Lube the joints. Warm the bones. That refrain usually gets me out on the trail in the dead of winter. It helps if the rain isn’t blowing perpendicular to gravity and the temperature is forty or better, which I realize is leaning toward balmy for the days-are-getting-longer season of the year. But thirties and raining? No way I’m going out there. Twenties? Teens? Now we’re back in business since that can mean either snow or crispy sunshine, both of which reside on the cheerier side of the ledger. Just beware the nor’easter.
Avoid the crowds by going early or when it’s thirty-six and raining.
Now that I’ve eliminated almost every excuse, other than supermassive couch gravity, for commencing a winter hike, let’s consider some strong candidates for Whatcom wanders. There are many, but the following list of nine should help loosen the joints and coddle the soul. I expect to do all of these and more this winter. Perhaps I’ll see you out there!
Yes, Clayton Beach. Finally! After decades of delay, the new trail and railroad overpass were completed (mostly) in the summer of 2023. The old trail has been returned to nature. The new path to the bridge has plenty of elbow room for the number of hikers and beach frolickers we can expect to visit this unique patch of coastline, at least when it’s nice outside. Avoid the crowds by going early or when it’s thirty-six and raining. And time your hike with a lower tide for some added exploring. Note that the stretch between the bridge and the beach is still a work in progress, but easy enough to navigate.
Park at the expansive lot for the Lost Lake Trailhead on WA-11 (Chuckanut Drive), a half-mile south of the main entrance to Larrabee State Park. Cross the road when safe to find the trail a little to the left and down some steps. Coarse gravel, a couple of steep hills, and stairs leading off the bridge make the trail unappealing to little wheels, although jogging strollers should be able to make it at least to the bridge, with a possible short carry from there. Discover Pass required.
Envisioned in the Chuckanut Mountains Trail Plan way back in 1996, yours truly helped pull some volunteers together in 2011 to get this premier Larrabee State Park trail started. Washington Trails Association (WTA) soon joined us, and we officially cut the ribbon a couple of years later. Over 100 volunteers exerted 4,000+ hours of labor to make it happen. Thanks to trail-builder extraordinaire Russ Pfeiffer-Hoyt for training us to build the stairways and the Bellingham REI for covering the cost of all that lumber.
Find the signed trailhead at the top of the park’s Cleator Road. Locate a map or use your GPS app to visit Lost Lake, plan various loop options, or just enjoy a down and back for double the scenery. You’ll be walking among impressive sandstone walls and giant boulders while descending/ascending 500 feet of elevation in less than a mile. In a cold spell, take care not to stand under any icicles! Discover Pass required.
If you’re new to Bellingham, know that the city has a remarkably walkable waterfront that’s improving every year. You’ll pass bounteous eateries and coffee shops en route. To see it all, bundle up and make your way to Squalicum Harbor or Little Squalicum Beach close by (a bus on Eldridge Ave can get you close, except on Sundays). Explore the harbor, gradually working south on paths and sidewalks toward downtown.
Turn right off Roeder Ave. at Wayside Park and hike around the six Flash Gordon rocket ship-looking things (leftover digesters from an old pulp mill) to Cornwall Ave. Then walk left a block to Maple St. Go right here and right again in the alley below State St. This leads to the South Bay Trail that takes you all the way to Boulevard Park, the Taylor Dock boardwalk, and Fairhaven’s Village Green, about five miles from Little Squalicum. Wander the historic district or sling a right on Harris Ave. and cruise on down to the Cruise Terminal and a logical endpoint at the Marine Park beach.
Rufus Creek Loop
The Rufus Creek Loop may be the best hike on Lookout Mountain.WTA volunteers completed this excellent five-mile loop in 2019. There may be mountain bike traffic on portions of the loop, but not enough to dissuade hikers from enjoying some beauty and serenity. I recommend hiking counterclockwise, gradually gaining some 700 feet of elevation, not counting minor ups and downs.
From the main Lookout Mountain Forest Preserve parking area on Lake Louise Road, walk up the road a little, turning right at the trail map sign. Cross the creek and stay right at the next two forks, then left at the next (about 1.5 miles from the parking area). Walk up the brief squiggly section, stepping aside for bikes, then keep left for the next gentle mile or so surrounded by lovely forest to another major fork. A left here and at the next fork returns you to the valley bottom, while a right gets you back to the trail map sign. A short side trip to a substantial waterfall (signed) makes a nice add-on.
