The national forest between Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens is berry-picking heaven. This year all pickers must have a permit.
As a longtime angler, I thought I had a lot of experience with people who wouldn’t divulge secret spots. Compared to huckleberry hunting, that was nothing.
People are secretive for good reason: Huckleberries are not all that easy to find. Since very few are grown commercially, most of them are harvested out in the wild — which makes finding them a true treasure hunt.
Huckleberry plants look a bit like their relative, the blueberry. The various species of huckleberries range in color from bright red to purple to blue. Compared to blueberries, huckleberries are smaller and a glossy dark purple rather than matte blue. The purple and blue huckleberries tend to be larger than the red, and are the most sought after because of their flavor.
Tips for pickers
Wear the right gear: Since you’ll be bushwhacking, long pants and closed-toe shoes are advisable. A hat and sunblock are also good ideas.
Be animal aware: You’re not the only one looking for berries.
Remember your permit: Sign up for and print out a permit in advance. You’re required to have it with you while you pick.
Leave not much trace: Try not to step on delicate plants, and don’t rip branches and leaves off bushes when you collect berries. Harvesting tools such as rakes are not allowed. Pack your trash out with you.
Know your limits: Amateur pickers are allowed a maximum of a gallon per day and up to three gallons annually per person.
When in doubt, leave it out: Of your mouth, that is. Many of the berries that will make you sick are red or green (some edible berries will make you sick if unripe).
Take a map: Cell service is sparse in berry fields near Mount Adams. Bring a good paper map (available at Forest Service offices) or a GPS device.
Respect land rights: Some areas are reserved for native tribes, for whom the huckleberry has been an important plant for thousands of years. That includes the east side of Forest Road 24 in the Sawtooth berry fields.
Huckleberry plants produce only a handful of berries per branch. And then there’s the taste: something like a cross between a blueberry and a raspberry … or maybe a blueberry and a grape, with an added brightness. Actually, the flavor varies quite a bit from area to area and even from plant to plant, which is part of the charm.
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The berries ripen from early August until the first frost, with lower-elevation ones ripening first. The tastiest ones grow from about 3,000 to 6,000 feet in elevation.
The berries grow on slopes throughout the Northwest, including the Cascades and in the mountains around Spokane.
But the epicenter of huckleberry madness is the area between Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens, in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Amateur pickers have competition in the form of commercial pickers who flock here to collect the plentiful berries for restaurants and markets.
Commercial harvesters have long needed a permit here. This year, for the first time, so do amateurs. The permit is free and easy to download from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest website. It includes a map of areas in the forest outlining where harvesting is permitted.
Why the permits? While the Forest Service estimates that about 15,000 people engage in amateur berry picking each year, it’s never been able to measure accurately. The permit system “has to do with pressures to better understand who’s picking and how many people are picking,” said Christopher Starling, special forest products coordinator for the Gifford Pinchot’s Cowlitz Valley Ranger District.
Part of the concern is that huckleberry habitat has been disappearing even as human interest is growing: Commercial berry harvesting permit sales grew from 180 in 2005 to about 1,200 in 2016.
Two things many forest visitors hate to see, fire and logging, are beneficial for berries but have declined in recent decades. The Forest Service is working with local nonprofits to restore habitat through selective tree harvesting and other means.
If you go
The Gifford Pinchot National Forest ranger station off U.S. Highway 12 in Randle, Lewis County, is a good source for Mount Adams-area maps and information on berry picking. You can also approach berry fields from the south via the Columbia Gorge and the Klickitat County community of Trout Lake, which has a ranger station.
See the Gifford Pinchot National Forest’s huckleberry permit website: apps.fs.usda.gov/gp
The nonprofit Pinchot Partners has information on habitat restoration efforts: pinchotpartners.org
Certain areas, such as wilderness areas and the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, are off-limits for harvesting, which is defined as removing them from the area. It’s always fine to snack on trailside berries as you hike.
I tried my luck recently in the Sawtooth berry fields off Forest Road 24 near the northern edge of Indian Heaven Wilderness, southwest of Mount Adams. While berry picking is possible throughout the national forest, here it’s an organized affair complete with big parking lots, which were all empty midweek early in the season.
Since I’m usually a stickler for staying on trails, it felt strange to wander through uncleared brush. Branches, rocks and bugs seemed determined to attack me. I was mostly finding unripe berries, but I knew I had to hold out for complete ripeness if I wanted decent flavor. Just when I was growing hot and grumpy, I spotted my holy grail: a densely leaved huckleberry bush loaded with dark purple berries. I tugged at one, and it easily detached from its stem. I popped it into my mouth. This, I thought, is the taste of victory.
Plucking one or two berries at a time was a tedious but meditative business. At one point, I realized I was so focused that I had no idea what was going on around me, and I quickly looked up to scan the surroundings for wildlife.
The forest was alive with berries. Along with huckleberries, I ate a few wild blueberries, blackcap raspberries, blackberries and strawberries. (As with anything in the forest, don’t eat it if you’re not sure what it is.) Fortunately, no bears were around to share my spot. By the time I headed home, I had a container full of berries, though picking a whole gallon would have pushed my endurance. For now, it was plenty.