Best of Bellingham — Hike 2 (Blanchard Mountain)

Blanchard Mountain Upper Trailhead, to Samish Overlook, Oyster Dome, Lily Lake, North Butte, and Lizard Lake

View from Oyster Dome

DISTANCE  —   10 miles total (each individual hike is valuable in it’s own right, with round trip distances of around 6 miles to reach a single destination).
ELEVATION GAIN  —  1230 from low point to high point, with mostly easy ups and downs throughout the hike.
DIFFICULTY  —  Moderate.
PASS REQUIRED  —  Discover Pass.
HIGHLIGHTS  —  Three overlooks, two lakes, a variety of meandering trails.
SATISFACTION METER  —  Very high, especially on a beautiful fall or winter day!

I had the pleasure of doing this exact hike twice in the last month.  The first time was on a sunny, crisp, fall day in late October. I returned 10 days later, right after an expectedly early snowfall. Both were fantastic days and hikes, full of contrast, variety, and, of course spectacular views.

Notes on Maps, Trail Names, and Logging…

Between hike 1 and hike 2, I finally broke down and bought a map. After 24 years of living in Bellingham, I decided it was time. The map I purchased, Chuckanut Recreation Area by Square One Maps, details hikes in the Blanchard Forest Block, Oyster Dome, Larrabee State Park, Fragrance Lake, Pine and Cedar Lakes, and Lake Padden Park. All my favorite stomping grounds, and well worth the $14 cost.

While having a map is great, the different trail names in the area are a bit overwhelming. Even five years ago, it was challenging to find your way around these hikes, as trail signs were few, far between, and vague at best. Then money was devoted to installing new signs and upgrading trails, and now the place is crawling with trail signs, check points, and people who more or less know where they are going.  I will list the trail names in this narrative, but keep in mind, the best way to navigate this route is to follow the signs heading toward whatever destination you are seeking.

A word on logging:  Logging is active on Blanchard Mountain right now. On both trips, I encountered logging trucks on the access roads, but the hikes themselves were not adversely affected, as logging is currently taking place in an area below the trail system. There is much controversy about logging on Blanchard Mountain,  which I will not get into here. I WILL include links to information at the end of this post to get updates on where logging is currently taking place, where the money from timber sales is going, why it has to happen, who is fighting the project, who supports it, and what you as a concerned citizen who loves Blanchard Mountain can do to get involved!

Section One — Blanchard Mountain Upper Trailhead to Samish Overlook (2.9 miles, 562 feet elevation gain)

Waterfall on Lily/Lizard trail

Blanchard Mountain Trailhead is located off Barrel Springs Road, just off Lake Samish Road. From Barrel Springs Road, turn right at the sign that says ‘Blanchard Forest Block’, and follow the signs to the Upper Trailhead. There is ample parking there.

Backtrack 50 feet down the road and look for the trailhead sign on your right for Lily/Lizard Trail.  Follow this trail for 1.3 miles to Lily Max Connector Trail. Go left, towards Samish Overlook. From here, it’s .7 miles to check point X-ray, at which point you will go straight, now on the Larry Reed Trail, still headed toward Samish Overlook. In .9 miles, you reach the overlook.

Headed to Samish Overlook

HIGHLIGHTS:   Both trip’s one and two sported fabulous fall colors from large leaf maples and alders in this section. On the post-snow hike, it looked like it was raining, so much snow was falling from the heavily blanketed trees in just above freezing temps. The sun glinting through the trees and the perpetual snow falling gracefully from heavily laden branches created a misty, magical, rainforest-type atmosphere. A wonderful distraction from the leaf-covered, wet, muddy, partly snowy trail I was walking on. And the huge chunks of snow falling regularly on my head, making me glad I had a hood! It was wet, wild, and wonderful.

Samish Overlook

At Samish Overlook, I enjoyed a break for lunch on both hikes. There is a large parking lot with restrooms and views out to the islands and over the patchwork quilt of Skagit farmlands. This is a common place for hang gliders to take off, floating gently to open fields below.  On both days, I saw hang gliders preparing to take off, but left before they got air bound. I did see an eagle soar, land, and watch for prey from a nearby tree on trip one.

