Bellingham, WA. Gravel roads abound for the ardent traveler.
The rugged coastal mountainous terrain, along with Bellingham-Whatcom County’s off-road cycling history, offers the perfect setting for gravel cyclists to explore the Pacific Northwest. Since the late 19th century, bicycles have given residents and visitors access to the region’s stunning natural landscape, diverse ecosystems, and wildlife. The riding takes you from the Salish Sea to Mount Baker, and showcases all the diverse life zones in between.
The local community’s commitment to bicycle-friendly transportation infrastructure, forest conservation, and the farm to table movement informs this gravel guidebook’s purpose and direction. Combining these elements thoughtfully is what makes this off-road cycling experience unique. Scenic paved roads are mixed with unpaved greenway trails and singletrack to give this field guide substance. A mountain to sea coastal gravel adventure awaits those looking to expand their drop bar skills, explore more, and eat good food. The resilient and sustainable attributes of Bellingham-Whatcom County’s way of life makes it a natural and inviting gravel bike destination. Off-road riding here heightens the senses and physically challenges any cyclist.
Visit Bellingham is excited to release this edition of the Gravel Adventure Field Guide in Washington. The riding here takes cyclists on a journey through a community that enjoys a unique blend of natural beauty, rich history, and a thriving cultural and cycling scene. Our vibrant open space parks and greenways are but a short pedal away.
Even if you’ve visited here before, this gravel guide has the ability to inspire another way of seeing what Bellingham and Whatcom County has to offer. Recognized by the state of Washington as a leading Smart Community, we enjoy a
non-motorized mode share that is one of the highest in the state. It makes it not only easy to navigate the urban environment, including the mountain bike trail system, but also adds access to the county road network. Complementing it all are a number of state and national forest roads that serve other gateway communities in Whatcom County.
Development of early Whatcom County roads was made possible through adoption of the coastal network of ancient trails made by Native American people over nearly 12,000 years. The three significant tribal groups are the Lummi, Nooksack, and Semiahmoo, with each occupying a portion of the county.
What became the Whatcom Trail, from Bellingham to Everson, Washington, grew from the indigenous trails, which extended beyond the present day Canadian border. These routes connected the Coast Salish people to Bellingham Bay from the interior parts of the county, enabling the exchange of goods between tribal communities on Birch Bay and to the north. Native Americans used trails and rivers to connect people, resources, and trade from the sea to mountains. An example is the Whatcom Trail, which the Nooksack Tribe highly valued.
Expanded road development began shortly after the arrival of European-Americans. A permanent white settlement on Bellingham Bay was established in 1852, and the build out of mining and timber industries began. West Coast gold rushes brought labor to construct the first roads. In September 1857 Whatcom County initiated efforts to cut a road from the town of Whatcom to the Nooksack Prairie by hiring guides at $18 and viewers at $3.00 per diem. The viewer’s responsibility was to “view out” the prospective road.
The second half of the 19th century saw a substantial clearing of lowland forest, giving way to farmland and logging camps in the interior of Whatcom County. Clearing trees was arduous work. Road builders used saws and axes, and labored through winter months. The initial roads went through thick stands of forest, around knolls, and crossed over wetlands and creeks. Logs were utilized as bridges, and used as corduroy road surface in swampy areas.
As logging continued into the 20th century, skid roads became part of the landscape. They were created to move logs from the forest to a landing or mill. Typically built as narrow trails or cleared paths, they followed the natural contours of the land and allowed for skidding, dragging, or rolling of logs with the assistance of horses and oxen. Later, industrialized technologies like steam-powered winches and tractors were introduced. This made logging more efficient, and expanded the industry’s operations into more of Whatcom County. The 1920s were boom years for the local timber industry. A total of 75 sawmills produced 340+ million board feet a year.
