Larrabee State Park (Whatcom County)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 7/04/2011
  • Essay 9861

Larrabee State Park was established in 1915, and bears the distinction of being Washington's first state park. Located along and near Chuckanut Drive in Whatcom County south of Bellingham, the 2,683-acre park is known for its hikes and scenic views from its higher elevations, and for fishing, clamming, and swimming along its beaches.


In 1913, newly elected Washington Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) suggested establishing a state park along a part of Chuckanut Drive to Charles Larrabee (1843-1914), one of Bellingham's wealthiest and most influential citizens. Larrabee readily agreed to deed waterfront property that he owned near the Whatcom-Skagit County line. He died in 1914, before the deed was prepared, but his wife, Frances (1867-1941), made sure the deal went through.

On October 23, 1915, Lister formally accepted the park. A big dedication ceremony planned at the park for that day was canceled two days before due to mudslides. The Washington State Board of Park Commissioners subsequently accepted the park on November 22, 1915, and it became the first in the state. Although there was serious discussion of naming it after Larrabee, it was named Chuckanut State Park for its first seven years. In February 1923 the State Parks Committee changed the name to Larrabee State Park.

Though later sources all say that the park was originally 20 acres, several Seattle Times articles from 1915 and 1916 report that it was 25 acres. Sources do agree that the park fronted both Chuckanut Drive and Samish Bay and was a nice picnic spot. But picnicking and the beach were about all there was; there wasn’t even a caretaker for the park until about 1920, and park commissioners didn't seem to have much luck when they did hire one.

One caretaker was fired for financial irregularities. Another turned out to be sort of an early-day version of Barney Fife, the bombastic, fictional deputy sheriff in The Andy Griffith Show, played by Don Knotts beginning in 1960. The park's caretakers were appointed deputy sheriffs, but had authority only over park property. This particular caretaker took it further than that, chasing scofflaws and bootleggers (this was during Prohibition) around Whatcom County, in addition to his duties at the park. The coup de grace came in 1930 when he set up a roadblock on Chuckanut Drive and searched every car that happened upon him, in hopes of catching a bootlegger (which was not totally unrealistic, since Chuckanut Drive was then known as the "liquor runners' road"). He was fired for the stunt.

The Modern Park Develops

The park survived those escapades, but faced bigger problems as the 1930s dawned. Along with most of the state's parks, it was feeling the effects not only of the Great Depression that was spreading over the land, but also of deep funding cuts in the late 1920s resulting from a push by conservative Republican governor Roland Hartley (1864-1952) to cut the cost of state government. These cuts closed many parks. At others, facilities deteriorated. Larrabee State Park managed to stay open, and fortunately its fortunes would soon improve.

Ironically, it was the Depression that provided the impetus for this improvement. The Civilian Conservation Corps, established in 1933 as a work-relief program, was instrumental in helping to develop parklands in the state. This was great for Larrabee State Park, except it still needed a competent manager. It got one in 1935 when Dave Johnson arrived. When Johnson took over few people even knew of the park and those who did didn't always have the gas money to get there. At the time Larrabee State Park consisted of the beach, a bath house, and a few picnic tables.

Johnson saw the park's potential, but needed help to make it happen. He tirelessly canvassed businesses, clubs, churches, schools, and other organizations, both in Whatcom County and to a lesser degree Skagit County, telling them about the park's amenities and encouraging them to use it. Park attendance began to rise, and aided by $30,000 in federal funding in 1936 as part of a Works Progress Administration project, improvements soon followed. A water system was provided, kitchen shelters with hot and cold running water were added, and playground equipment was installed.

In 1937 Frances Larrabee and her son, Charles, donated an additional 1,500 acres to the park, and other nearby landowners later donated more acreage. This led to further development, and by 1965 the park had grown to nearly 2,000 acres and was attracting a quarter-million visitors a year. Also by 1965 a particular site in the park, located at the north end of Clayton Beach, was becoming an informal gathering spot for nude sunbathers. They caught rays and skinny dipped there for years until park rangers finally began ticketing them in the 1990s. This led to an effort to formally establish a nude beach at the park in 1998, but the Washington State Department Parks and Recreation turned it down.

The Twenty-First Century

The first 15 years of the twenty-first century, and particularly the half-decade following the Great Recession of 2008, were not kind to Washington state parks. A dozen parks closed or were otherwise transferred out of the state system in the first dozen years of the new century, and staffing at remaining parks dropped by a third between 2009 and 2013. Funding dropped dramatically, and the state implemented a park-use fee and other fees in an effort to raise revenues. These weren't fully successful in bridging the gap, and though the Great Recession seemed to be fading in the rear view mirror by 2015, there were still a number of Washington's 138 state parks that operating only part time.

Fortunately, Larrabee State Park wasn't one of them. As of late 2015 it remained open year-round, though water to the campground is shut off in the winter. The park now covers 2,683 acres, stretching from near the Whatcom-Skagit county line north almost to the Bellingham city limits. It includes Lost and Fragrance lakes, Cleator Road, and much of Chuckanut Mountain, with miles of hiking trails that will take you as high as 1,940 feet if you're so inclined (the views from the top are worth it). The park also offers 67 picnic sites, a boat launch, 53 standard camping sites, an amphitheater, large fields, and 8,100 feet of saltwater shoreline to explore.

Sources: Robert Thomas, Chuckanut Chronicles (Bellingham: Chuckanut Fire District Auxiliary, 1971), 48-55; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Larrabee, Frances Payne (1867-1941): Community Builder and Consummate Clubwoman" (by Tom Petruzzi), (accessed June 15, 2011); "State Given Park South of City," (Bellingham) American-Reveille, October 20, 1915, p. 6; "Dedication of Highway Indefinitely Postponed," Anacortes American, October 21, 1915, p. 1; "Governor Accepts First of Parks for State," The Seattle Times, October 24, 1915, p. 2; "Board Takes Over Two State Parks," Ibid., November 23, 1915, p. 5; "New Road In North Finished," Ibid., May 28, 1916, Automobiles/Touring Section, pp. 1, 3; "Park Name Changed," Ibid., February 18, 1923, p. 3; "37 Projects Are O.K.’D For State," Ibid., February 8, 1936, p. 3; Nancy Bartley, "Some Beaches May Take Plunge and Go Bare," Ibid., April 22, 1998, p. B-1; "Here’s The Skinny: No Nude Beaches," Ibid., June 4, 1998, p. B-1; Linda Mapes, "At 100, State Parks in Grim State of Disrepair," The Seattle Times, March 23, 2013 (; "Larrabee State Park," Washington State Parks website accessed October 29, 2015 (; Ken Brierly, "Larrabee State Park," website accessed October 29, 2015 (
Note: This essay was expanded and revised on October 30, 2015.

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