Sunday, February 12, 2017

Fragrance Lake

Bellingham Bay and Lummi Island from viewpoint
5 miles round trip, 1000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Washington State Parks Discover Pass required

The hike up to Fragrance Lake in the Chuckanut Mountains near Bellingham is an enjoyable if generally unspectacular outing in the Western Washington lowlands. Although the hike derives its name from its destination, a small lake tucked in the forest of Larrabee State Park, the true highlight of this hike is a viewpoint of the Salish Sea, the San Juan Islands, and the Olympic Mountains. Hikers who like big trees will also appreciate the old growth forest of cedars and Douglas firs along this trail. Fragrance Lake is best done as a winter hike, when high country alternatives in the North Cascades are snowbound. This is a very popular trail, drawing many hikers from the Bellingham area, so don't expect solitude.

I hiked this trail on a sunny February Sunday, after a week of particularly nasty weather. I left Seattle in the morning, driving up I-5 and exiting at Exit 231 for Highway 11. I followed Highway 11 (Chuckanut Drive) north, passing the town of Bow and then winding along the scenic shoreline of Bellingham Bay, the only place where the Cascade Mountains reach saltwater. The parking lot for Fragrance Lake was directly off the east side of the road, just across Chuckanut Drive from the entrance to the campground and beach at Larrabee State Park. There is about room for 10 cars at the trailhead itself; if this parking is full, there is much more parking across the road in the main state park parking lot. Wherever you park, it's necessary to display a Washington State Parks Discover Pass.

Setting out from the trailhead, the trail ascended quickly, crossing a gravel road and then climbing uphill via a set of switchbacks. This part of Larrabee State Park has some remarkably large trees: although this area was probably logged over a century ago, some giant trees escaped the ax. These huge western cedars and Douglas firs are some of the largest trees that I've seen in the Salish Sea lowlands: some exceed five feet in diameter and 200 feet in height.

Giant cedar along the trail
Just under a mile into the hike, I came to a signed trail junction. Here, the main Fragrance Lake Trail continued off to the right, while a trail leading to a viewpoint headed off to the left. I followed the viewpoint trail, which crossed a level bench on the mountain slope to reach a fenced-off overlook about 300 meters from the trail. This viewpoint is becoming slightly grown over as trees encroach on the view, but it still provides an excellent panorama of the San Juan Islands, Lummi Island, Mount Erie on Fidalgo Island, Bellingham Bay, the Salish Sea, and the Olympic Mountains far to the south. The sunny, open cliff edge here helped a number of madrone trees to grow near the overlook, a nice break from the visual monotony of the forest of straight conifers.

Salish Sea and the San Juan Islands
Fidalgo Island and the Olympics
Back on the main trail to Fragrance Lake, I followed the path uphill through another set of switchbacks. I encountered a few blowdowns here, but any hiker who had gotten this far would have no problem dealing with them. Recent rains had also turned sections of the trail into a muddy mess.

The ascent through the forest was made interesting mainly by the numerous large trees along the trail. Douglas firs and western cedars are the two most common members of the Northwest forests. The cedars of the Northwest Coast have been an integral part of Coast Salish culture for centuries: cedar bark is used to weave baskets and hats and rot-resistant cedar logs are well-suited for use as canoes.

Tall cedars
About two miles from the trailhead, I came to a saddle where the hikers' trail to Fragrance Lake met up with the bicycle path. From here, I followed the trail just slightly further and a little downhill to a fork, where the two branching trails were both part of a loop around Fragrance Lake. I chose to circle the lake clockwise; along the three-quarter mile loop, I found very few views of the lake, especially along the north end of the lake. Ultimately, there were only two open viewpoints of the lake, both on the south side. Fragrance Lake was small but pretty, its calm waters reflecting the forested slopes of the Chuckanuts.

Fragrance Lake
After eating lunch at the lake, I retraced my steps to the trailhead; I encountered perhaps as many as a fifty hikers on the way back, many with dogs. As it was still early in the day, I drove across the road to the main visitor area of Larrabee State Park and walked down to the beach at Wildcat Cove. I was pleasantly surprised to find tidepools, although I didn't see much sea life beyond barnacles and kelp.

Wildcat Cove, Larrabee State Park
I ended the day with a drive up to Semiahmoo, a spit in the Salish Sea near the Canadian border with superb views of Mount Baker and Twin Sisters in the US and Golden Ears and Robie Reid in British Columbia.

Sunset on Mount Baker and Twin Sisters from Semiahmoo

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