Best Paddling and Adventure Town

By Sarah Wyatt

Photo courtesy of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism

The epicenter of Whatcom County outdoors

Eschewing the grand sight of Mount Baker to the best of my ability, I crouched into a tall boulder on Sucia Island known as “the birth canal.” I soon learned the reason for this odd nomenclature as I scaled its internal slippery walls, about 25 feet to a narrow opening. Upon surfacing at the summit, I was startled by a bald eagle circling about 10 feet above my head.

After returning to my kayak and later viewing orcas breaching nearby, I realized that if the Creator made an outdoor experience superior to the one I just had, She must have kept it to Herself.

Accessible only by boat, Outer Island Expeditions offers daily excursions to Sucia Island from the dock at Semiahmoo Resort, a premier golf resort in northern Whatcom County.

Residents of this spectacular county have a reputation: they’re known for their inability to stay on dry land and Bellingham — the epicenter of the county — couldn’t be more proud of that status. After all, when Outside magazine names your city Best Paddling Town, getting your sea legs is a mandate rather than an option.

Conveniently located just 90 minutes north of Seattle, Bellingham routinely draws paddlers from throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Let’s start with the county’s chief aquatic bragging point: Bellingham Bay. Cradled by Lummi Island, the Chuckanut Mountains and Samish Bay, this bodacious body of water begs for a good paddling. Kayak and canoe enthusiasts race across the bay every Wednesday throughout the spring and summer, and the six-mile Paddle Grand Prix in September is a new favorite on the roster of competitive events.

Kayakers seeking whitewater action head to Glacier Creek. Those seeking more serene water opt for Lake Padden, where the nonprofit Bellingham Bay Community Boating Center offers lessons and rentals. Hardcore paddlers are also seen at Lake Padden on Tuesday — playing aggressive kayak polo! Pick-up games are available for visiting paddlers.

On Solid Ground

Bellingham is home to an enviable number of open spaces, with accessible acreage ranging from small neighborhood parks no bigger than the footprint of a house to the 1,066-acre Lake Padden Park on the south end of town.

Of all Bellingham’s in-city parks, the 241-acre Whatcom Falls Park is the crown jewel offering waterfalls, picnic areas and hiking trails. Photo courtesy of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism

The two-mile South Bay Trail skirts the shoreline between downtown Bellingham and the Fairhaven District with gorgeous views of Bellingham Bay.

Hiking within Bellingham city limits is popular on Sehome Hill near Western Washington University and within Whatcom Falls Park, as well as at Fairhaven Park.

The seven-mile Interurban Trail extending south from the Bellingham city limits near Chuckanut Drive is also popular with hikers and mountain bikers.

Lance Romo, who coordinates events for Bellingham Parks and Recreation, enjoys the city’s offerings for runners.

“This is a great place to run,” Romo said. “We have about 72 miles of trails. About two blocks from my front door I can run a half-marathon on the Railroad Trail toward Memorial Park and I have to cross only one road.”

On Two Wheels

A favorite way for visitors to see Bellingham is on two wheels. Good choice, according to Mountain Bike magazine, which recently ranked Whatcom County as one of its top 10 regions in the United States to kick up dirt. Even in the heart of downtown, you’re more likely to spot bike helmets than car exhaust. Over 70 miles of trails are available in the Bellingham area alone.

As well, the city’s Civic Complex, located in the Puget neighborhood east of I-5, will soon have a “pump track,” a series of rolling bumps and banked corners for mountain cyclists to perfect their skills. For downtown bicycle rentals easily accessing the trails, visit Jack’s Bicycle Center.

Galbraith Mountain, a partnership between private land owners and a local mountain biking club, offers miles of mountain trails with impressive views. Cars sporting license plates from British Columbia and other states are at the trail heads. Two access points are used to reach the trails: Lake Padden and Birch Street at Whatcom Falls in town.

At 10,778 feet, Mount Baker is located 31 windy miles from Bellingham and can be seen throughout the Northwest on a clear day. Photo courtesy of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism

On the Snow

If snow sports are more your style, Mount Baker, at the end of State Route 542, has all the action. The resort boasts one of the longest ski seasons in the region, with the slopes often open through mid-May.

With a base elevation of 3,500 feet and resort peak at 5,089 feet, the mountain is a popular setting for ski and snowboard documentaries. The resort is home to the world’s greatest recorded snowfall in one season (1998-99): 1,140 inches and also offers the highest average annual snowfall of any resort in the world: 647 inches. One of its lifts, known simply as Chair 8, accesses long groomed runs as well as access to the Hemispheres and Shuksan Arm backcountry areas. Beginners are also serviced with two handle tow surface lifts.
Mount Baker’s Legendary Banked Slalom competition attracts international professional athletes as well as amateurs who are allowed to compete on the same weekend. Since 1985, this slalom snowboard race through the natural half pipe is the resort’s signature annual event.

The resort’s new terrain park, Pinky Park, includes small jumps and a variety of boxes. Cross country skiing and snowshoeing are increasingly popular attractions. Best of all, this snowy paradise is about an hour from Bellingham’s city center.

National Geographic named Bellingham an Adventure Town earlier this year, yet another honor in its series of accolades. Also ranked as the country’s third safest city in an insurance industry study, Bellingham and Whatcom County are perfect for an outdoor vacation or “staycation” for outdoor adventures.

If You Go

Bicycle Rentals

Jack’s Bicycle Center, (360) 733-1955
Fanatik Bike Company, (360) 756-0504
DNZ Drop ‘N Zone, (360) 738-4665
Fairhaven Bike & Ski, (360) 733-4433
Kulshan Cycles, (360) 733-6440
REI Sehome Village, (360) 647-8955
Robert’s Bicycle Repair, (360) 739-9727


Mt. Baker Ski Area,
(360) 734-6771; (360) 671-0211
Snow Report;

Helpful Resources

Bellingham Parks & Recreation,
(360) 778-7000,
Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, (360) 671-3990,


Fairhaven Village Inn, (360) 733-1311
Located in the historic Fairhaven district of Bellingham, the Fairhaven Village Inn has spacious rooms with fireplaces. A veranda and library make this a cozy lodge.

Hotel Bellwether, (877) 411-1200
Hotel Bellwether features panoramic views of the Cascade mountain range and Mount Baker to the east, and the San Juan Islands to the west. Each of the hotel’s 65 European-style guestrooms features a fireplace, imported Italian furniture, a jetted bathtub and cotton bathrobes.

Semiahmoo Resort, (800) 770-7992
Semiahmoo Resort offers AAA Four-diamond lodging, two award-winning golf courses, full-service spa, restaurants and meeting facilities.

Silver Reef Hotel Casino Spa,
(360) 383-0777
Located north of Bellingham in Ferndale, Silver Reef Hotel Casino Spa offers exceptional dining and live entertainment in a spacious setting.

Sarah Wyatt is a travel and outdoor writer living in Seattle.