Section Two — Samish Overlook to Oyster Dome (2.2 miles, 790 feet elevation)

From Samish Overlook, Skagit Flats below

From Samish Overlook, follow the signs to Oyster Dome on the Samish Bay Trail. In .4 miles, you reach the junction with the most popular approach to gain Oyster Dome. That heavily used trailhead is accessible off of Chuckanut Drive, 1.4 miles downhill on the Chuckanut Trail.  Don’t go that way, stay straight, still on The Samish Bay Trail.

A WORD ON THE CLASSIC OYSTER DOME ROUTE: Hundreds of people and dogs hike Oyster Dome from Chuckanut Drive on a summer weekend day. On all other days, it’s dozens at least. Year around, in any  weather, this is the place to hike. The trail is incredibly popular with college kids, inexperienced day hikers who want to say they did it, families with small children, tourists who have been told they have to hike Oyster Dome while in Bellingham, and serious hikers who pound it out with incredible speeds to get in a fast workout or to beat previous time records. From Chuckanut Drive, the distance to the dome is  3.2 miles and 2053 feet of elevation. It is a great workout with a great reward on a great day! I will confess to having hiked Oyster Dome from Chuckanut Drive well over 50 times in my years in Bellingham.  But the crowds can be overwhelming, and I have come to prefer the Blanchard access in recent years.

BACK TO MY CHOSEN ROUTE.  Continue on with the masses for 1.5 miles, the trail flat or gradually up for the first mile, then with steep switchbacks for the final half-mile push. This switchbacked section was completed only in the last few years with the same influx of $$ that brought the trail signs. The trail used to head straight up. An old boyfriend termed that last steep section “The Bitch”, for the intense, rocky, rooty, scramble required to gain it.  But wear and tear and erosion (and $$) brought forth effort from various groups to create a moderately  steep set of switchbacks that are not as heart-pumping, but much more manageable for average Joe and Jane hiker.

At the top of the switchbacks, Checkpoint Uniform, turn left, following the signs to Oyster Dome, on the Oyster Dome Trail. It’s .3 miles to the top.

Snow on Fall leaves….

HIGHLIGHTS:  The early part of is section on trip two saw snow on giant maple leaves, still sporting their vivid yellows, as well as blanketing the trail below. It felt like summer had turned to fall had turned to winter all in the span of a few weeks! On the main trail section, I encountered numerous happy dogs and people on both trips, but even with the sunshine, the trail was not overly crowded. On the switchbacks, looking back toward Bellingham Bay, the sun shining it’s light intensely off the water and through the trees provided a great distraction from the elevation gain.

Oyster Dome itself was not too crowded on either day.  I have been up there on days when you literally could not find a place to sit. Understandably, as the view from the dome is truly spectacular on a clear day. Your view is in layers, with Skagit flats and Anacortes  (unfortunately with it’s refinery) close in, Samish Bay and near islands like Lummi and Guemes just beyond,  the San Juan Islands farther out, and then Vancouver Island far in the distance. The Olympic Mountains sprawl magnificently on the distant horizon. On both days, I could see it all!

Oyster dome and snowy trees

On the second trip, I watched hang gliders floating above the fields below, wondering how they could appear to not be dropping for minutes on end. Huge hunks of snow fell from trees behind me,  loud as footsteps, such that I turned around more than once expecting to see new hikers approaching, only to realize it was heavy snow clunking to the ground. I sat and snacked, contemplating the feeling of being on top of something  so magnificent, yet so close to home.  In all my visits to the dome, I’ve never had a “bad trip”. And the feeling of accomplishment in “doing the dome” never disappoints.

