Chuckanut Drive - One of Western Washington's most scenic byways

People back East often turn down their noses at the mere idea that there might be places just as spectacular as New England in the fall. They obviously haven't been to our neck of the woods. Western Washington has some of the most impressive mountain and coastal drives at any time of the year, but in autumn, these roads are lit up with glorious hues of gold, fiery red and burnt orange.

Take the Chuckanut Drive, for example, a 20-mile road that connects the Skagit Valley to Bellingham. It's a beautiful, slow-paced alternative to busy Interstate 5, and takes you through fertile farmlands, past historic towns and along the rock shoulder of the Chuckanut Mountains, where jaw-dropping views of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the Olympic Mountains abound.

"Chuckanut" is a Native American word meaning "beach on a bay with a small entrance." The Drive was the first road to connect Whatcom County with points south. Completed in rough form in 1896, it helped usher in a new era of transportation and allowed residents to market their products in Bellingham and return home all in the same day.

The route traversed some of the most difficult road-building terrain in the state, owing to the sheer cliffside. Funding dried up after the project got underway, so paving had to be accomplished in stages. Convicts from local jails were put to work, and the improved road was finally completed in the early 1920s.

Today, Chuckanut offers a unique opportunity to view some of Washington's most spectacular vistas. You can do the drive heading north from Burlington or in reverse, beginning from the historic Fairhaven district of Bellingham. I opted for the former, since I wanted to spend the end of my trip in Fairhaven exploring the town's shops and galleries.

At first, the road meanders through peaceful Samish farmlands, with open-field views of century-old farms whose primary crop appeared to be potatoes. From time to time, signs of civilization appear in the forms of roadside cafes, espresso stands, small nurseries or stores selling antiques and collectibles.

At the intersection of Bow-Edison, I stopped to browse at the Rhody too!, a gallery and gift shop adjacent to the well-known Rhododendrum Café. There I found a wonderful assortment of eclectic Northwest pottery, textile art and jewelry. A bright-ocher ceramic vase trimmed in bark called my name, and I happily responded.

The café, a restaurant that prides itself on featuring both Northwest and ethnic foods, has its own vegetable and herb garden in the back. Each month, owners Don and Carol Shank explore a different area of the world with their cuisine. Locals have frequented this gem of an eatery for years. Now word has gotten out and folks from all over come to dine.

On another corner of the Bow-Edison intersection is Jan Budden's place, the East Edison Boardwalk. Budden has a thriving nursery specializing in trees, as well as an art gallery that spotlights his collection of Northwest art dating from the turn of the century to the Seattle World's Fair. Budden told me not to miss a side trip to the historic hamlet of Edison, a short jaunt down the road.

Established in 1869, Edison was a logging and agricultural center in the Samish delta. Edward R. Murrow, the famous journalist, called it home. It's now a miniature hub in the valley, with shops, galleries and eating establishments, but you can still see vestiges of bygone eras in the town's architecture, old pilings, dikes and barns. For a special treat, stop in at the Breadfarm and grab a loaf or two of organic bread fresh out of the oven. The heavenly aromas will propel you through the doors. After sampling a few slices, I finally settled on a loaf of the Samish River Potato, a hearty, earthy bread made with whole roasted potatoes.

As I returned to Chuckanut Drive, Blanchard Mountain loomed ahead, and I could see Samish and Padilla bays on my left. I was so busy taking in the views that I almost missed Karma Place, a Japanese garden, nursery, art gallery and gift shop brimming with all things Asian. From early on, owner Deymian Le Sar had been fascinated with Japan.

Le Sar created the garden after having a dream where she envisioned it in full regalia. The morning after, she went out to her property and, using spray paint, outlined what would eventually become the garden, complete with a footbridge, waterfall, streams, koi pond and a teahouse.

After the garden was done, Le Sar went to work on planting a bamboo grove and opened her nursery to let others share in the joy of creating beautiful Japanese-inspired gardens. Eventually, she traveled to Japan and brought back arts and crafts to fill her antique and gift shop.

