Travel writers frequently describe the myriad of activities taking place in Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. Often, people tell me, “We loved visiting Seattle and then drove to Vancouver where we felt very cosmopolitan visiting another country.” What those families neglected to do was pull off the freeway and visit Bellingham, Washington, located midway between Seattle and Vancouver. There are plenty of free things to do there!
Bellingham, Washington – What to Do for Free
Having lived in Bellingham, Washington, over 30 years, we’ve done it all. We’ve hiked every trail, attended every festival and explored every back road, often commenting, “We are soooo lucky to live here.” And we did it all without breaking the budget!
The following are just a few free and very-low-cost activities to enjoy in, “The City of Subdued Enthusiasm”! (What do you expect from a city that celebrates the opening of the annual Farmer’s Market with the mayor tossing a ceremonial cabbage?)
Pick a Park
If your children need to let off steam from a road trip, Bellingham offers over 40 parks, each with its own distinct personality. Some are basic with a few trails or homemade rope swings, while others cover hundreds of acres.
Boulevard Park is located directly on the waterfront, giving the opportunity to explore from a boardwalk or crawl over rocks in Puget Sound. This is a popular park where you can watch fireworks on July 4th. The fireworks shoot up from a barge situated out on the sound. One end of the park trail ends in Fairhaven, a funky section of the city with unique shops, a double decker British bus serving ice cream and an award winning bookstore, Village Books.
Fairhaven Park connects to Boulevard Park and offers a spray pool in the summer as well as tennis courts and a well-used playground. Check out the rose garden during spring and summer.
Big Rock Garden doesn’t have a playground but the beautiful setting and sculptures next to the trails will keep your kids involved in a natural setting. This unique park overlooks Lake Whatcom and showcases original sculptures from around the world on 2.5 acres.
Whatcom Falls Park is the place to go if you want to feel you’re in a dense forest miles from civilization. (Actually you’re probably a half mile from my house!) The park has old growth cedar trees that make you wonder how something so tall and massive can stay upright. A myriad of fern-filled trails lead you alongside a creek that includes several majestic waterfalls. In the summer, a highlight is watching teenagers jump from a high bank into a pool of water surrounded by signs saying, “No diving allowed.”
Alaska Ferry Fun: Every Friday, the ferry at Fairhaven Pier departs for the three day trip to Alaska. Kids enjoy seeing the variety of vehicles (and people!) boarding the ferry. You’ll see horse trailers, RV’rs and commercial vehicles. In the summer, budget travelers set up tents on the deck of the ferry and wave enthusiastically to the land lubbers staying behind.
Spark Museum of Electrical Inventions is one of those slightly weird, but-oh-so fun museums that teach you about topics you didn’t know you needed to know! In addition to having hundreds of radios, (Tip: be sure to explain radios to your kids before entering,) the museum has a world-class collection of unique objects including the giant “MegaZapper” Tesla Coil which produces nine-foot lightning bolts! .
Bellingham Railroad Museum lets you view a 500 square foot large scale toy train layout. The highlight of this museum are the dedicated volunteers who patiently share their love for the railroad with everyone.
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Downtown Bellingham Survives!
Yes, Bellingham has a mall, Costco and other attractions that could pull business away from downtown. Yet because of the efforts of citizens and local government, the core of downtown Bellingham survives and even thrives.
Small business offer a variety of shopping experiences, so going downtown seems like a treat. Speaking of treats, check out these two places, located a few feet from each other.
The Bagelry is the quintessential “small business owner makes good”, success story. For over 27 years, this tiny restaurant has produced chewy bagels that even New Yorkers enjoy. Over 700 people a day pop in to get a bagel sandwich or just a plain, steaming hot bagel to eat before heading next door to…
Mallard’s Ice Cream! Even on a cold and rainy winter day, people line up to get an ice cream cone made with all local and organic ingredients. In addition to the usual (and boring!) flavors, Mallard’s offers flavors such as Avocado, Coconut and Turmeric and of course, Spontaneous Human Combustion Crazy Cinnamon!
RV Camping: Coming through town in an RV? Then stop at the family owned Bellingham RV Park right off the freeway. It’s a great place to relax before making your way north to Canada or south to Seattle. They even offer home baked treats! www.bellinghamrvpark.com
Larrabee State Park offers a more rustic RV camping experience. Sites are heavily wooded and kids can explore trails going up to a lookout or down to Puget Sound. A train comes through at night which can be a surprise if you don’t expect it! We learned that the hard way while camping 25 feet from what we thought was an abandoned railroad track. It wasn’t.
If that isn’t enough to keep you busy, an easy hour’s drive brings you to year-round snow at Mt. Baker. Stay closer to town and take part in a whale watch expedition or take a quick ferry trip to Lummi Island to experience life on an island with a two room school house.
If you need a break from big city traffic and crowded attractions, stop by Bellingham to see what a semi-small town has to offer. And in case you are wondering, those of us who live here proudly refer to ourselves as “Bellinghamsters”!