Today, many of these former timber tracks are now public lands. The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and North Cascades National Park were made accessible with the construction of the Mount Baker Scenic Highway in the 1920s. The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest was the result of early conservation efforts when established in 1908. It was originally part of the Washington Forest Reserve, and offered the opportunity for conservation and preservation of the county’s natural resources. Sustainable timber management and recreational access has resulted in a number of unpaved roads to explore on a gravel bike in Whatcom County.
There are a number of towns and cities that make up the Whatcom County gravel adventure ROUTE experience. Each has its own distinct character, attractions, and contributes to the county’s diverse landscape and sense of community.
Named after Sir William Bellingham, the Controller of Storekeeper Accounts of the Royal Navy, who was charged with organizing the British Vancouver Expedition of 1791-95. Officially incorporated in 1903, it was the consolidation of the towns of Bellingham, Fairhaven, Whatcom, and Sehome. Between 1852-1955, coal was mined beneath present day Bellingham in tandem with logging and fishing. Today, it’s a world known outdoor recreation destination.
Originally a Nooksack seasonal settlement, European-Americans began arriving in the area in 1859. The town was first called Jam, in reference to a significant nearby log jam on the Nooksack River. It was reportedly changed to Ferndale after a local school teacher thought the tall ferns that surrounded the schoolhouse building were poetic and inspiring. It’s evolved into a cradle of agricultural production in the county.
Founded along the rugged terrain of the South Fork River Valley between the Cascade Mountains and Lake Whatcom, this was the setting for Nooksack fish camps. European-American land claims date back to the 19th century. It’s believed to have earned its name from a hymnal in possession of Samuel Parks in 1887. Now, it’s a gateway community into the Mount Baker foothills for nature aficionados.
Named after an early postmaster, John Welcome Riddle, this unincorporated community sits in the Mount Baker foothills along the North Fork of the Nooksack River, not far from the confluence with Middle Fork River. The bridge outside town is one of the best places in the country to see a bald eagle in the wild. Welcome provides additional access to the foothills leading to Mount Baker.
Located along the North Fork of the Nooksack, it was the branch line of the Bellingham Bay and British Columbia Railroad. G.A. King named the town after the 35-foot waterfall in neighboring Maple Creek. By 1906, it was an active community based around lumber, milling, truck farming, and quarrying. A population of 2,000 was served by a rail depot, several saloons, and had its own electric and phone companies. The town has now become a busy entry point to the Mount Baker - Snoqualmie National Forest.
Situated on Glacier Creek, it was platted and named by Jennie Vaughn. Originally founded to serve gold mining and logging interests, the surrounding area was made public land after the construction of the Mount Baker Highway in the 1920s. Today Glacier is a gateway into North Cascades National Park and Mount Baker Ski area in the winter.
Settled in 1856 after the U.S. Boundary Survey Commission surveyed the 49th Parallel. It prospered early from outfitting miners heading north during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush of 1858. It was originally known as Semiahmoo, named after the Coast Salish tribe. Activity at Peace Arch Park border crossing reinforces Blaine’s status as an international border community.
Founded in 1846, this community is a pene-exclave, which is when access to a territory of one country can be approached only through the territory of another country. It is located on the southernmost tip of Tsawwassen Peninsula and is a result of the Oregon Treaty that established the 49th Parallel international boundary. Point Roberts’ isolation now makes it a wondrous point of interest to explore the Salish Sea, and a variety of outdoor recreational activities.
The Salish Sea is a natural wonder that has sustained life in the Pacific Northwest for centuries. It is one of the world’s largest and most biologically diverse inland seas, encompassing Puget Sound, the Straits of Georgia and Juan De Fuca, and San Juan Islands. The marine waters span an international border and are managed by the United States, Canada, Province of British Columbia, State of Washington, and 65+ Tribes and First Nations. Its name honors the Coast Salish people, who were the region’s first inhabitants.
Consider the Salish Sea the equivalent of a giant mixing bowl. It’s where currents of rich nutrients flowing from fresh water rivers come together with those from the Pacific Ocean. Tidal currents work as a circulation system that fuses them together to form a unique aquatic ecosystem where the sea and mountains meet.
Riding on the seaward side of Chuckanut Mountain puts the marine ecosystem into perspective. Larrabee State Park south of Bellingham has 8,100 feet of shoreline on Samish Bay, and gazing across the water you can’t help but feel awe at the marine life all around you.
With 6,500 square miles of sea surface, 4,641 miles of coastline, 419 islands, and a max depth of 2,132 feet, the Salish Sea is an amazing place to explore.
Estimated number of marine animal species:
37: Mammal Species
172: Bird Species
253: Fish Species
If looking to add a different take on your gravel adventure experience, consider integrating a water taxi ride from Bellingham to Point Roberts. Enjoy looking for whales and seals on the boat ride before getting dropped off onto the beach or marina. You can pedal back to Bellingham in a day, or make it an overnight to take in other sites around Point Roberts. It’s a great town to enjoy the Salish Sea lifestyle.
The best lodging options are Airbnb/VRBO, bed & breakfasts, and camping is available at Lighthouse Marine Park for bikepackers.
Booking a water taxi to Point Roberts can satisfy the creative urges of any spirited intrepid explorer. Each water taxi is a private tour and can accommodate a group of 6 cyclists. If interested, contact Specialized Marine Transports: smtbellingham.com.
The Point Roberts Odyssey route (page 42) takes you back to Bellingham through the “Blue Hole.” It’s an area that offers some of the best weather in the Pacific Northwest. The distance to the surrounding mountains on Vancouver Island to the west, along with Vancouver North Shore mountains and Mount Baker to the east, creates a microclimate with less annual rainfall. Expect to see the clouds and fog disappear on the horizon after rain most days. A stop in Blaine to refuel is recommended.
The growing popularity of off-road riding dictates a novel approach to land use. A partnership between Visit Bellingham and TREAD Map App intends to enhance the gravel experience.
Setting TREAD Map apart is the connectivity it achieves between local cycling enthusiasts and other user groups, including an admin panel that allows land managers, tribes, and off-road cycling organizations to share information like alerts, events, and recommendations in real-time. TREAD Map is a one stop region-specific portal for communication centered around off-road riding in Bellingham-Whatcom County. TREAD Map is helpful for obtaining route beta as well as up-to-date info on trail and parking conditions. You can also post your own updates. Visit Bellingham’s partnership with TREAD Map makes exploring the area more sustainable.
USE OUR LINK TO DOWNLOAD THE APP.
GET REAL TIME TRAIL CONDITIONS IN
Gravel cycling is usually defined by many in different ways. Whether by equipment, route surface choices, or places to ride, gravel defies one definition. However, the unifying thread is an interest in getting off-road, whether that be decaying pavement, double, or singletrack. The goal is to spend time on unpaved surfaces.
Mountain biking is often an important part of the gravel conversation, too. In Bellingham-Whatcom County this means elevating an appreciation for what mountain bikers here have done to set the off-road cycling experience apart from many other places to ride.
Diverse terrain — which includes MTB trails — is what makes Bellingham-Whatcom County an interesting place to plan a gravel adventure. Roads and trails through varied terrain expand the connective possibilities of gravel route planning.
Additionally, an exceptional greenway system of Whatcom County parks and open space trails is the backbone for accessing off-road riding that will challenge any gravel bike enthusiast. The crushed gravel of the Interurban Trail for example opens up Chuckanut Mountain Park, Lake Padden Park, and Whatcom Falls Park.
A strong history of private-public partnership and progressive trail building and maintenance, led by the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition (WMBC), produced a network of well designed, flowy, and sustainable trails that cater to different riding styles. This includes those on a drop bar bike.
The local off-road cycling culture has attracted and retained an industry. Bellingham and Whatcom County has over a dozen brick and mortar bike shops, two mobile bike shops, three bike brands operating globally, several mountain bike accessory makers, 20 after-school bike clubs, and a media company in Freehub Magazine. Make no mistake, the gravel cycling experience in Bellingham is rooted in 40+ years of dedicated work to create the infrastructure for a top-tire bike destination.
