Hidden gems: Whatcom's marine beaches beckon in summertime

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 29, 2012 

As the late afternoon sun sinks into the western clouds, David Flanagan of Bellingham walks the beach with his son, Ethan, 2 1/2, in this 2002 photo at Marine Park.

PETE KENDALL — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Waikiki. Coronado. Hilton Head. ... Semiahmoo?

OK, no one is going to mistake Whatcom County's beaches for those that rank among the world's best, the tropical ones where people laze about on giant beach towels and ride killer waves.

Still, Northwest residents know that our community features some amazing marine beaches -places where you can see stunning views, explore tide pools teeming with life and enjoy a picnic with your family or that special someone.

To plan your beach getaway, here are six wonderful destinations close to home:

BIRCH BAY

Directions: Take Interstate 5 to Birch Bay-Lynden Road, then head west all the way to Birch Bay Drive, which wraps around the bay.

Where to park: You can park along the bay in town or in the parking lots at Birch Bay State Park, at the south end of the bay. Remember, most days you will need a state Discover Pass to leave your vehicle in the state park. See discoverpass.wa.gov for details.

Access: There are many places to access the beach, circling the bay.

Amenities: The town of Birch Bay offers restaurants, coffee shops and a renowned candy store, while the state park has public restrooms, picnic areas, nearly two miles of sandy beach and great views of the islands to the west and the Cascades Mountains to the east.

Appeal: Birch Bay may be the premier beach in Whatcom County, with sandy spots to stretch out on a towel on a warm day, and rocks to skip along the water with the family. The state park has camping sites and barbecue grills, and the bay itself is renowned for its shallow, warm waters and ample opportunities for clamming when the tide is out - and the tide there goes way, way out. The warmer-than-normal water means people even jump in for a swim.

SEMIAHMOO SPIT

Directions: Take the Birch-Bay Lynden Road exit off of I-5 and go west four miles to the intersection with Harborview Road. Then turn right and travel 1.5 miles north to the intersection with Lincoln Road and turn left. Follow the road 3.8 miles to reach the peninsula, which is across Drayton Harbor from downtown Blaine.

Where to park: Parking is available at Semiahmoo Park, at the south end of the peninsula, and at Semiahmoo Resort, at the north end.

Access: A mile-long trail connects the ends of the peninsula, winding between the narrow, grass- and driftwood-covered sands on each side.

Amenities: The county park features Semiahmoo Museum, which details the area's history as a bustling headquarters for the salmon canning industry. The park also has a two-story building, once part of the cannery, available for day rentals.

Appeal: With more than 300 acres of tidelands, the thin beach at Semiahmoo is a great place to stroll, watch birds, beachcomb, picnic, and enjoy views of Drayton Harbor, Boundary Bay, White Rock, B.C., nearby islands, the city of Blaine, the Cascades and the mountains just over the border in British Columbia. Kayakers enjoy the harbor's relatively protected and calm waters.

LILY POINT MARINE PARK

Directions: Lily Point is in Point Roberts, so bring your passport, because you need to cross the border twice to reach the park. Take I-5 north to the Peace Arch border crossing, then continue north as I-5 becomes Route 99 on the Canadian side of the border. Take Exit 20 and follow Ladner Trunk Road west (Route 10). Turn left onto Route 17, then left onto 56th Street to the Point Roberts border crossing back into the U.S. Follow Tyee Drive, turn left onto APA Road and continue to the end of road.

Where to park: The parking area is at the southeastern terminus of APA Road.

Access: The 247-acre park includes a path on the top of a bluff that takes you to a viewpoint offering vistas across the Strait of Georgia to the San Juan and Gulf islands. A less-developed trail descends 200 feet to the beach.

Amenities: Lily Point is all about the beach and the views. There are no amenities beyond what nature has created.

Appeal: The beach at Lily Point is a mix of rocks, mudflats and sand eroded from the bluffs. The waters abound with marine life, thanks to the mudflats and an underwater reef nearby. Kids love the kelp, starfish and small marine life in the rocky tide pools.

