If you’re in the mood for a cliffhanger, you can’t beat a short road trip down Chuckanut Drive.
The road follows the sinuous nooks and crannies of the Chuckanut Mountains, a mostly sandstone geological formation that presses tight against saltwater for several spectacular miles through southern Whatcom and northern Skagit counties.
The rocks in the formation were mostly laid down during the Eocene epoch about 50 million years ago, when the climate was a lot different: Fossilized palm fronds are not uncommon.
In 1910, convicts used dynamite to clear five miles for Chuckanut Drive.
Because of the challenging topography, construction of the cliff’s-edge route was an on-and-off effort that took more than 10 years. According to an account by Phil Dougherty for the HistoryLink.org website, the present-day route began to take real form in 1905, when the Washington Legislature approved money for an improved road through the mountainous stretch of coastline between Bellingham and Bow. At that point, rough logging roads and trails were the only alternative to the railroad through that area.
After overcoming cost overruns with fresh infusions of state cash, local pioneer entrepreneurs Charles Larrabee and Cyrus Gates helped spearhead the project. In 1910, a crew of convicts was put to work on the job and managed to complete five difficult miles with the help of a fair amount of dynamite. But the route wasn’t complete until 1916.
The scenic section of Chuckanut Drive is part of State Highway 11, which begins at the Fairhaven exit on Interstate 5 as Old Fairhaven Parkway. The highway route swings south at its intersection with 12th Street and passes Fairhaven Middle School and Fairhaven Park before it becomes Chuckanut Drive.
On sunny days, traffic on Chuckanut can be a bit heavy, and watch for cyclists. On rainy days, watch for rocks in the roadway.
Just past the Old Samish way intersection is the North Chuckanut Mountain Trailhead, the first possible shoreline access point, where you park for a 1.3-mile walk to Teddy Bear Cove. Aging local hippies have fond memories of the spot, which was a nudist beach when it was privately owned years ago. Today it is part of the Whatcom County parks system, and clothing is recommended —mandatory, in fact.
Washington’s first state park is Larrabee State Park, named for Bellingham’s Larrabee family.
Just south of Teddy Bear Cove the highway begins to get interesting as it twists and turns along the rocky cliffs overlooking the shoreline. The body of water to your right is Chuckanut Bay, framed by Clark’s Point to the north and Governor’s Point to the south, with little Chuckanut Island in the middle sprouting a few Douglas firs.
A bit farther south, along the shore of Samish Bay, sits Larrabee State Park, the first such park in the state, named for Charles Larrabee. The park straddles Chuckanut Drive. To the west are saltwater beach access points, while the park’s east side offers rugged hikes up into the forested slopes. The Fragrance Lake Trail is the most popular.
From the Larrabee beaches, Samish Island marks the southern limit of Samish Bay. To the southwest, you can see Guemes, Sinclair and Cypress islands. The much-smaller island in front of them is Vendovi Island, named for a Fiji Island chief.
South of the park, watch for a small sign marking the narrow entrance road to Taylor Shellfish Farms, near a sharp hairpin curve. A short drive to the tideflats brings you to Taylor’s retail store, where you can buy clams, mussels and oysters. Some people enjoy picking up a bag of clams and mussels for a special Northwest picnic, steamed in white wine over a camp stove.
After one more rugged mile, the road descends to flat Skagit farmland, beginning at Blanchard community, the boyhood home of famed broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.
The Samish Flats south of Blanchard are a good place to look for swans, snow geese and other waterfowl in the winter. Eagles and hawks are abundant, too.
Honeycombed sandstone at Larrabee State Park
Regular visitors to Larrabee State Park are likely familiar with the intricate honeycomb pattern of small cavities to be found in the sandstone along the park’s shoreline.
In his new book, “Geology Underfoot in Western Washington,” Bellingham geologist Dave Tucker explains the forces at work that create the distinctive pattern.
The honeycomb structure, called “tafoni,” requires permeable rock - in this case the sandstone; salt - in this case from the waters of Samish Bay; and repeated wetting and drying of the rock over time. As the water dries on the rocks, salt crystals can grow between the grains that make up the rock. A new wave can dissolve the salt crystals, but leave more salt behind for the process to continue.
The pattern and extent of cavities in the sandstone is also affected by microscopic algae that forms a protective shield on the rock in places, slowing the absorption of salt from the sea water.
The network of cavities and walls takes centuries and longer to develop, so respect the natural process by not using the nooks and crannies for climbing handholds, and please don’t add to to the unfortunate graffiti and name carvings already present.