t dampen the drive though, as there is something surreal about pacific northwest forests shrouded in fog and glistening with raindrops.
Best Stops Along Chuckanut Drive Scenic Byway
Chuckanut Drive Scenic Byway starts (or ends) in Fairhaven, a neighborhood of Bellingham. The Fairhaven District which is known for its charming Victorian era architecture, has a number of boutique stores, bookshops, and several fantastic restaurants.
Be sure to spend about an hour to walk the downtown area, and if you have time, walk the entire length of the Bellingham Boardwalk, an overwater walking trail which begins in Boulevard Park.
Afterwards, stop by The Woods Coffee at Boulevard Park for a break before getting started on your road trip. If Fairhaven is your final stop, you might be pleased to know this coffee shop is open late.
Larrabee State Park
Larrabee State Park can lay claim to being Washington’s first state park. Created in 1915, this 2,683 acre park is situated on the western side of Chuckanut Mountain and can be accessed from Chuckanut Drive at various points along the road.
The park offers all sorts of recreation activities such as hiking, mountain biking, beachcombing, kayaking, and paddle boarding.
If you are up for hiking, there are a number of trails that lead to great viewpoints looking over Samish Bay. One of my favorite trails here is the hike to Fragrance Lake, which is a four mile loop trail that leads to one of only two lakes in the park. A word of warning though, this trail is very steep. For an even more challenging trail, take on the hike to Chuckanut Mountain, a 6.1 mile trek with an elevation gain of 2,000 feet.
But you don’t need to take on strenuous activities to enjoy this state park because there are other things to do besides hiking and mountain biking. Visitors can appreciate the park’s natural beauty from one of the many coves or bays along 8,000 feet of shoreline, or perhaps take to the waters on a kayak, if you happen to have brought your own.
There is a campground at Larrabee State Park if you are thinking about staying overnight in the area which can accommodate both tents and RVs.
This is one of our favorite campgrounds in Washington because the sites are private and sit under tall Douglas Fir trees. Each site has a fire pit and picnic table, plus there is hot water for showering. However, by far the best thing about this campground is that it’s located only a few short steps away from the shores of Samish Bay, which on a moonlit evening, seems to only become more beautiful.
View Point Bow
While there are a few turnouts, the View Point has one of the prettiest views of the Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, particularly around sunset. During the summer, the color of the water is a brilliant blue hue, and at sunset the horizon turns a vivid peach shade while the stars slowly come out.
If you miss sunset, not to worry because twilight often lasts until around 11.30pm in these parts which means you’ll still be able to see the spectacular seascape if you turn up late.
We have spent a lot of time on this byway and one of our favorites things to do was to bring our camp chairs and some beers to enjoy the scenery whether during the day or for sunset. I recommend you do the same if you have time.
Taylor Shellfish Farm
Taylor Shellfish Farms are known throughout the Pacific Northwest for growing the finest shellfish, from geoduck to clams, and a variety of different oysters. They have farms across Washington’s bays and inlets but the one we are most familiar with is the Bow location on Chuckanut Drive.
Here, they raise exquisite shellfish across 1,700 acres on the tidal mud flats of Samish Bay. While they grow a variety of different mollusks, the most popular with visitors are the Pacific oysters.
The Pacific oysters grown here are very plump and ‘meaty’, with a slightly sweet taste. These gorgeous oysters, which are available to purchase in small, medium, and large sizes, are perfect on the half shell or on the grill.
The Kumamoto oysters, a Japanese variety grown here, are also very popular with customers. Kumamotos, which take an excruciatingly long time to grow, are noted for their sweet, clean, and fruity flavor.
There is a retail shop here where you can pick up their famous oysters, clams, geoducks, and mussels, as well as scallops, prawns, Dungeness crab, halibut, salmon, and more, to take home.
However, I recommend taking a seat in the waterfront picnic area and taking advantage of the fresh tide to table service. You won’t find better seafood, or better Pacific Northwest views than here at Taylor Shellfish Farm on Chuckanut Drive.
Seeing as though this was a winter road trip for us, we weren’t entirely sure if Taylor Shellfish Farm would be open, and even if it were open, how enjoyable it would be sitting outside in the cooler temperatures. But we were glad to see the store open on our arrival. Obviously it will be a more pleasant experience stopping by in the warmer months, but don’t let winter deter you from visiting because you might catch a gorgeous sunny day like we did.
