Great Escapes: Chuckanut Drive an alternative to I-5
By Tim Clinton
Chuckanut this and Chuckanut that.
Chuckanut is a common name in the area just south of Bellingham.
There’s the Chuckanut Mountains, Chuckanut Bay, Chuckanut Creek and the geologic Chuckanut Formation, not to mention the town of Chuckanut, the Chuckanut Park and Ride, the Chuckanut Brewery and the Chuckanut Manor.
But a great one to remember is Chuckanut Drive, which runs parallel to I-5 and winds and curves through the woods along the rugged coastline of an inland waterway known as Samish Bay or the Salish Sea.
Chuckanut Drive, or State Route 11, runs 21.28 miles from Bellingham to near Burlington and was initially completed in 1896.
Chuckanut is said to be a native word for “Long beach far from a narrow entrance” or “Beach on a bay with a small entrance.”
Others, including “Nooksack Place Names” co-author Allan Richardson of Bellingham, give it different meanings from the Nooksack and Lummi languages of the people who used Chuckanut Bay as a place for gathering shellfish and catching salt water fish.
In the Nooksack, Richardson wrote online that it means “beach or tide goes way out,” or “distant, far away bottom.”
He also wrote that an alternative meaning comes from the Lummi of “burn at the bottom” for fires that were regularly set to keep the brush on the slopes above the bay under control.
The Chuckanut Mountains, or Chuckanuts, are a branch off of the Cascade Range and drop right off to the salt water where Chuckanut Drive clings to the side.
It is the only place where the Cascades ever meet the sea, since they are otherwise a good distance away from each other.
Chuckanut Drive also goes by Chuckanut Scenic Byway.
It offers pullouts with panoramic views of the water, the San Juan Islands and in places even the Olympic Mountains in the distance beyond.
Gigantic ships ply the waters off shore, coming and going from such places as Bellingham, Ferndale and the sometimes visible oil refinery town of Anacortes.
Possible stops on Chuckanut Drive include Larrabee State Park, which was founded in 1915 as Washington’s first state park. It features 8,100 feet of beach front, two freshwater lakes and miles of hiking and biking trails and is currently open to those practicing social distancing and other safety precautions. Camping is present, but not open yet.
The 2,683-acre park is located at 245 Chuckanut Drive and can be reached at (360) 676-2093.
Going south Chuckanut Drive ends up in the Skagit Valley flat lands north of Burlington, where it rejoins I-5 at Chuckanut Junction. Going north you start at the junction and end in Bellingham, although the pullouts and water views will be on the other side of the road.
The whole Chuckanut Mountain area is underlain by the Eocene Chuckanut Formation with a whopping 9,000 meters of sedimentary rock including alluvial sandstone, conglomerate, mudstone and coal. The formation features fossilized freshwater shellfish and corresponds to the Swauk Formation in Eastern Washington. It dates back before the rise of the Cascades and Olympics.