Best of Bellingham — Hike 1 (Chuckanut Mountain)

Kathie’s Favorites

It’s hard to accept, but summer is over. There’s snow in the high country, which means slogging through snow or snowshoeing to access alpine or sub-alpine hikes.  I am not quite ready for that! For now, I will accept my fate of months of hiking in the lowlands. Fortunately, there are multitudes of hikes to do in and around Bellingham.

Having lived and hiked in Bellingham since 1993, I’ve developed lots of favorites. Sure, there are guidebooks and WTA trail links that give information on local hikes. But what I most like to do is combine trails, seeing how many view spots and how much variety I can fit into a long day hike. It feeds my need to explore, cover some ground, and immerse fully into my happy place of wandering around outside. A couple times a month I’ll share one of these gems, with enough information that local Bellingham folks can get out there and do it too...or at least, come along vicariously for the fun!

Fragrance Lake Road to Burnout Ridge to Lost Lake to Rock Trail to Cyrus Gates Overlook to Fragrance Lake.

Fragrance Lake

TOTAL MILES — around 12.
ELEVATION GAIN—  Approximately 3200 feet.
DIFFICULTY — Moderate to Hard.
HIGHLIGHTS  —  Two lakes, three spectacular view points, old growth forest.

Fragrance Lake Road to Burnout Ridge   (3.7 miles)

To access this hike, head south on Chuckanut Drive to Lost Lake Parking lot. The large lot is on your left, just past the Fragrance Lake TH parking and entrance to Larrabee State Park. A Discover Pass is required;  if you don’t have one, you can park on the right side of the road in several  spots just before and after the entrance to the parking lot. 🙂

I arrived at the parking lot at 10:45 on this late October day. Hiking conditions were close to ideal. Partly sunny, not too cold, very little wind, lots of fall color, and no chance of rain. All this potential sublimity right on the tails of a week of rain and wind storms. I was psyched!

This was a spontaneous hike, as other things cancelled in my day to allow a big window. I did not have a backpack with me. I opted to eat my sandwich in the car and guzzle 24 ounces of water for hydration purposes so I wouldn’t have to carry either. The rest of my provisions I stuck in my coat pocket, a coat I knew I’d shed but would need to carry keys, phone, an energy bar, etc. Not my usual preparedness, but it would have to do. Fueled up, I was ready to hit the trail by 11:00.

The hike up Fragrance Lake Road (accessed just behind the bathrooms) was predictably steep. It wound through forest of Alder, Doug Fir, Western Hemlock and Big Leaf Maples. I was sufficiently distracted from the steady climb by the enormous amount of fallen gigantic maple leaves that created a certifiable yellow brick road!  Route finding tip:  About half way up, at the only junction on the road, stay left, following the sign to Fragrance Lake, not Burnout. This is confusing as this hike goes to Burnout Ridge, but I am not exactly sure how the right fork gets you there.  Another day of exploration may take me right, but on this day, I went left.

Big Leaf Maples

Over the course of the 2.2 mile road, I shed all my layers and was down to a t-shirt before the top. Not bad for October! At the obvious sign near the top, I went right on South Lost Lake Trail. The trail here is well-maintained, as this whole area is within Larrabee State Park. 1.25 miles from the junction, I was blessed with an opening out towards Samish Bay. It was a great time of year for the view, as sun-glinted off the water through trees only partially clothed in colored leaves.

The trail leveled for a short distance, until I reached a map kiosk, labelled Checkpoint Juliet. These various checkpoints exist throughout Chuckanut, Galbraith, and Blanchard mountains, a safety and route finding system created and implemented by numerous groups working together with Whatcom Parks and Recreation. The unmarked trail to Burnout Ridge goes right at Checkpoint Juliet.

Island view from Burnout Ridge

I followed this trail, past the Leaving State Parks sign, then a very short distance to another road. Here, I turned right for the first of the Burnout Ridge views. The expansive views overlooked Samish Bay, Bellingham Bay, Lummi Island, and out to the San Juan Islands and beyond. It was partly cloudy and hazy, but still quite spectacular!

From here, I followed the logging road up again, toward Burnout Ridge view two. Route finding tip: At the split in the road, stay left. Soon I could see Lost Lake in full view off to my left, and, just after that, Mt. Baker exploded into view. Another stupendous overlook, despite the hazy day.

Burnout Ridge to Lost Lake  (2.3 miles)

Lost Lake

The trail took off from this lookout, heading steeply down towards Lost Lake. This was the only tricky part of the hike. Since the trail is outside a maintained zone, it’s rocky, rooty, and quite steep in places. But easy enough to follow, and I took it slowly.  Route finding tip:  In less than a mile, the trail splits. STAY LEFT — right heads to Mud Lake, a seriously unmaintained trail, I hear (I have not been there, yet…). The maples and alders with their bright yellows were fantastic as I approached Lost Lake, and again provided ample distraction as I navigated a few blowdowns on the trail. I stayed high on a ridge above the lake, then dropped down to the south end of Lost Lake.

At the lake outlook, a waterfall was just beginning to form. Later in fall and winter, it can be quite spectacular. In summer, it all but disappears. I stopped briefly at my favorite contemplative flat rock, one of only two places to get close to the water. I continued coursing along above Lost Lake, until the trail dropped back down at the north end. I navigated slippery logs as I left the lake, and then was back onto solid ground.