Section 3 — Oyster Dome to North Butte (1.2 miles, net elevation gain 170 feet)

Mt. Baker from “Baker Overlook”

Backtrack down the .3 miles to checkpoint Uniform. Go straight, on the Oyster Lily trail, toward Lily Lake. It’s a short .4 miles to the cut off to Lily Lake Trail. The four-way junction is marked by an obvious sign pointing you towards Lily Lake (see picture).  First you parallel the muck that isn’t the lake, but soon you see the small, tree enveloped, marshy Lily Lake. Make sure to take an obvious side bridge to the lake itself and a few camping areas just to check it out.

Trail sign

After Lily Lake, continue along the trail, gradually heading upward and away from the lake. You will pass a few more campsites, somewhat popular on summer or shoulder season weekends. In .2 miles you come to a sign that says Lily/Lizard Trail. Look for a trail to the left just beyond this sign that says North Butte. Follow the scant trail for .2 miles. There are two overlooks here, both worth while, each a bit tricky to find.

View from North Butte

The first is somewhat obvious once you are at the end of the obvious trail. There is a mossy,  partially obscured from view rock/butte right in front of you. Scramble up this, carefully, as it is almost always slick. On top, enjoy spectacular views similar to those from Oyster Dome, but with no people. For the second view, don’t scramble up the butte, but continue along faint trails to your right. You will eventually swing around to another overlook. This one has spectacular views of Mt. Baker on a beautiful day far off to your right, and a small space to sprawl out. Enjoy your views carefully though — very steep drop off’s characterize this fantastic lookout.

Snowy trees from “Baker Overlook”

HIGHLIGHTS:  The view of Lily Lake and surrounding trees on trip two was really neat. Half snow covered and half not, depending on the sun’s influence in creating melt-off. On the first trip I scrambled to the first dome, North Butte proper, and on the second wrapped around to the Baker overlook. Both days and perches were in complete solitude. Few people seem to know of these alternates to Oyster Dome. They are a bit elusive, but if you get yourself to the North Butte sign and take some time to wander, you will discover them.

Section 4 — North Butte to Lizard Lake to parking lot  (5 miles)

Snowy trail between Lily and Lizard

Backtrack from North Butte to the Junction with the Lily/Lizard Connector Trail, this time heading toward Lizard Lake. Lizard Lake is a short .3 miles ahead. Take a quick stop at the lake’s view and camping areas. Lizard is another hobbit-like lake, marshy and wooded. I haven’t seen lizards there, but I often see eagles perched in high trees surrounding the lake.

Lizard lake, trip 1

Leaving Lizard Lake, head west, away from the sign that says “British Army Trail”. In .1 mile, you come to another checkpoint, “T”. Stay right on the Lizard Lake Trail, following signs to Lily Lake. In .5 miles, the trail splits again. This time, stay left, following the signs to the “Upper Trailhead”. Stay on the Lily Lizard trail for the remainder of the hike, eventually reaching the upper parking lot in 2.5 lovely, forested miles. Enjoy the easy downward grade of this section.

HIGHLIGHTS:  The section of trail approaching and leaving Lizard Lake on trip two was a winter wonderland! There was enough snow that I was glad there were footprints marking the way. It felt surreal to hike in such differing conditions all in one day with not that much change in elevation.

Lizard Lake, trip 2

Lizard Lake itself was  much like Lily — half snow covered, half melted off. Two eagles soared and perched in trees above,  increasing my sense of awe. Once again, Mother Nature created a serene setting that gave me pause as I embraced the solace. It’s what takes me to the woods time and again.


Trail all but snow free on return hike

The really cool thing about the last section of the trail was that the snow had all but disappeared by the time I reached the last 1.3 miles.  Gone was the snow falling from trees, and the trail was completely visible with it’s abundance of huge brown and yellow maple leaves. How all that snow vanished in the span of less than five hours astounded me. Once again, I was thrown back into fall, leaving winter behind at Lizard least until the next snowfall.

Parting shot, waterfall near trailhead

Here are links to what’s up on Blanchard Mountain and Logging:

Blanchard Mountain Conservation NW

Chuckanut Conservancy

Skagit Land Trust

Cascadia Weekly article 


NEXT UP:   I just returned from Thanksgiving in Atlanta! Spent a week exploring trails in and around that area. STAY TUNED!

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