By Howard Voland
High mountain huckleberries are one of the great treats of hiking this time of year, and not to be confused with their lowland cousins the red huckleberry.
Different varieties of huckleberries and their close cousins, blueberries, can grow right next to each other in high country meadows, with each having a considerably different flavor and color, ranging from blue to purple to shiny blue-black.
Confusion reigns as to which is what according to ‘Asta Bowen in The Huckleberry Book, but they are all members of the genus Vaccinium. But for most pickers of berries, the taste is the determining factor.
By far the best to my mind are the shiny blue-black ones with an intense flavor that fills the mouth. And as far as I’m concerned, the only way to eat these culinary jewels is fresh-picked. Eating them any other way dilutes the flavor. But that’s my opinion.
Good huckleberry hunting varies from year to year, but here are a few good bets close to home:
Tonga Ridge is one of the most popular huckleberry hikes in the valley.
Take U.S. 2 to the Foss River Road (FS Road 68) a couple of miles east of Skykomish. Turn south on it and follow it for 3.5 miles to its junction with FS Road 6830, then turn left onto it. Continue for 6.7 miles to the 310 spur and turn right onto it. Drive 1.3 miles to the trailhead at the end of the road. Parking is limited.
This is a gently climbing trail through second growth timber and huckleberry meadows on a south-facing slope in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. After a couple of miles, a side trail climbs through huckleberry meadows to the top of Mount Stewart, which has terrific views.
West Cady Ridge is our favorite huckleberry hike and was inaccessible to the day hiker for several years after flooding took out the access road. Fortunately the trailhead is now accessible via the FS 65 detour.
Take U.S. 2 to the Beckler River Road (FS Road 65) just east of Skykomish and turn north onto it. Drive 15 miles, then turn right on FS Road 63 and continue 4.2 miles to the trailhead.
The trail starts in the Wild Sky Wilderness, climbing through old growth timber last burned 700 hundred years ago. As you near the top of the ridge, the huckleberry meadows open up. After four miles and an elevation gain of 2200 feet you’ll reach a high point with terrific views. The trail continues and eventually joins the Pacific Crest Trail.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) runs along the crest of the Cascades and is the interstate of the West Coast hiking trail system, passing through countless huckleberry patches with many other trails joining it.
It crosses Stevens Pass with trailheads on both sides of the highway at the summit. The one on the south side is in Parking Lot A, while on the north side it is at the northeast corner behind the power substation. However, both of these require some tedious hiking before reaching good huckleberry country.
A better way to access the PCT south of Stevens Pass is via the Tunnel Creek Trail. To find the trailhead, look for Tunnel Creek Road (FS Road 6095) on the right immediately after the big horseshoe turn that starts the U.S. 2 final ascent toward Stevens Pass, just over 13 miles east of Skykomish. Stay left and find the trailhead in about 1.5 miles.
The Tunnel Creek Trail climbs 1200 feet in a mile-and-a-half to join the PCT at Hope Lake, which is in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. From that junction, head north a mile or so to the berry meadows around Mig Lake.
An easier way to access the PCT north of Stevens Pass is via the Smith Brook Trail. Take U.S. 2 and look for the Smith Brook Road (FS Road 6700) four miles east of the summit. Follow it for about three miles to the trailhead.
The Smith Brook Trail climbs 500 feet in a mile to join the PCT at Union Gap in the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness. Turn south and head toward Lake Valhalla and start looking for huckleberries as you approach the pass above lake in a mile or so.
Know Your Berries: We are blessed with a variety of edible berries. As well as huckleberries and their immediate relatives, blueberries, you may also find thimbleberries, blackberries and salmonberries while hiking, all good for eating.
But not all berries are edible and some are even poisonous. So if you don’t know one berry bush from another, bring along a good reference guide and remember to look at the foliage as well as the berry. Or better yet, hike with someone who does know the good berries from the bad.
Know Your Bears: We live in black bear country—they can also look brown—and bears feast on berries. But I have seen more bears in my backyard here in Maltby than out hiking.
Nevertheless it’s always a good idea to review the dos and don’ts of meeting up with a bear in the wild. Often there will be such a review on trailhead bulletin boards, especially if bears have been reported in the area. Most hiking guidebooks and hiking websites also have a good discussion of the ins and outs of bear/hiker interaction.
The main thing is, don’t surprise them. Be aware of your surroundings; make some noise when you think you need to. Keep your dog on a leash (or better yet, leave it at home) and make sure everyone in your party, especially kids, know what to do.
If you encounter a bear don’t make any sudden moves, don’t look it in the eye, don’t turn your back on it, and talk calmly so that it knows that you’re human. Do not run, but slowly back away if you can do so safely. Finally, report any bear sitings to the appropriate ranger station.
Before You Go: High country hiking is more than a walk in the woods, so it is always a good idea check the weather, review current trail reports, dress appropriately, and take the ten essentials including plenty of water. Berry picking can be hot, dry work.
Pretty much anything you might want to, or need to, know about hiking can be found in almost any hiking guidebook and at the truly excellent Washington Trails Association (WTA) website at http://www.wta.org, which has the added advantage of current trail reports. It also has entries on berry picking hikes, encountering bears and other wildlife, hiking with kids, hiking with pets, and many other topics.
Most high country hikes will require a National Forest Service Recreation Pass to park at the trailhead. In addition, hiking in wilderness areas has additional limitations, which are normally posted at the trailhead or can be found on the National Forest Service Website.
Howard Voland draws upon sixty years experience in the greater Skykomish Valley area. You can reach him through www.ravenwriters.com.