Another recent favorite, the Chanterelle Trail on Stewart Mountain, has much to offer, although it’s still a work in progress. Previously, we could find a great view of Lake Whatcom by walking up the service road for the BPA transmission line near the end of North Shore Road on the east side of the lake. Then, a bit of trail was constructed at the bottom, bypassing the road. Later, another chunk on a moderate grade was built higher up, eventually reaching the same fabulous viewpoint (at 2.2 miles), avoiding the need to pass under the power lines. Several years ago, the trail was extended another couple of miles.
More recently, in 2023, the construction of four-plus miles of new trail—descending over 2,000 feet down to the lake—created a roughly ten-mile loop for ambitious hikers. Watch for a short spur to a view on the way down. Expect snow on the higher ground at times in the winter months. The trailhead parking area is shared with the popular Ken Hertz Trail along the lake shore.
With Lookout, Stewart, and the Chuckanut Mountains often competing as Bellingham-centric hiking destinations, it’s good to head out a wee bit farther and trudge up a less familiar hill. For me, the short ferry ride to Lummi Island seems to have a slight deterrent effect, though it really shouldn’t. It’s easy enough to bike the 2.5 miles (south-ish) to the well-signed trailhead on Seacrest Dr. Sorry, Fido, no dogs. The extensive view of the islands is about 1.7 miles up, with a 1,100-foot elevation gain. You can thank the Baker family and the Lummi Island Heritage Trust for the opportunity to enjoy this trek.
While you’re in the neighborhood, the old rock quarry now known as the Aiston Preserve recently opened to the public, with enough new trails to while away a good hour or two. Continue south on Seacrest to Beach Ave till you reach the trailhead. For a map and more info on these areas and the nearby Otto Preserve, visit www.liht.org. Note also that a loop around the north half of Lummi Island makes an excellent bike ride any time—unless it’s thirty-six and raining.
For more great winter walks along Whatcom County’s extensive marine coast, head toward Birch Bay, Semiahmoo, Blaine’s Marine Park, or a personal favorite, Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve, about a mile south of Birch Bay State Park. The Whatcom Land Trust acquired the area in 2007, and is maintained by the county. Due to the sensitivity of marine life along the shore, no pets are allowed.
Find the signed parking area off the west end of Grandview Road. About 0.7 miles of easy trail leads to a modest descent with steps to the beach. Significant wandering is possible both north and south, with the actual point located about a mile to the north. The high bluff gives the area a wild feel despite all the homes perched above and out of sight. Harbor seals sometimes bask on the rocks. Give them a wide berth.
Okay, Padilla Bay is in Skagit County, but it’s a regional favorite for winter birding and sunset walks. The smooth, wheel and sneaker-friendly path follows a dike along the bay for slightly over two miles, with parking areas at both ends (the north parking lot in Bayview is roomier). In addition to geese, swans, ducks, and other waterfowl, watch for peregrine falcons, hawks, eagles, herons, and maybe even a snowy owl. If you spot a flock of cameras and spotting scopes on tripods, someone probably found something interesting. It’s okay to ask.
To learn more about this ecologically rich area, check out the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve’s facility nearby on Bayview-Edison Road (limited hours). Afterward, plan a meal stop in Edison, a small, thriving community of authenticity rife with good bread, good beer, and good cheer even when it’s thirty-six and raining.
It’s nice to get out to the North Cascades in winter, not just to ski or snowshoe but also to bask in the craggy, often snow-free depths of this mountainous winter world. Baker Lake fits the bill, with a potpourri of options to fill a few hours or days of leisurely adventuring. From WA-20 near mile 82, head north on Baker Lake Road however far you can drive since lingering snow, downed trees, washouts, and the like are unpredictable. Various bridges and campgrounds offer good views of the lake or the great white volcano itself.
If you can reach the end at around 26 miles (mostly paved), you’ll have both the Baker River Trail and the Baker Lake Trail to saunter. Or you can also turn east near mile 14 and possibly drive over Baker Dam to the south trailhead for the Baker Lake Trail, a mile beyond the dam. Near the turnoff for the dam at mile 14.6, check out the half-mile Shadow of the Sentinels boardwalk loop through a majestic old-growth forest. Returning to WA-20, watch for Rasar State Park, which offers another hour or two of lazy hiking and a reasonably good chance of seeing part of the Nooksack elk herd.
The author and publisher of Hiking Whatcom County, Ken Wilcox is a long-time Bellingham resident, a Huxley grad, a professional trail planning/design consultant, and is married to Kris. He writes about parks, trails, and travel and is currently completing a memoir. He frequently posts his work via Substack at www.kenwilcox.com