Whatcom County's newest park offers a choice of easy or strenuous rides and hikes and an enjoyable wilderness experience just outside of Bellingham.
A new parking area for nearly 30 vehicles allows easier access to Lookout Mountain Preserve, where visitors previously were forced to park along the narrow shoulder of Lake Louise Road near Sudden Valley's Gate 9.
Restrooms built during the summer construction project will be open in a few weeks, said Michael McFarlane, director of the Whatcom County Department of Parks and Recreation. New trail signs and a kiosk with park rules are expected in about the same time frame, he said.
Nevertheless, it's now open free for day-use hikers and mountain bikers.
Lookout Mountain Preserve's series of trails meander through second-growth forest, featuring small waterfalls on gushing Austin Creek and - on clears days at least - a view of Lake Whatcom from about 1,000 feet. It's part of a 369-acre tract purchased by Bellingham and Whatcom County with funding mostly from Whatcom Land Trust and state taxes.
"It's a nice alternative to Stimpson," McFarlane said, speaking of the nature reserve about two miles west on Lake Louise Road.
"It's a different trail experience," he said. "It follows some of the old logging roads. It's got a little more of a recreational twist to it."
Where Stimpson is more of an easy nature trail, the routes on Lookout Mountain Preserve move through steep ravines under forest canopy of hemlock, Douglas fir, red cedar, big leaf maple and alder. Bicycles and dogs are allowed on Lookout Mountain trails, and though McFarlane said the park rules haven't been posted yet, restrictions will be similar to those for other city and county trails.
The main trail is a nearly six-mile climb to cellphone towers and radio repeaters on Lookout Mountain, the highest peak south of the lake. Two other trails move laterally and offer easy-to-moderate workouts.
All of the trails are wide and free of obstacles. They are mostly hard-packed dirt and gravel with few muddy spots, even in a steady rain. Small bridges make creek crossings easy.
"It's six miles to the top; you certainly get a good workout," McFarlane said. "It's certainly a very good lowland trail."
In addition to the main trail, there's also the Lower Lookout Trail, a one-mile loop over mostly even ground, and the Lookout Mountain Loop Trail, a two-mile hike up and over ravines with about a 400-foot elevation gain.
Lookout Mountain Loop features the waterfalls and lake views - the lake overlook is a half-mile spur off the main trail, adding a mile to the entire route. Both the waterfall and the overlook are to the left side of the loop, so hikers could do an out-and-back to the overlook in a little over an hour.
Both trails start less than 100 yards from the parking area, past a yellow locked gate. They are marked with aging wooden signs.
Lookout Mountain Preserve is about nine miles east of Bellingham on Lake Louise Road, across from Sudden Valley Gate 9. It's served by Whatcom Transportation Authority Bus No. 512 from the downtown station, arriving at the park every hour pretty much on the hour until 7 p.m. weekdays and 6 p.m. Saturdays.