This place used to be a regular haunt of ours when we lived in Bellingham some years ago, and while we had visited a few times since moving, it had been at least two years since our last visit so we were surprised to learn there was now a bar and indoor seating area. Another huge surprise was how busy it was. It used to be popular on weekends with local families in summer, but not packed like this. I guess the secret is finally out how terrific the seafood and location is.
We used to enjoy the challenge of finding the perfect beer or wine to pair with the oysters here, but now that this establishment has their own bar and restaurant, outside alcohol and food is not allowed on the premises. Whether good or bad, that era is gone. However, the staff will still lend you their shucking knives and let you have at the oysters yourself on the picnic tables outside. Of course, you can have them do it for you if you prefer.
Taylor Shellfish Farm’s retail store is open daily from 10am until sunset. Seating is first come first served, and as we noticed, tables get taken quickly on weekends!
Samish Bay Cheese
Samish Bay Cheese produce top quality fresh and aged cheese using only milk from their own herd of cows. The organic specialty cheese is handcrafted in small batches which you can pick up at the corner of Chuckanut Drive and Bow Hill Road in Mama wheels (2 pounds), baby wheels (1 pound), and in smaller cuts. Some of the cheese they make include cheddar, queso, feta, and gouda.
You can also pick up beef, pork, lamb, and veal, which are all raised on the farm as well as other locally sourced artisan products. The farm is open seven days a week between 10am and 5pm.
First settled in 1869, Edison, named for inventor Thomas Edison, is a small farming community on the Samish delta located just off Chuckanut Drive at the Bow Junction. The area is surrounded by natural beauty with views of Mt Baker to the northeast and Samish Bay to the west.
Downtown Edison has a number of art galleries and restaurants while the back roads surrounding this area offer the opportunity to visit small farms selling local artisan cheese, apples, berries, and other produce.
One place not to miss if you decide to take the small detour to Edison is Terramar Brewstillery who make beers and ciders, as well as craft single malt whisky, gin, and vodka. All of the beer is brewed from barley grown in the Skagit Valley and the tap list changes with the seasons to highlight the different flavors of this region. Liquor made here is also made using barley grown and malted locally. As for the cider, apples for cider making are sourced from nearby Cedardale Farms.
Besides the booze, Terramar make some of the best woodfired pizza around so whether you like to drink or not, you have no excuse not to visit if you are in the area.
Another place not to miss if you choose to visit Edison is Breadfarm. This bakery has the most excellent bread and tastiest pastries. The reputation of this bakery among locals is so good that most of their products run out the night before from customers ordering online.
The bread baked here is of high quality using organic ingredients. They have a delicious Moroccan oil-cured black olive ciabatta bread that we appreciated for days. Their Samish River potato bread is also really good which is made using local flour and russet potatoes.
But they don’t just do bread well here, the pastries are also amazing. Both the savory and sweet danish pastries are incredible. The most popular though is the savory one with house made pesto, soft cooked organic egg, and smoked ham.
The fruit Danish pastries on offer vary between the seasons with blueberry in the summer, apple in the fall and winter, and rhubarb in the spring. You can’t go wrong with any of them.
Also worth mentioning is that they make divine shortbread cookies here. My top pick is the cocoa nib shortbread with cocoa nibs from Theo Chocolates in Seattle, but the hazelnut espresso is great too which is made using hazelnuts from Holmquist Hazelnut Farm in Lynden and espresso from Caffe Umbria.
Bow Hill Blueberries
Bow Hill Blueberries, having been established in 1947, is the oldest family run blueberry farm in the Skagit Valley. This farm produces the most delicious and nutritious certified organic blueberries that you can pick yourself come harvest time.
They specialize in heirloom berries and have over 4,500 bushes that are a combination of Rubel, Stanely, Jersey, or Bluecrop. During the harvest season, the farm offers grazing passes so that you can wander the fields and experience eating blueberries fresh off a bush. They also offer customers a number of guided tours, although bookings do need to be made in advance.
Blueberry picking season is usually sometime between July and September but if it’s not the right season for blueberry picking during your drive down Chuckanut, not to worry as there is a farm store which is open year round seven days per week!
At the farm store, you can pick up pickled heirloom blueberries, blueberry marinade, blueberry salad dressing, blueberry juice, blueberry powder, and so much more. Currently the farm store is operating between Wednesdays through Sundays 10am to 4pm.