The garden is a haven of tranquility where I wanted to remain forever, if only to gaze upon the glorious Japanese maples dressed in their fall colors. Karma Place also offers a varied program of events for the community, including art openings, musical performances and workshops in Japanese brush painting and bonsai care. Once a month, a traditional tea ceremony is held in the teahouse.

After Karma Place, Chuckanut Drive begins to narrow in earnest, winding through the mountains as it hugs the water. Breathtaking vistas open up, framed by an incredible display of foliage. Happily, there are several pullouts for motorists to safely enjoy the views.

At mile 10, I detoured to visit Taylor Shellfish Farm. Taylor's, which dates back to the late 1800s, mainly raises oysters and clams. The place is open to the public, and there's a retail store that sells a variety of the farm's products. You can walk around and look at tanks of baby oysters, and if you're lucky you'll get an employee to tell you a little bit about the operation - including the fact that it takes three to five years to grow an oyster and about the same amount of time to grow a Manila clam.

You might also learn, as I did, that the hundreds upon hundreds of oyster shells you see neatly stacked on the beach are a part of the farm's recycling operation. Once the oysters have been removed, the shells are pressure-washed, then reutilized in the reseeding process.

After grabbing a bag of smoked oysters I knew my husband would enjoy, I resumed my journey. Farther along Chuckanut Drive are dozens of spots for picnics as well as numerous hiking trails. At Larrabee State Park, I decided it was time once again to stretch my legs.

Larrabee was Washington's first official state park, established in 1915. Its 2,683 acres include 8,100 feet of saltwater shoreline on Samish Bay. There are 14 miles of trails featuring mountain lookout points with panoramic views of the San Juans and Mt. Baker. I walked down to the water on paths through evergreen forests and found a perfect cove at which to sit and take in the beauty. I had to pinch myself at my good fortune in having the place to myself.

All too soon I was back on the road - and swiftly at the end of Chuckanut Drive. I entered the historic Fairhaven district of Bellingham, a turn-of-the-century jewel of the Northwest. In the late 1890s, this town was the "coming place" and boasted of being the next Chicago. Adventurers and investors arrived at its shores by the boatload, all seeking their fortunes. Rumor had Fairhaven in the running to be the new major railroad terminus. However, although the Fairhaven and Southern Railway was completed, the terminus never materialized, leaving the place to content itself being a fishing and seaport town.

A century later, with the addition of the Alaska Ferry, Amtrak station and Greyhound bus terminal, Fairhaven is once again a bustling transportation center. Fine restaurants, galleries, gift shops and other businesses line the pedestrian-friendly streets, which once held saloons and brothels. I spent a few delightful hours checking out the stores with their unique handmade items and artwork till my stomach protested in hunger.

With more than 20 eating establishments in a three-block radius, this area is home to a variety of cuisines from Mexican and Italian to English fish-and-chips (served from a red 1948 double-decker bus!). At several sidewalk cafes you can just sit with a cuppa java or a meal and people-watch, weather permitting.

I did just that at the Legendary Colophon Café. Set in a 100-year-old building, the Colophon is the Northwest's largest bookstore café, specializing in award-winning soups, mammoth sandwiches and decadent desserts. As I sipped a cup of African peanut soup with ginger and nibbled at a veggie pita, I looked out onto the plaza, a large, grassy, open-air space where folks mingled and caught a few rays of precious autumn sun. A statue of the founder of Fairhaven, Daniel Jefferson Harris, sits at a park bench nearby. I watched as people strolled by, many spontaneously sitting down next to the statue for a Kodak moment.

Fairhaven, due to its location, is the center of a vast recreational network, with access to Bellingham Bay and connected by an extensive trail system to miles of territory. It's ripe for future exploration by a happy wanderer.

Deborah Stone has written numerous travel articles for the News. She lives in Seattle.[[In-content Ad]]