A roaring emerald-green glacial stream rips through grey rocky bends framed by lush Pacific Northwest forest. A blanket of moss oozes moisture beneath a thick canopy of evergreen trees. Wildlife is abundant here. This is the scenic water of the Nooksack River.
One of Washington State’s most vitally important and abundantly beautiful waterways, it is a favorite among fishermen, adrenaline-seeking river rafters, slow-moving floaters, cliff-jumpers, hikers, wildlife enthusiasts, and residents of nearby Whatcom County.
While the Nooksack River isn’t the most popular outdoor destination in Washington State – that title would probably go to the imposing volcanic Seattle backdrop of Mount Rainier National Park – it embodies that verdant green Pacific Northwest scenery that you see on the postcards.
If you are staying at a Bellingham or Mt. Baker vacation home rental, the Nooksack River should be high on your list of day trips. This guide will help you decide where and what to see on your first visit to the Nooksack River and bring light to its vital importance to the delicate ecology of the Pacific Northwest.
The Nooksack River at a Glance
This is the northernmost river in Washington State. Snaking its way through the mountains, the cold waters from the glaciated peaks of Mt. Baker and Mount Shuksan drain into the state’s dense forests and farmland floodplain before streaming into the Salish Sea near Bellingham.
Divided into the North Fork (near the North Cascades), Middle Fork, and the South Fork (closer to Bellingham), the river offers an array of recreational activities to outdoorsy visitors, and its many tributaries give life to the local communities as well as the native flora and fauna.
The entire region from British Columbia to Puget Sound relies on the waters. The Nooksack River watershed is also home to at least nine local salmonid endangered species. Not to mention the abundance of wildlife that live on its shores. Just to name a few, these are some of the wildlife species you’ll encounter alongside the river.
- black bears
- mountain goats
- Roosevelt elk
- black-tailed deer
- Bald eagles
Over the millennia, the river has also changed its course. Before the 20th century, the Nooksack River emptied into Lummi Bay via what is now called the Lummi River, instead of where it now flows— into Bellingham Bay. More proof that this powerful waterway was and still currently is being shaped by the coursing water.
Climate change has also caused increased winter floodwaters as the glaciated peaks melt higher volumes of snow and ice each year into the river. The flood risk from the Nooksack is greatest in the communities around Ferndale.
This has changed the landscape around the river and affects all kinds of recreational tourism in the area. So be sure to check the status of the river before your trip.
Current Restoration Projects
Many organizations such as The Nooksack Wild and Scenic Effort are working to protect hundreds of miles of river from further degradation and prevent the numerous proposed dam projects from ever fruition.
These efforts help protect the river channel’s natural resources, including the variety of local fish that need this river as a spawning ground. Through flood management teams, they also hope to stem the floodwaters in Washington’s plains.
Best Time to Visit the Nooksack River
Now that you sufficiently appreciate the Nooksack River’s sheer beauty and importance, let’s talk about visiting it. Hiking in the region peaks during the fall months when the mountains are painted with rusty gold foliage and the waterfalls along the Nooksack are at their best during the snowmelt of Spring.
There is no all-around “best” time of year to explore the Nooksack River. It all depends on what you want to do when you get there. However, there is a “sweet spot” that applies to most of the Pacific Northwest.
July to September
Obviously, July through September are the most popular times to visit anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. This is when the spring rains have left the forest fresh and green, but the temperatures are pleasant enough for a refreshing dip in the plentiful rivers and alpine lakes.
December and January
The Nooksack River has something to offer even in the frigid winter months. From December to January, the resident bald eagles flock to the river to feed on the salmon in certain areas, and it can be quite a sight to behold.
Important Things to Know Before You Go
Here are a few things to keep in mind when planning your trip to the Nooksack River.
- It’s Remote: Many sections of the Nooksack River are remote. Therefore, you should always venture into the forests prepared with extra fuel, food, and water and never rely on having a phone signal.
- Be Cautious: Always be cautious when entering the river. Certain areas look slow-moving and easily swimmable but have surprisingly strong undercurrents.