POINT WHITEHORN MARINE RESERVE

Directions: Take the Grandview Road exit off of I-5 and drive west for 8.5 miles. Follow the road as it curves left and becomes Koehn Road, then continue half a mile to the parking area.

Where to park: Space is provided just off of Koehn Road, to the left.

Access: Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve offers two distinct settings, with access to the beach after a three-quarter-mile walk through a forest. The walk is wheelchair-accessible, but access to the beach requires a walk down a steep set of stairs.

Amenities: Bathrooms are at the parking lot. Signs along the trail to the beach provide information on the forest and the history of the area.

Appeal: The rocky beach at Point Whitehorn is a great place to see tide pools, starfish and other small marine life. The scenery is a mix of the industrial - with oil tankers often parked at the nearby dock for BP Cherry Point refinery - and of the scenic, with great views of the northernmost San Juan Islands. Despite the nearby industry, the beach is a quiet place, where birds bob on the waves, ducking their heads under to snack on the sea life.

Because the area abuts the important Cherry Point aquatic reserve, there are stricter rules for visitors: no beach fires, no camping, no pets and no bicycles. People are also asked to give wildlife a wide berth, because the area is a sanctuary for the seals, birds and other creatures that frequent the reserve.

TEDDY BEAR COVE

Directions: Follow Chuckanut Drive south out of Fairhaven a short distance, until you reach the parking area for the North Chuckanut Trailhead.

Where to park: There is no parking along Chuckanut Drive itself, so the nearby North Chuckanut Trailhead parking area is the closest and most convenient option.

Access: Accessing Teddy Bear Cove requires a short hike. From the trailhead parking lot, walk 0.2 miles up the Hemlock Trail to the Interurban Trail, then walk south 0.5 miles to a crossing of Chuckanut Drive to the Teddy Bear Cove trail. It's about 0.2 miles more to the beach.

Amenities: Bathrooms are at the trailhead.

Appeal: A white sand beach in Whatcom County? Not really, but Teddy Bear Cove is covered with seashells ground down over the centuries, giving the beach its unique look.

The cove has a long history of being a sunning spot for Bellingham residents looking for a little privacy. Though it was never officially sanctioned, the cove was often the beach of choice for people who prefer to sunbathe in the nude. Now that it's a county park, nudity is forbidden.

Still, the cove remains a popular place to lay out a beach towel and relax, so it fills up quickly on sunny summer weekends. Kayakers also find the cove a great place to launch into protected waters before venturing into Chuckanut Bay.

CLAYTON BEACH

Directions: Follow Chuckanut Drive south to Larrabee State Park, six miles south of the city limits.

Where to park: Because Larrabee, like Birch Bay, is a state park, you'll need a state Discover Pass to leave your vehicle in the park. The pass costs $10 a day, or $30 a year.

Access: Park in the lot south of the main park entrance, on the west side of Chuckanut Drive. You'll then need to cross the highway and walk down a short trail to the beach.

Amenities: Bathrooms are at the parking lot. The larger, main entrance to the park offers other amenities, such as a playground for children and campgrounds.

Appeal: When the tide is out, Clayton Beach is great, wide place to sit in the sun while enjoying the views of Samish Bay and nearby islands. Some people come to harvest clams, others to scour the beach and see marine life.

When the tide is higher, people can still climb on the rocks and take in the views. The beach is perhaps most popular with college students and young families, as children delight in walking over the rocks and peeking under them to see baby crabs and other sea life.


PARK INFORMATION ONLINE

Click on the links below for more information about:

•: Birch Bay State Park

•: Semiahmoo Park

•: Lily Point Marine Park

•: Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve

•: Teddy Bear Cove

•: Clayton Beach (Larrabee State Park)

•: Semiahmoo Spit

Scott Ayers is a Bellingham freelance writer and former editor of Whatcom Magazine.

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