Great scenery plus cool cabin equals fun getaway
Tucked in the far northwestern corner of the "lower 48" states, the Mt. Baker region is a spectacular place, sharing the extreme beauty of nearby British Columbia and offering relaxing getaways that are just as remote as remote can get.
In fact, the entire county of Whatcom is sky-high on anyone's beautiful scenery list. As a jumping off point for the world-class vacation destination known as the San Juan Islands, Whatcom County's western side is replete with gorgeous views of water, islands and sunsets that match any you've seen on the Travel Channel. And Bellingham itself is a fascinating city of historic buildings and interesting neighborhoods that is worth a daytrip all by itself.
But go east from Bellingham and you venture into snow-topped mountains so dramatic they have been used in movies and on TV shows to depict the Colorado Rockies and other famous mountain areas. During winter, the snow's so deep up here that the Mt. Baker ski area always seems to get the first snow and the deepest snowpack. This area is for mountain-lovers, not for folks who settle for the hills that pass for mountains in places like Vermont or other eastern states.
Our quick getaway into the Mt. Baker area began with a turn-off from Interstate 5 in Bellingham at Highway 542 – the Mt. Baker Highway. After a few blocks of businesses and homes, this country road began to live up to his billing as one of Washington's most scenic drives. The two-lane road meanders through meadows and valleys, over hills and around curves through old-growth timber that grows more towering with each passing mile. The Mt. Baker Highway is about 57 miles to its end, although we planned to spend the night near Maple Falls, less than half that distance from Bellingham.
With all of the nearby mountains and forests, it's surprising to learn that Maple Falls is only at an elevation of 643 feet – not enough to get the huge snow dumps the Mt. Baker Recreation Area is known for. But we were kind of glad – our rental car didn't have four-wheel drive and we hadn't planned on snow problems because we were visiting in late spring. As it turned out, there was snow all right – just at a little higher elevation than we were visiting.
We stopped in Maple Falls to pick up our keys to the cabin we had reserved for the night. We wanted the cabin-in-the-woods experience – a hideaway a little off the beaten path with no other buildings nearby. We find that, unfortunately, some of the best "cabins" or vacation homes today are built in subdivisions that have the look and feel of a housing development. We had mentioned to Mt. Baker Lodging that we wanted to be more isolated than that and they came up with the perfect choice.
Our cabin was just another four miles or so from Maple Falls' tiny downtown, so it was quick to get to, and easy to return to town for groceries or dinner at one of a few local restaurants. The cabin was just off Silver Lake Road with no sign or street name indicating the turn-off, but excellent directions provided by Mt. Baker Lodging, the rental agency. We removed the chain blocking the road entrance, replacing it as we drove further into the deep forest. And then, in just a minute or two, there was our cabin – all by itself, no neighbors, hiking trails nearby and ideal for our quiet weekend in the woods.
The word cozy was invented for this place. It was relatively small, simple construction but with plenty of charm. The chalet-style building had a bathroom, a small kitchen and dining area, and a comfortable couch and easy chair for watching the 20-something inch TV or for curling up by the fireplace. Upstairs were three small bedrooms with low A-frame style ceilings but still plenty of room to move around. Outside the owners had built a shelter for the picnic table and a grill was close at hand, ideal for hamburgers and hot dogs in the Great Outdoors.
The trees in these woods were thick and mossy green, almost like a rain forest. In between them snaked a trail that, just in case you missed it, had a sign designating the pathway as a "TRAIL." Who could resist following it to its end to see what was in store even deeper in the woods?
Once we brought in our suitcases and a few groceries we were headed down the trail to find what we would find. In just a few minutes we came to Silver Lake, a tranquil pond that, on a warmer day, might have been perfect for a swim. Thick woods and marshes lined most of the lakeshore, although there were tell-tale signs this wasn't quite as far off the beaten path as it would seem. For starters, there were paved roads. Then we discovered buildings. And soon it became obvious this was a public recreation area that, while not used at all this spring weekday, probably was a popular spot on weekends during warmer times of the year.
Nevertheless, it was so gorgeous and close to the cabin that it was the perfect hike for anyone just looking for great scenery and a dense natural landscape. We could easily have spent hours in such a peaceful place.
Later during our stay, we took a drive farther east on the Mt. Baker Highway – not all the way up, but as far as Nooksack Falls, which was just a few miles beyond the town of Glacier. We took the short walk from the highway to a vantage point practically on top of the falls and close enough that we got a true sense of the power of 88-foot falls and could see why filmmakers thought they were visually interesting enough to include in the movie the Deer Hunter. A visit to the falls was just one choice of many along the highway where you find numerous trailheads and mountain views worth a stop.
Weather was a factor for us on our trip –a low cloud ceiling kept us from seeing some of the most famous views farther up the Mt. Baker Highway including those of Mt. Shuksan and the mountain ranges near Mt. Baker. Instead, we left a little early, driving back toward Bellingham and then south on Highway 9, an inland byway that roughly parallels Interstate 5. It's a two-lane country road that won't get you there quite as fast, but has lots of interesting sites along the way.
Along the way we saw dairy farms as well as places to stop along the South Fork of the Nooksack River. There were also century-old country stores along this route including Everybody's Store in Van Zandt and the Acme General Store in Acme. Further south, in Sedro Woolley, Highway 9 meets the east-west route of Highway 20 that will take you the five miles west over to Interstate 5 to continue your journey south to the Seattle area.
We loved our cabin-in-the-woods experience and especially the Mt. Baker area – at some point we hope to return to sample more hikes and views in an area that is arguably one of the most beautiful in the country.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: The Mt. Baker recreation area is within just a few miles of the Canadian border in the far reaches of Northwest Washington. The Mt. Baker Highway extends 57 miles east from Bellingham.
WHAT: Mt. Baker is one of the major Northwest peaks and is surrounded by mountains and forests that make this an ideal vacation spot.
WHEN: Best time for hiking is April through early October. Many people visit the area in the winter to enjoy the snow sports, including downhill skiing. There is less snow in the Maple Falls area because of its low elevation.
WHY: Mt. Baker offers unsurpassed scenery as well as numerous trails to access wilderness areas. There also are country stores, funky restaurants and interesting small towns in the area.
HOW: For more information on Mt. Baker as well as Bellingham, contact Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism at 800-487-2032, or go to www.bellingham.org. For information on cabin rentals at Mt. Baker, please go to www.mtbakerlodging.com or phone 800-709-7669.
Photos, from top: Ridge at Silver Lake; cabin-in-the-woods near Silver Lake; Nooksack Falls; a trail near the cabin
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other Northwest travel ideas, be sure to check out other Northwest Travel Advisor articles on
Lake Chelan and
the Rocky Mountaineer.