Finding the flowers, beating the crowds, parking the car and more: a user's guide to the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, which continues through April 30

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Tulips are blooming in Skagit Valley fields, and the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival — with art shows, street fairs and more — continues through April in the broad valley between Mount Vernon and La Conner.

The star attraction is hundreds of acres of farmed tulips grown by Mount Vernon-based Washington Bulb Co., the largest flower-bulb grower in North America. At full bloom, the tulips form unbroken carpets of red, pink, purple and orange, in typical swatches of around 20 acres, or one giant field this year of 100 acres (on Best Road). Old barns and snowy Mount Baker provide photogenic backdrops.

The colorful fields draw thousands of visitors. There are tricks to getting that happy tulip experience without the crowds making you wilt:

When to visit

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Tulips have been slow to bloom because of our cool spring, but now that they’ve started, they’re likely to last through the month, predicted tulip grower Brent Roozen of Washington Bulb.

“This kind of weather is so good for us,” festival director Cindy Verge said, “because when it stays cool and not real windy, once the flowers start blooming, they’re going to stick around longer than they normally do.”

High-tech tulip finder

There’s a technological tool to help you plan your visit. It’s the Bloom Map.

Washington Bulb Co. maintains the online Bloom Map at www.tulips.com, showing the location of fields of daffodils (the first bloomers), tulips (the April bloomers) and irises (which bloom later in spring). (You can also link to the map from the Tulip Festival home page, www.tulipfestival.org.)

Tulip fields don’t all start blooming at once; it can vary by variety of tulip and by each field’s microclimate, soil, etc.

On the Bloom Map, flower icons are filled in with the appropriate color as a field starts blooming, so you can time your trip by it. (The map’s first tulip fields were “lit up” — meaning they had started blooming — April 12.) You can even click on each field’s icon to learn exactly what variety of tulips are planted there. (For example, Field 18, near the corner of McLean and Beaver Marsh roads, features nine different tulips, ranging from the bright pink “Barcelona” to the showy red and yellow “Flaming Parrot.”)

Green thumber’s tip: You can come back to this online tool after your visit and click to buy bulbs for the tulips you liked best.

Beating the crowds

“If you plant tulips, they will come,” some horticultural guru probably once said. Averse to crowds and traffic jams? A few strategies from the tulip cognoscenti:

• Visit on a weekday.

• Arrive by 9 a.m. on weekends. The Skagit Valley is about an hour’s drive north of Seattle.

• Arrive later in the day. Most weekend visitors head home by 3 p.m., leaving plenty of room for snapping photos of tulips in that “National Geographic light” around sunset.

What about those display gardens?

No matter the state of the farmed fields, the valley’s two display gardens are a good bet because they’re planted with early bloomers as well as late bloomers. Both have gift shops and scenic windmills, too:

RoozenGaarde, 15867 Beaver Marsh Road, is a 3.5-acre garden — that’s more than 2 ½ football fields’ worth — planted with more than 250,000 bulbs. The garden’s name comes from the Roozen family, whose ancestors started farming bulbs in Holland in the early 1700s. Each year, the garden is redesigned and replanted with new patterns and colors. Included are more than 90 varieties of tulips, along with daffodils, hyacinths, crocus, muscari, irises and more. Admission: $5; free for ages 10 and younger. www.tulips.com/tulip-festival-information.cfm.

Tulip Town, 15002 Bradshaw Road, features an indoor tulip display (decidedly not relying on Mother Nature). Another family with Dutch heritage, the DeGoedes, are the driving force here. A large field of tulips with rainbow stripes is an attraction, with tractor-pulled “trolleys” offering field tours ($1-$2). Tulip Town Café serves snacks, coffee and ice cream. Admission: $5; free for ages 15 and younger. www.tuliptown.com.

Getting there —

and parking

Relying on your car’s GPS programmed for “Mount Vernon” will likely put you right in the center of the worst tulip traffic.

Best routes on busy weekends are the Burlington/Highway 20 exit (Exit 230 from Interstate 5) or the Conway exit (Exit 221, which routes you past the added attractions of Snow Goose Produce, a popular ice cream stop, and Rexville Grocery, good for picnic fixings). The Tulip Festival’s brochure has detailed directions to the tulip area; it’s available free by mail or downloadable as a PDF (360-428-5959 or www.tulipfestival.org).

Parking by the farm fields is problematic. Off-road parking is weather-dependent. These “lots” are just crop fields that have been smoothed a bit to accommodate cars, so are closed when too muddy.

There’s a $5 charge for tulip-field parking offered by Washington Bulb Co., though those lots are free with a same-day ticket stub from RoozenGaarde display garden. (You can also use your parking ticket for one admission to RoozenGaarde.) Parking is free at RoozenGaarde and Tulip Town.

Many roads fronting the tulip fields are posted with no-parking signs to keep traffic moving. But even a slow drive-by when the fields are in full bloom is good for a few swoons.

Get above it all

Is your wallet feeling fat? Take a helicopter tour of the tulip fields. Two outfits offer tours: Sky Flyn’ Helicopter (360-377-4115) or SeattleHeliTours.com ($60/person for a 10-15 minute flight; 206-767-0515).

Tulip tip

Tulips are a rotational crop, replanted in the same field no more often than every five years. This gives the land a chance to rest and regenerate and helps control diseases to which tulip bulbs are prone. So, if you have an old map from last year: The tulips have moved!

More to do

You made the drive, you saw the tulips, now what? April in the Skagit Valley is filled with art shows, wine festivals, the Anacortes Quilt Walk, street fairs, home tours and more. See the Tulip Festival website for details: www.tulipfestival.org.

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or bcantwell@seattletimes.com