Bellingham, WA

FasterSkierJanuary 23, 2003

When I first told my Park City roommates about my desire to find myself new
and exciting ski town, one of them immediately recommended Bellingham, WA. He had
been here for their Ski To Sea race in June and really liked the area.
On his recommendation, I did a lot of research online about the area.

The port of Fairhaven (in Bellingham) with the Chuckanut Mountains behind

The more I read about Bellingham, the more I liked it. Outside magazine called
it one of the 10 best towns in the country. It was ranked as one of the most
livable small cities in the country in another report. The list of outdoor playgrounds
nearby seemed endless: Mt. Baker and the Northern Cascades mountain range, the
San Juan Islands, Vancouver, Whistler, the Chuckanut mountains, Silver Star
less than four hours away, the list went on and on. It seemed to have everything
I wanted: It was a educated college town (Western Washington University) with
plenty of skiing, mountains, water, trails, and even jobs!

The reviews were so glowing that if I had to pick a place to live based on
what I knew prior to this road trip, I think I would have moved to Bellingham,
sight unseen. It sounded that good. So now it had a lot to live up to as we
got off of interstate 5 and pulled into town.

I liked the town instantly. It took about 43 seconds to find a cheap burrito
place – a definite plus. Next stop was a local gear shop, where I loaded up
on trail maps. It looked like there were plenty of running an biking trails
in town to explore. The downtown area was nothing spectacular, but it was functional.
Nearby was the port of Bellingham, which had recently been made over into a
beautiful shore-edge park with a marina full of sailboats and a fancy hotel
and restaurant. It was so nice to be by the ocean again. We quickly decided
that the town looked like it had great potential. We wanted to make sure we
spent enough time to thoroughly explore it.

Bellingham Harbor with Mt Baker in background

We headed to Larabee State Park where we set up camp. The campground was excellent.
A short walk took us right down to the ocean and great view of southern Bellingham
Bay. Across the street there was a trailhead for the Chuckanut Mountains. It
seemed like a pretty good place to spend the night. After about 4 hours in town,
I was sure that we had found THE place. I drifted off to sleep that night trying
to figure out how we would get all our stuff from Utah up to Bellingham.

About 2 in the morning, we got our first clue that Bellingham was not perfect.
The couple in the campsite next to us got into an argument that quickly escalated
into a shouting match. For the next twenty minutes, they yelled and screamed
at each other. There were accusations of drugs, infidelity, and much more as
they verbally abused each other. After about 5 minutes, I climbed out of my
tent and watched from behind our car, in case it escalated to a physical fight,
or in case any weapons were pulled – they each screamed "I'll kill you"
more than once. Eventually the man – definitely drunk or high – got into the
car and sped off, squealing tires the whole way (I could not get the license
plate from my angle). The woman, sprinted down the road after the car, yelling
obscenities until she was beyond earshot. They never came back. Welcome to Bellingham.

The next morning I got up and went for a great run on the trails across the
street. The trails were excellent for running, with spectacular views. We got
breakfast at the local food co-op and then decided to check in to a motel. This
decision was partially because of last night's experience, but mainly because
I had a lot of computer work to do, and I needed a power source and a phone
line to do it. We booked the room for a week – giving me plenty of time to catch
up on work and plenty of time to explore Bellingham.

Over the next few days, we thoroughly explored the area. We went to restaurants
(Favorites: Boundary Bay Bistro, Skylark Cafe, Old Town Cafe), went to the farmers
market, went running with a club from the local running shop, took a cruise
of Bellingham Bay, explored the University, and much more.