Lost Lake to Cyrus Gates Overlook  (2.2 miles)

Licorice ferns on boulders, Rock Trail

Soon I encountered another trail sign and Checkpoint (I can’t remember the name). Here I went left, on South Lost Lake  trail.  In another half-mile or so,  I came to the junction with Rock Trail. This is one of my favorite trails in the entire 8000 acres of public lands that encompasses the Chuckanuts!  I am completely enamored with it, despite it’s steepness –1200 feet of elevation in 1.4 miles to an overlook.

Sandstone boulder, Rock trail

I took my time on Rock Trail, enjoying the masses of ferns, my favorite being Licorice Ferns. They grow on trailside boulders, and blanket the surroundings in this damp environment. The sandstone boulders are truly massive on Rock trail, 100 feet high in places. They are dotted with neat holes, and some have caves to explore in and around. Partly why I am drawn to this trail is the labor of love that created it. I’m certain it took countless volunteer hours  to carve it out of the steep hillside, and I’m grateful for those who put in the time. Because of it’s steepness, staircases abound. The final push to the top contains 118 stairs. I didn’t count the lowers ones.

Route finding tip:  Just past the top of the stairs, there is a three way junction. Right (up) takes you on a trail that bypasses the overlook; Go straight to reach Cyrus Gates Overlook, a worthwhile half-mile roundtrip diversion; Left heads down Double Black Diamond trail, which is the way down after enjoying the overlook.

From Cyrus Gates overlook

At the overlook, I chose one of three picnic tables, resting while eating my bar and wishing I had water. The overlook sits at 1820 feet, with great views out to the islands. There was no one else there, a rarity as people can drive to the overlook and hike or mountain bike from there (it’s the end of Cleator Road).  I’ve been there in all types of weather and conditions, but never had the place to myself in dozens of visits over the years. Pretty sweet!

Overlook to Fragrance Lake  (1 mile)

After the overlook, I headed back to the three-way trail split. The trail is not marked as Double Diamond, but that is it’s current name (I have also seen it called Double Diamond and Double Black Diamond). If you are a skier, you know what that means! It’s very steep. The trail used to be called Chin Scraper, that name also implying it’s steepness, especially going up.

Poles would have been useful going down,  but I didn’t bring mine, so caution had to take their place. At times I almost had to side step down, it was that steep. I traversed back and forth, feeling like a skier!  Route finding tip:  About half way down, there is an non-obvious trail split. The much more heavily used trail (right) is for mountain bikers. There used to be a sign here, saying bikers right, hikers left. That sign is gone. I have gone both ways, and both are very steep, but the hiker only trail is much less travelled. And less nerve racking! I have encountered (as a hiker mistakenly on the biker part) mountain bikers flying by at incredible speeds, sometimes in flight after taking a steep jump. If you miss the left trail, which is easy to do, just be alert for mountain bikers. They get serious momentum, and frankly, I don’t know how they even stay on the  bike! Mt. bikers usually hoot and holler with abandon as they sail down, and the noise gives ample warning to move out of the way.

Enjoying Fragrance Lake, for the umpteenth time!

The Double Diamond trail put me out at the map where I first left Fragrance Lake Road. Instead of heading down (left), I went right. After a very short and slightly uphill section, I turned left at two signs that read  “Trail” and “Fragrance Lake”. I had time to add the .2 mile to and the .6 mile loop around the lake.

At the lake, I saw a bunch of people and dogs enjoying the fall day and great swimming access (only dogs were swimming on this day). I asked a couple with swimming dog to take a picture of me and the great reflection…he obliged, and the gal asked if this was my first time at the lake. That made me laugh — I literally can’t count the number of times I’ve been there, but it remains a favorite. Completely tree-encircled and usually calm, it’s a perfect “mountain” lake a stone’s throw from town.

Fragrance Lake to Lost Lake Parking lot  (2.4 miles)

Someone’s idea of Halloween fun on the Fragrance Lake trail…

After completing the loop, I scurried down the Fragrance Lake trail. It’s 1.9 miles to Chuckanut Drive, and a scenic one at that. One of my favorite views is late afternoon sun shining through the trees, gleaming spectacularly off the Bay.  I have been known to hike this trail in late afternoon or evening just for this experience! On this day, I was there at the correct time, but the clouds were a little too dense for optimum viewing. Still, the descent went quickly, and I smiled each time hazy sun glinted through the trees.

At the bottom of the trail, I turned left on the Interurban Trail, for a short .3 miles back to my car. I arrived back at 5:00, happy, hungry, and thirsty.

Hiking time

Trail time for me was six hours. I had diversions of a scheduled 30 minute sit-down phone call and a 20 minute trail-side conversation. And I took breaks at all the viewpoints.  I’d allow six-plus hours if possible to enjoy everything this hike has to offer. There are, of course, portions that can be left out entirely for a shorter hike.  I would strongly recommend getting a map of Chuckanut if you plan to do much hiking there. All my explorations have been sans map, just taking time to explore and picking the brains of others. I do plan to purchase a map soon, though!  Two map suggestions from fellow hikers: Chuckanut Recreation Area Map and Chuckanut Mt./Blanchard Map and Guide.

I’d love to read your thoughts on this post, other hikes in the area that you love, or even wild mountain biker tales! Feel free to shoot me a comment in the Comments section.  

Happy Fall Hiking!

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