This Whatcom beach reveals a hidden world when the tide is out

Check out Larrabee State Park’s Wildcat Cove at low tides

Wildcat Cove, a beach in Larrabee State Park, is gorgeous at low tides and a fun place for families with kids to go tide-pooling.
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Wildcat Cove, a beach in Larrabee State Park, is gorgeous at low tides and a fun place for families with kids to go tide-pooling.

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Beaches of Whatcom County

We visited the beaches along Whatcom County’s nearly 130 miles of saltwater shoreline because you will want to, too.

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Editor’s note: This is the first of an ongoing series about beaches along Whatcom County’s almost 130 miles of saltwater shoreline.

When there’s a minus tide in summer, grab the kids and head to Wildcat Cove at Larrabee State Park south of Bellingham.

It’s one of the best-known spots for low-tide exploration in Whatcom County. In addition to the marine creatures, there are other features that make this a good place for families.

Why you’ll like it: Larrabee State Park has about a mile and a half of shoreline, and the beach at Wildcat Cove is among them. You’ll be walking on a combination of sandy and pebbly beach and rocky outcroppings during your outing.

The walk down to the beach is a pleasant one. Take the trail next to the amphitheater and meander through the woods where you’ll see evergreen trees, fern and salal. You’ll walk through a short tunnel with a fun and colorful mural of sea life, including a giant octopus.

Once you reach the short stretch of beach, look back and up to see madrone — an evergreen tree with a vibrant orange-red bark. When mature, the bark naturally peels away in thin sheets.

While you’re looking up, you might see a bald eagle flying overhead or a heron. And if you look around, you’ll see the honeycombed rock formation in the Chuckanut sandstone that is a hallmark of the shoreline at Larrabee State Park.

Don’t forget the sea life that is revealed when the tide is low enough to leave stretches of shoreline exposed for exploratory ambles, never mind that this is a short stretch of beach.

That’s what Stanwood resident Brittney Mattson was doing one morning with sons Colton, 6, and Riley, 4. It was the family’s first visit this summer and they were busy exploring cracks, crevices and tide pools left behind by receding water.

They found purple sea star, sea anemone, little fish and lots of little crab, they said, as they stood near rocks speckled by barnacles.

“Guys, look at this crab,” Mattson said to her sons while holding a little one in the palm of her hand. “Touch his shell. Be brave. He won’t pinch.”

“Colton, I see a little teeny crab,” Riley said excitedly to his brother.

At one point, Mattson pointed her sons’ attention downward.

“Look it, these are all crushed shells,” she said.

When you’re done looking around the beach, head back up the trail to the amphitheater. There, you’ll find a covered picnic area, grills for barbecuing and a children’s playground.

Mind your manners: Here are a few tips for treading lightly when you go out at low tide to peek at critters during your beach walk.

  • If you find a creature stuck to a rock, leave it there. Yanking a sea star off its perch, for example, might rip its tube feet. It’s better to admire with your eyes.
  • Look under rocks carefully. Lift rocks that are smaller than your head so it’s easy to put them back without smashing the critters.
  • Return marine creatures where you found them. It’s bad to move the territorial ones like chitons, sculpins and limpets. Plus, it’s just plain dangerous for the creatures, who could be smashed in the surf. It’s especially important in summer when they face greater threats from sun, predators and crowds of people.
  • Step carefully to avoid crushing the very creatures you’re out there to admire.

Difficulty: It’s an easy, 5- to 10-minute walk down to the beach. The rocks revealed when the tide pulls back can be slippery, so wear shoes that grip.

Driving there: Head south on scenic Chuckanut Drive. Turn right at the Larrabee State Park entrance.

You should know: You will need a Discover Pass to park in the lot. Cost is $30 a year or $10 a day, if you buy it directly from an automated machine on site. Otherwise, you’ll pay $35 and $11.50 respectively to buy from a vendor.

There are restrooms, including a diaper changing area. Find them near the park entrance.

There’s a boat launch on the other side of the beach. Take Cove Road off Chuckanut Drive to get to it.

Keep your dog on a leash at all times. No campfires or alcohol are allowed.

Wildcat Cove has bacterial water quality issues so make sure your children don’t play in the water and then put their fingers in their mouths.

Before you go: Check the tides by going to tides.net/washington. It’s best to arrive about an hour before the low tide.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea