On The Road To Mount Baker -- Meander Through A Mushroom Farm, Ride An Old Railway Or Browse A Shop That Has It All On Whatcom County's Back Roads

Named by the Nooksack Indians quck-sman-ik, which means "white mountain," and by the Lummis kulshan, which means "broken off," the 10,778-foot volcano east of Bellingham is also called Baker, which means that British lieutenant Joseph Baker "discovered" it in 1792. Travel the road to Mount Baker and you'll make a few discoveries of your own.

Although Mount Baker Highway (Highway 542) is the only way up the mountain, several routes intercept it. One of the most interesting is humble Highway 9, a scenic, well-maintained route with much more character than Interstate 5 for the drive north from Skagit County.

Just across the Whatcom County line after heading north from Sedro Woolley is Wickersham, once an important producer of cedar shingles. Now it's home to the Lake Whatcom Railway, a private enterprise owned by Frank Culp.

Here, passengers ride in World War II-era cars while a diesel locomotive pulls them along a seven-mile route. The 90-minute trip reveals up-close views of foothill country, including Mirror Lake and a look at the Twin Sisters - two dazzling white peaks that rise above the forest.

Culp's winter schedule is spare, but runs full-tilt come summer. At $10 for adults (anyone over 18) and $5 for kids, it's a good deal, at least for riders. "I'm not Bill Gates or anything," admits Culp, "but I make a go of it."

Further north, the road cuts through rich farmland and offers peek-a-boo glimpses of the Sisters. A reminder of more prosperous

times, logging trucks occasionally hurtle by, laden with skinned trees. Two miles south of Acme, watch for the Twin Sisters Mushroom Farm, Roger Mairs' place. Born and raised in Waterloo, Quebec, Mairs had three career choices after high school: plastics, chairs or mushrooms. He picked the latter.

Caps off to this crop

The barn has 10 growing rooms where button and portobello mushrooms thrive on stacked beds. Inside these muggy mushroom chambers, thousands are picked each week for sale to local restaurants, grocery stores and passersby. Fungus-lovers buy them straight or marinated in Marti's Garden Fresh Dressing, and $15 gets you a "growing kit" to take home - pillow-sized flats that yield three or four harvests. Mairs says city folks love them. "They keep them in closets, basements. Bathtubs."

Between the cooking compost and moldering mushrooms, the barn literally steams with fecundity. Outside, a big red dog joyfully runs amok in stacks of hay and obsessively licks visitors' hands.

As for Mairs, he's proud to have "the smallest mushroom farm in the U.S." He likes the work and he likes the place nestled in the shadow of Mount Baker.

Keep on rolling north to Van Zandt as the road crosses and then parallels Nooksack River's south fork and your reward is the magnificent anachronism called Everybody's Store. Its eclectic inventory includes mason jars full of chrysanthemums flowers that "soothe the liver, lungs and eyes." Inside the deli case are locally produced Gouda cheese wheels, and hunter sausages so flavorful that "the neighborhood kids practically teethed on them," notes clerk Sandy Kornemann.

That shawls and hats and fiery salsas share space with harmonicas is no accident. Everybody's Store is owned by musicians Jeff and Amy Margolis, East Coast transplants who came here in the '70s. She plays violin for the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra, and he sings with the Whatcom Chorale. "We sell simple instruments to make it easy for people to fall into music," explains Jeff Margolis.

Like Culp's train and Mairs' mushrooms, Everybody's struggles financially, but there's more at stake than money. "We're helping to create community, a sense of place," Margolis says. "We're here to reinforce and support that."

When Highway 9 intersects with the Mount Baker Highway, there's a winery to the west and a microbrewery to the east. At seven acres, the Mount Baker Vineyards is small, but unusual in the industry because it grows a good percentage of its own grapes. Down the road, hops are the specialty at the North Fork Brewery and Beer Shrine. A family place for locals and tourists, the brewery offers home-grown beers and from-scratch dining.

Continuing east on the Mount Baker Highway, watch for bald eagles. They seem as plentiful here as crows in the city, and can be seen wafting across the Nooksack or perching on high branches. A favorite viewing spot is just off the highway along Mosquito Lake Road. They also flock around the fish hatchery south of Kendall, where you get two for one: eagles overhead and fish in ponds, now roiling with salmon and trout.