Historically, the off-road riding terrain of Whatcom County has been covered by a dense rainforest of spruce, cedar, firs, and hemlocks. What remains today of the once expansive forest is referred to as “old growth.” The Washington Department of Natural Resources defines old growth as a forest that originated prior to 1850, is structurally complex, and spans five contiguous acres. A focused conservation and stewardship effort that started in the early 20th century continues today.
Forest practices initiated in the 1850s were not sustainable solutions for long term growth of the logging industry in Whatcom County. First, clear-cutting and selective harvesting cleared large swaths of old growth in the lowlands. That land was replaced with plantation forests, which consist of a few tree species of the same age, evenly spaced apart, and harvested in short rotation (30-55 years). This has resulted in a less biodiverse mountain ecosystem.
A relatively new term, “legacy forest,” speaks to a naturally regenerated (non-plantation) mixed species forest. While selectively harvested before the 1940s, these forests are now on a healthy trajectory towards old growth, which is what we find happening in Whatcom County today. Legacy forests are valuable reservoirs of genetic and biological biodiversity.
The benefit of protecting Whatcom County’s old growth forest addresses the pressing matter of climate change. Legacy forests are resilient and capable of sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in its large trees. Old growth combats climate change because it stores carbon at higher density than other ecosystems, thus protecting its natural integrity.
Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the farm to table movement began to spread across the United States. A belief emerged that the environmental and health impacts of the conventional food system are flawed and that alternatives to mass produced and processed foods is possible. Local Whatcom County farm producers utilize a fertile agricultural zone to prove it can be done.
Over the years the success of Whatcom County farmers’ commitment to sustainable growing practices allowed for 140 miles of marine shoreline and 100,000 acres of highly productive farmland to create a fresh food ecosystem stretching from sea to mountain. While in Bellingham, you will enjoy high quality food that has helped lower Whatcom County’s carbon footprint associated with long distance transportation
of food products.
Subsequently, farms in Whatcom County have risen to form the top 3% of all counties in the United States in terms of production. An increase in community supported agriculture (CSA) programs such as farmers markets and farm stands have bonded the region’s food providers around the idea of specializing in using the freshest local ingredients available. Most restaurants in Bellingham actively practice the ‘eat local’ philosophy.
The opportunity to discover local farms, fisheries, eateries, markets, and breweries is what makes Bellingham-Whatcom County a special gravel bike destination in northwest Washington. Every cyclist knows good food is always part of a bike adventure. Bellingham is the place for adventure cyclists to eat local first, including pre, during, and post ride.
To learn more about Bellingham’s farm to table foodie scene, visit bellingham.org/savor.
The Bellingham-Whatcom County cycling community supports a subset of creative makers and artisans. One such personality is Greg Heath of Donkelope Bikes. Originally from Wisconsin, he landed in Bellingham in 2002. After years of wrenching in a bike shop, Greg took the leap of faith and started fabricating his own steel bikes.
Drawing inspiration from BMX culture, Greg decided to take welding classes and began making things like a shop fixture and a handful of frames. His creative urge found an outlet in the art of custom steel bicycle fabricating. Greg digs taking someone’s idea and making it reality. There is satisfaction in knowing someone will be stoked to ride the bike.
Bellingham’s accessibility to world-class off road riding is what keeps Greg excited to be living and working in Whatcom County. His interest in off-road riding has expanded from mountain biking into the gravel space. The need to be creative with Whatcom County route choices means you’re likely to hit some singletrack requiring something in the vein of a monster cross bike.
Greg interprets gravel to be a version of off-road randonneuring. The chunky logging roads of Whatcom County are well suited for those seeking out long-distance unsupported endurance cycling. The non-competitive nature of gravel is why he thinks it meshes well with Bellingham’s off-road scene. His ride is a 650b x 2.1, with a dropper post setup. A modern and more capable update of an 80s or 90s mountain bike.
To see more about Donkelope Bikes, visit donkelopebikes.com.