- Rafting: You can join a rafting trip on the river from June to August. These range from family-friendly fun to class 3 rapids in certain regions.
- Hiking: The North Fork Nooksack River is the most scenic region for hikers and those looking to enjoy the quintessential PNW scenery.
Adventures Along the Nooksack River
Visit Nooksack Falls
Follow the Scenic Mount Baker highway through the forest to iconic Nooksack Falls. This is a perfect trip for families with children of all ages because no extreme hiking is needed to reach the viewing platform. In fact, it’s just a short walk from the parking lot.
The falls are most impressive during the spring melt when the water roars through the Nooksack River’s north fork, creating a mighty cascade framed by lush springtime green.
Join a White Water River Rafting Tour
The more adventurous among us may want to try their hand at white water rafting. While the lower portions of the Nooksack River run calm and slow through many swimming holes, the North Fork of the river often rages into Class 3 rapids.
Those interested in the history of the waterway will be regaled with tales of the ever changing landscape and geologic formations along the slower portions of the stream. Alpine Adventures, Wild and Scenic River Tours, and Triad River Tours are three highly reputable agencies that run river rafting trips all summer.
Remember that white-water rafting on the Nooksack River has a very specific season. A short one at that. Most tour companies run the river from June to August. Also, while this activity is family-friendly, it can still be semi-dangerous. So prepare ahead of time and pair up with a guide if it is your first time.
Fish for Salmon
The Nooksack River is home to numerous species of salmon and trout. Specifically:
- Chinook salmon
- chum salmon
- coho salmon
- pink salmon
- sockeye salmon
- steelhead trout
- cutthroat trout
- bull trout
Fishing regulations state that you can fish in the Nooksack for trout from June through February and for salmon from October through December.
Yearly Restrictions for Salmon
Different species run at different times of the year; you can only fish for certain species in specific years. For example, pink salmon are typically designated for odd-numbered years.
This is due to climate change and the human impact on the river ecosystem. As a result, these fish are becoming more endangered each year, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife closely monitors their numbers.
Because of this, the WDFW closes all fishing on the Nooksack River periodically. Please check the current local regulations before you plan your fishing trip.
If fishing is allowed during your visit, there are many places along the shore accessible by an easy hike to fish from. Fishermen searching specifically for steelhead (the most sought-after species) will prefer the river’s North Fork.
Kayak or Float the River
You don’t need to be an adrenaline junkie to get on the river. The slower-moving South Fork of the Nooksack River is a summertime float favorite—specifically, the region near Acme, WA. The river is wide and flat in the area, encouraging you to grab a tube, SUP, or kayak in the scorching summer months and do a slow float down its banks.
Hike Through Lovely PNW Scenery
Situated near the North Cascades National Park and the ski slopes of Mount Baker, you can add numerous incredible hikes to your Nooksack River itinerary. Here are a few of the best hikes along the Nooksack River for a variety of skill levels.
- Nooksack River Walk near Bellingham. (Moderate)
- North Fork Nooksack Trail in the Mount Baker Wilderness. (Easy)
- Nooksack Cirque to the base of Mount Shuksan. (Difficult)
Other Destinations Around Mt. Baker
This region of Washington is breathtakingly beautiful, and your vacation shouldn’t be confined to the river itself. There are plenty of other scenic side trips in the area as well, including:
- Drive up to Artist Point.
- Ski at Mount Baker.
- Explore the small nearby towns of Deming and Glacier.
- Tour around the hippy brewery-filled streets of Bellingham.
- Take a multi-day trek through North Cascades National Park.
Be sure to add these attractions to your next visit to the Nooksack River shores.
Explore and Stay Around the Nooksack River
With miles of calm, sandy beaches and plenty of places to slow down and appreciate nature, the Nooksack River is a beautiful place to explore and stay. So whether you are looking for a place to cool off in the summer or go fishing year-round, the area’s beauty makes it worth the visit.
If you are looking for an unforgettable getaway experience, look no further than a Luxury Getaways vacation home rental near the Nooksack River. There is no better way to enjoy all this special place has to offer than by staying in its midst.