Snow Geese of the Pacific Flyway
Every year, Snow geese arrive in huge numbers to spend winter in the Skagit Valley. These geese overwinter here on farmlands and estuaries until spring, when they can fly back north to the Arctic where they’ll raise their young and feed on the open tundra before needing to head south again.
Interestingly, most of the Snow geese wintering in the Skagit Valley were born on Wrangel Island in Russia which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the most northern nesting ground for one hundred migratory bird species.
Annual counts often exceed 50,000 birds, so you can imagine how impressive it is to see such a large flock in the one place. Being a wildlife enthusiast, I had wanted to see the spectacular display for myself for a number of years so we were lucky that our road trip coincided with their wintering in Western Washington.
It was incredible to see such a large flock in the one place, moving from field to field in search of forage, as Bald eagles circled above. Their clean white feathers were in stark contrast to the deep green grass of farmland pasture. What made it even more of a staggering and dramatic sight was Mt Baker standing imposingly in the background.
One thing that was very surprising was how loud and noisy they were. We could hear their boisterous honking from miles away. You can listen to what Snow Geese sound like here.
If you happen to be driving through the Skagit River Delta area between mid-October to early May, and interested in seeking out these beautiful migratory birds, be sure to take a detour near the end of State Route 11 (Chuckanut Drive) through back farm roads in the area to find a flock. This is how we found them. One tell tale sign there is a flock nearby is that you’ll see bird enthusiasts pulled over to the side of the road with their cameras and expensive zoom lenses out. Because the geese are transient and move from field to field, it is hard to predict exactly where they will be.
Where To Stay Near Chuckanut Drive
Lodging is limited on Chuckanut Drive except for a campground at Larrabee State Park. However, since the entire scenic byway is only 22 miles, this is not really a problem. On the northern side of the scenic byway, the best area to stay is in Fairhaven where you’ll find quaint bed and breakfasts and several waterfront hotels.
Downtown Bellingham offers a selection of affordable hotels that are close to restaurants and bars. On the southern end of Chuckanut Drive your best bet for accommodation will be chain hotels on Interstate-5 or in Burlington.
Recommended Hotels In Fairhaven
The Fairhaven Village Inn – This charming hotel is located in the heart of the historic Fairhaven district and offers spacious west facing rooms with a partial view of Bellingham Bay and the San Juan Islands. Rooms feature a gas fireplace and sliding doors that open onto a patio with two chairs where you can enjoy magical sunsets.
Chrysalis Inn & Spa by Hilton – The Chrysalis Inn is a 4-star hotel that overlooks Bellingham Bay and is within walking distance to the restaurants and shops of Fairhaven. Guestrooms and suites come with a fireplace and bay windows with water views. There is an onsite restaurant serving local northwest cuisine as well as a full service spa.
Recommended Hotels In Bellingham
Four Points by Sheraton – This hotel in downtown Bellingham sits adjacent to a grocery store and The Woods Coffee Shop. Rooms are well appointed and there is an onsite restaurant, bar, gym, and indoor swimming pool.
Recommended Hotels In Burlington
La Quinta – The La Quinta is located in downtown Burlington close to a variety of chain restaurants. Rooms are simple, spacious, and clean and all stays come with a hot breakfast.
Comfort Suites – This affordable hotel near downtown Burlington offers large, clean rooms that come with breakfast. There is an indoor swimming pool and common lounge area.
Use the interactive map above to search for hotels and vacation homes in Bellingham. Recommended hotels, campgrounds, and other points of interest have also been marked on the map.
Camping At Larrabee State Park
The Larrabee State Park Campground is open year round and offers campsites with full hookups as well as primitive sites. The campground has picnic tables, toilets, showers, and a dump station. Reservations can be made between May 15 and September 15, however the campground operates on a first come first serve basis during the off-season. Note, the Amtrak train travels through the area so it can be noisy at times. Book your campsite online or phone 888 – 226-7688.
Tips For Driving Chuckanut Drive Scenic Byway
- Consider planning your road trip around catching a sunset from one of the many bays and coves or from a turnout. Remember that in summer, the sun sets quite late in the evening here in the pacific northwest.
- Bring a packed lunch and have a picnic somewhere along the route or save your appetite for Taylor Shellfish Farm.
- Pay attention when driving along this road as there are many bicyclists, particularly on the weekends.
- This is a narrow two-lane road, very large RVs are not recommended.
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