Contrary to popular belief, spring and summer are the busiest times of the year for businesses along the majestic route to Artist Point
No snow? No problem.
With numerous establishments along the Mount Baker Highway benefiting from the winter visitors attracted by snow-related activities at the Mount Baker Ski Area and elsewhere along the route, there’s a perception among many in the community that summer’s the slow season for businesses in the foothills.
“Most people in Bellingham only think of the mountain in the wintertime, and most people who come up here in the winter say, ‘This must be your busiest time,’” said Mt. Baker Foothills Chamber of Commerce President Carole MacDonald. “Actually, summer has always been busier than winter.”
In the summer, quite simply, said MacDonald, there’s more to do.
And as more people tend to take vacations in the summer, as opposed to winter, those who come to experience outdoor activities in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, and elsewhere along tree-lined State Route 542, a National Forest Scenic Byway, stay longer and spend more money.
John Cooper, President of the Bellingham/Whatcom County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said that while Mount Baker is a big tourism draw in the winter, its visitors in the snowy months are mostly a niche crowd — winter-sports enthusiasts.
“Skiing only appeals to a certain segment of the population, whereas in the summer the things you can do around Mount Baker appeal to a wider audience,” Cooper said. “There’s hiking, biking, rafting, sightseeing.”
Indeed, say Forest Service officials, Mount Baker and the northern portion of the Mount Baker Ranger District offer recreational opportunities aplenty.
Jessica McAloon, an information assistant at the national forest’s Glacier Public Service Center, said some of the most popular activities are picnicking and hiking near milepost 51, at Artist Point and Heather Meadows, sightseeing at the 100-foot Nooksack Falls, and camping at the Douglas Fir and Silver Fir Campgrounds.
Also, she said, in addition to the popular peaks of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan — where you’re likely to encounter fewer people than at Mount Rainier — other popular hikes include the Skyline Divide and Heliotope Ridge.
According to Forest Service statistics, there were 34,345 visitors to the Glacier Public Service Center last year. Of those, 29,529 — or 85 percent of all visitors — came between June and August.
“Many of those people are stopping at the local restaurants and convenience stores, getting lunch and dinner and staying at bed and breakfasts and motels,” McAloon said.
Another popular summer activity that brings hundreds of visitors up the highway is rafting on the Nooksack River.
Allan Kearney, who’s operated Alpine Adventures on the north fork of the Nooksack since 1991, said there are four companies that raft the north fork.
Since he began his operation, he said, he’s taken more than 8,000 people down the river. He believes the rafting companies have a positive impact on the local economy.
Kearney said officials with the outdoor-adventure industry trade magazine America Outdoors recently estimated that each person who attends a rafting trip spends around $60 at area businesses.
This year, rafters could have an even larger impact on local businesses, predicted Kearney, since, due to low snowpacks around in the state, there are limited rafting opportunities.
The rafting seasons on snowmelt- and rainfall-fed rivers like the Skykomish, Sauk, Methow and Wenatchee are already, or just about, finished.
Because the Nooksack is glacier fed, and will be open through the end of the month, “I’m predicting this will probably be one of our best years,” Kearney said.
Along with outdoor adventures, said the visitors bureau’s Cooper, there are several other unique destinations that lead visitors up the Mount Baker Highway in the summer, including the Nooksack River Casino, Mount Baker Winery and Deming Speedway.
Also, he said, summer festivals such as Mount Baker Blues Fest, Bellingham Festival of Music, Herbal Faire, and World of Wood Festival are big draws.
“If someone asked me, ‘What are your top-five attractions (in the summer),’ Baker would definitely be on my list,” Cooper said. “And that would include the whole Mount Baker corridor.”
One other additional attraction that might bring more people up the mountain this summer is the White Salmon Lodge, which the Mount Baker Ski Area is renting out for the first time.
So how many more people are traveling the Mount Baker Highway in the summer than the winter?
According to the most-recent traffic counts from the Dept. of Transportation, said Angela Taylor, transportation planner with the Whatcom Council of Governments, in January of 2004, the average daily westbound traffic at the Gallup Creek Bridge near Glacier was 442 vehicles. At the same location in June of 2003, there were 589 vehicles traveling westbound daily.
Many owners of eateries and lodging establishments say the biggest difference they notice between winter and summer are the days they serve their customers. Rather than just serving snowboarders, skiers and snowshoers on the weekends, they get steady business all week long.
“In the summer, I’m open all day for lunch and dinner, seven days a week,” said Chris Collins, owner of Graham’s Restaurant in Glacier. “In the winter, we don’t serve lunch because people don’t get off the mountains until 3.”
MacDonald, who also owns The Inn at Mt. Baker, said she books more reservations for stays of five to seven days in the summer. In the winter, most of her guests stay for only two nights, typically on the weekend.
Collins said he also notices a more diverse age range in the summer, with kids out of school and families on vacation.
“In the winter, it’s a pretty athletic, younger crowd — those who brave the roads,” he said. “In summertime, it’s everybody — blue hairs, no hairs, Sunday drivers, kids — you name it.”
While many Mount Baker Highway operations are pleased with the amount of business they do in the summer months, some are bit surprised they don’t do better, given that the area is alive with attractions.
“People are always telling me, ‘I’m sure you’re dead in the summer, you’re a ski town,’” Collins said. “They forget that there’s a river out here and trails and more road to drive for tourists. I’m not sure how they forget, it is, after all, a national forest.”
Because some businesses suffered this winter due to low snowfall, Cooper said the visitor’s bureau received a $10,000 grant from the county to help market the area. A radio campaign that had been airing in the Seattle area concluded last month.
MacDonald said she’s sometimes surprised she doesn’t see more local people touring the Mount Baker Highway.
“It’s an interesting thing,” she said. “Most people, strange as we are, know more about Moscow than our own backyard. It’s not sexy to explore your own backyard. It’s much sexier to go far away. People from far away, it seems, know more about it here than people in Bellingham do.”