Last town on the road

The last town on the road is Glacier, a pretty place with basic services. Here you'll find Milano's restaurant, a favorite of skiers and hikers, with a reputation for excellent pasta dishes.

Worth a stop is Nooksack Falls for the thrill of cascading water. The fenced overlook gives a close view of the waterfall that drops dramatically 100 feet to a narrow canyon below.

From there, the highway climbs sharply, followed by a series of switchbacks. Soon, the Mount Baker ski area appears. Visitors can go left to the White Salmon Day Lodge, or continue on to the Heather Meadows Day Lodge. With eight chairlifts and two rope tows, Baker has something for skiers of every ability and is beloved by snowboarders. During the warmer months, it's hiking heaven.

The terminus of Mount Baker Highway is Artist Point at 5,140 feet, but don't plan a visit there until midsummer. And that's OK. Wherever this road ends, in whichever season, there's never disappointment, only discovery.

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Some attractions worth a look along the road to Mount Baker:

-- Lake Whatcom Railway: Ten miles north of Sedro-Woolley, just past Milepost 67 on Highway 9, look for the train sign and take a right. The historical railroad offers Valentine runs on Feb. 13 ($10 for adults, $5 for ages 2 through 17); Easter runs; frequent trips in July and August; Christmas trips with Santa. Call for schedule and reservations: 206-236-2857, 360-595-2218.

-- Twin Sisters Mushroom Farm: 5410 Saxon Road, near Acme, Whatcom County. Open daily, 7 a.m. until the proprietor quits for the day. Two miles south of Acme, look for the sign on the side of Highway 9; 360-595-2979.

-- Everybody's Store, 5465 Potter Road, at the junction of Highway 9 and Potter Road, Van Zandt, Whatcom County (just north of Milepost 77 on Highway 9). Open daily 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Web site: http://everybodys.com/goodbuy; 360-592-2297.

-- Mount Baker Vineyards, 4298 Mount Baker Highway, Deming. From Highway 9 at the intersection with the Mount Baker Highway (542), turn left and travel west three miles. The vineyards are on your right. Open daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. or call for special arrangements; 360-592-2300.

-- North Fork Brewery and Beer Shrine, 6186 Mount Baker Highway, Deming. From Highway 9, go east on the Mount Baker Highway (542) about three miles. The brewery/restaurant is on your left. Weekdays: opens at 3 p.m., food served until 9 p.m. Closing varies, around 10 or 11 p.m. Weekends: opens at noon, food served until 9:30 p.m., closing varies; 360-599-BEER.

-- Eagle viewing and Kendall Creek Fish Hatchery: At the intersection of Highway 9 and Highway 542, turn right and go east about 2.5 miles. Turn right onto Mosquito Lake Road. Drive about a mile to the small bridge and park on the left shoulder for eagle viewing. To reach the Kendall Creek Fish Hatchery for both eagle and fish viewing, turn right off Highway 542 onto Fish Hatchery Road, south of Kendall. Hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, with tours by appointment; 360-599-2841.

-- Milano's Restaurant: 9990 Mount Baker Highway, Glacier, Whatcom County. Open Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; weekends 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; 360-599-2863.

-- Mount Baker Ski Area: Two day lodges, eight chairlifts and two rope tows. Nearest accommodations are 17 miles down the road in Glacier. The ski area is 56 miles from Bellingham, about 2 1/2 hours from Seattle via I-5 and Mount Baker Highway (Highway 542); 360-734-6771; Web site: http://www.mtbakerskiarea.com/.

For more information: Bellingham/Whatcom County Convention & Visitors Bureau: Highly recommended is a free brochure, "Mount Baker Highway: A Guide to Washington State Highway 542," which features a mile-by-mile guide to the area; 800-487-2032, Web site: http://www.bellingham.org/.www.html

Getting there: From the Seattle area, take Interstate 5 north to Burlington (Exit 230), exit onto Highway 20 and travel east to Sedro-Woolley. At an intersection marked by an old train that once hauled timber, turn left onto Highway 9. Continue north 24 miles to the intersection with Highway 542, then continue east on 542 to Mount Baker.