One of the many parks in Bellingham

Bellingham was perfect in so many ways. The best way to describe Bellingham
is this: take Bend, OR and put an ocean on one side of town and a lake on the
other. Then add a small Massachusetts harbor town (such as Woods Hole) on the
side and also mix in a decent university. Then add huge glacier covered mountains
with miles of wilderness around it about 50 miles away (I guess Bend already
has the mountains and wilderness). Sounds like paradise, doesn't it? Well, in
many ways it is. Not only was it on the ocean, it also had a number of lakes
within the city limits. Lake Padden, a small secluded lake south of town, had
a swimming beach as well miles of running and biking trails. Lake Whatcom is
larger and popular for waterskiing. The town beach there is quite a scene on
summer weekends. Galbraith Mountain, also within the city limits, has a spectacular
array of mountain biking trails that are great for running also. (Side note:
The one thing about mountain biking in this part of the country is that they
love to build ladders, narrow wooden bridges, and drops of up to 8 feet. At
one point I was kind of lost in Galbraith and I rode into an area called Chutes
and Ladders. The man-made obstacles in this area were so ridiculous that I felt
like I was riding through trees in the Ewok Village. My knuckles were completely
white by the time I found my way out of the Chutes and Ladders maze.)

Mountain biking near Lake Padden

In the town, there are plenty of scenic parks, many of them on the water. A
couple miles from the downtown area there is another quaint, touristy district
called Fairhaven, which reminded me of a small New England fishing town turned
tourist trap. There is a very friendly and helpful group of outdoor enthusiasts
in town. The wilderness area around Mt Baker is absolutely amazing. You could
explore the area for a month and still only see a fraction of it. They get so
much snow at Mount Baker, that it is covered in glacial snow year round, even
as low as 3500 feet. We drove up to the mountain one day, in mid-July, and we
saw a group of skiers heading out on a backcountry ski tour! I apologize for
the scatter-brain description of the area, it is just that there is so much
cool stuff that it is hard for me to talk about it all coherently.

The Mt Baker area is beautiful, even in the clouds

But, alas, I also had to accept that the area was not perfect. The major drawback
was a pretty big one: the nearest cross country skiing is an hour away. I was
told from a few different sources that the drive was 30-45 minutes, which maybe
I could have tolerated. But we did a test drive on our way up to Mount Baker,
in the summer on dry roads, and it took a full hour to get to the xc sno-park.
In addition, they only have 30K of trails total at three different locations.
So an average of 10K of trails at each place is not much. Another issue was
that the downtown area seemed to have a high crime/drug rate. Despite its very
scenic parts, Bellingham is still a real town of 60,000 people. It has problems
that most towns of this size (and larger) do. Apparently there are is a small
part of town that has a problem with drugs. We were specifically told by our
Motel Manager to avoid Railroad Ave. for those reasons. Now I am sure most cities
have a place like Railroad Ave, but the fact that it was right in the middle
of town kept my girlfriend from being as excited about Bellingham as I was.
Another side note: you may also remember that Bellingham was recently in the
news because the teenage suspect in the Washington DC sniper case went to school
in Bellingham last year.

Anyway, after a week of thorough investigation, it boiled down to this: Bellingham
is a great town for outdoor enthusiasts. If you enjoy doing a lot of different
activities, this may be one of the best playgrounds anywhere. However, if your
passion is skiing, you will have to work pretty hard to get your winter fix
living in Bellingham. But it says a lot for the the town, that after being there
4 days, I was beginning to think that I could live with only skiing 3 days a
week during the winter (I now know that I was being delusional).

When we left town, I was sad to leave, but I also knew that, great as Bellingham
is, it is not XC Town USA.

Place The Good The Bad Ranking (10=Valhalla,
Bellingham, WA My favorite town so
far, has a little bit of everything
Ski trails are an hour
Bend, Oregon Great outdoors town,
skiing at Mt. Bachelor is very good, the best crust skiing in spring, nice
town with many nice "local" spots
No skiing in town,
housing can be expensive, few jobs
Tahoe, California Tons of trails and
snow, the Great Ski Race, small town but has city nearby, the lake, 4 hours
to San Fran
high altitude, similar
to Park City, not many professional jobs in Truckee area
Salt Lake/Park City,
Great dryland trails,
"greatest snow on earth", spectacular mountains, nearby city,
close to Moab, Jackson, Sun Valley, Colorado
high altitude, no water/forests,ski
trails aren't great, lived there for 6 years already
Hood River, Oregon a very active outdoors
culture, surprisingly good ski trails
a good outdoors town
but not ski-specific, small


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