WHATCOM COUNTY — Heading up from the Fragrance Lake trailhead, I soon cross the Interurban Trail, the route of an old trolley line from Bellingham, then plunge into a thick, twilit forest of 100-year-old firs, cedars and hemlocks among a carpet of swordferns that rival the size of an Arthurian broadsword.
The “chip, chip” of Pacific wrens no bigger than my thumb competes with the rubber-mouse-like squeak of chipmunks and squirrels. Otherwise, silence is broken only by the distant, haunting horn of a train passing on tracks that follow the saltwater shore below.
This is the sweet midwinter solitude to be found five minutes into a hike uphill from scenic Chuckanut Drive, a route that teems with tourists in summer.
Several hiking trails head up into the Chuckanut Mountains and Blanchard Mountain from this historic, cliffhanging road, also known as Highway 11, once the only way to get to Bellingham from the south unless you took a train or boat. The trails are popular with locals year-round, but the cooler months are a good time to spend long stretches of hiking time on your own, usually snow-free, combined with a pleasurable driving destination.
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Cool trees, great view
On the way to Fragrance Lake, I pass a cedar that I would need half a dozen friends along to encircle, and smaller hemlocks that are doing their best to grow straight out of some giant boulders, ensnaring them in weblike roots.
At .7-mile I turn off for a .2-mile detour to a viewpoint that’s well worth the digression. A split-rail fence corrals a lookout to some eagle-perch firs on the hillside and a distant view of the high brow of Lummi Island. Beyond are Vendovi Island and Viti Rocks, named by the Wilkes Expedition in 1841 for, respectively, a Fijian chieftain imprisoned on their ship, and Viti Levu, the main island of the Fiji Islands.
Back on the trail, the air temperature this day is about 25 degrees. Long icicles hang from mossy rocks above the trail, and thick hoar frost turns the dirt underfoot crumbly like honeycomb candy. That’s one of the advantages of a winter trek here, I hear from two hikers I meet: If it weren’t so cold, the trails would be muddy.
“It’s so close to home yet so wild,” says Kris Ekstrand Molesworth, of Bay View, Skagit County.
“The scenery is just fantastic,” adds her friend, Inger Gibson, a Mount Vernon resident who recently walked most of the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail.
In about 2 miles the trail reaches the lake, with another 0.7-mile loop around the pretty pond that reflects the cedars and firs crowding its shore. Benches are thoughtfully placed. On the north side, pockmarked sandstone cliffs echo the geology of the nearby islands.
For the return, I follow an alternate route, down an old gravel logging road — easily located from the lower end of the lake — to see an impressive frozen waterfall recommended by another hiker. In 2.2 miles, I arrive at Larrabee State Park’s Clayton Beach parking lot, then follow the Interurban Trail a half-mile back to the Fragrance Lake trailhead.
Where: The trailhead and parking are on the east side of Chuckanut Drive directly opposite the well-marked turnoff for the Larrabee State Park campground. Discover Pass required.
Other Chuckanut Drive trailheads
• Oyster Dome: This 6.5-mile round-trip takes you up to the crowning glory of Chuckanut hikes, a glacial-polished cliff on Blanchard Mountain. The base is littered with talus fields and caves where bats breed, while the top offers island-and-water views to rival Orcas Island’s Mount Constitution. Where: The trailhead is on the east side of Chuckanut Drive just north of Milepost 10 and just south of the Oyster Bar restaurant. Park on the road’s west shoulder. No permit required. More information: wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/oyster-dome.
• North Chuckanut Mountain trailhead: At the south edge of Bellingham and the north end of Chuckanut Drive, 1.5 miles south of the intersection with Old Fairhaven Parkway, this is the departure point for a whole network of trails, including the broad and flat Interurban Trail. It can accommodate bikers as well as hikers, and connects to a short trail to scenic Teddy Bear Cove. Other trails from this spot include the meandering, views-aplenty Chuckanut Ridge Trail (10.4 miles round-trip), plus the Hemlock Trail, North Lost Lake Trail and other spurs. Ample off-road parking on east side of the highway; no permit required. More information and a link to a trail map: bit.ly/1bJlf2e.
• Larrabee State Park: For a shorter walk, take the campground entrance to the state park, park near the picnic area and follow one of the short trails to the beach or shoreline viewpoints. Discover Pass required. More information: parks.wa.gov/536/Larrabee.
Brian J. Cantwell: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blogging at blogs.seattletimes.com/northwesttraveler. On Twitter: @NWTravelers