Roadside farm stands brim with berries, eggs, corn, potatoes and fresh flowers. A sign alerts passersby to “Meadow Larks singing.” Nearby is a seafood stand advertising fresh oysters, an artisan cheese maker, a family-owned flour mill and an organic blueberry farm.
With a little imagination, a harvest time drive in the Skagit Valley can feel like a romp through the French countryside.
Just 75 miles north of Seattle, it’s an area rich in agriculture and wildlife with a long history of family farming.
The annual springtime Skagit Valley Tulip Festival draws thousands, but for those looking for a less crowded, socially distant outing, fall is the time to visit.
It would take days to explore everything there is to see and do in a valley with more than 90,000 acres of active farmland. With their restaurants, shops, art galleries and bakeries, destination communities such as La Conner and Edison are easily worth a morning or afternoon.
Best advice: Map out a day trip that hits some of the highlights, then make a note on where you’d like to return to explore more in depth.
Here’s a suggested route. Go midweek, and you’ll have the towns and trails to yourself. Weekends tend to be more crowded but also more lively.
Breakfast from Breadfarm
Get an early start by heading north from Seattle on Interstate 5 to Highway 11 toward Chuckanut Drive, a cliff-hugging mountain bypass ending in Fairhaven near Bellingham.
Save that scenic drive for another time, perhaps paired with stops at Bow Hill Blueberries and Samish Bay Cheese. Instead, head west on Bow Hill Road, stopping first for a latte at Edison Station Coffee, and then at Breadfarm, situated along a tidewater slough in the village of Edison.
If you happen to be here later in the day or on a weekend, build in time to visit the art galleries, brewery and restaurants along Edison’s main drag. Otherwise, put together a breakfast picnic from Breadfarm’s menu of rustic French pastries and naturally leavened breads.
They don’t actually grow bread, of course, but local farms supply most of their ingredients, including flour, potatoes, eggs and herbs.
“The idea was to have a community bakery like the kind you find in Europe,” says owner Renée Bourgault, who founded Breadfarm in 2003 with her husband, Scott Mangold.
Pastry bakers report to work at 5 a.m. Take your chances on the croissants and cinnamon snails not being sold-out, or go online before leaving, and place an order for pickup when you arrive.
Padilla Bay Shore Trail
Walk off the calories with a hike along Padilla Bay Shore Trail, a flat trail welcoming to bikers and pedestrians on Padilla Bay, an estuary in Puget Sound at the saltwater edge of the Skagit River delta.
Pick up a map at the Breazeale Interpretive Center, where there are exhibits, an aquarium and a new touch tank filled with purple sea stars.
Start at either the north end (where there’s a large parking lot) or the south entrance (less parking) and walk all or part of a 2.25-mile gravel dike trail that wends through the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, where eelgrass meadows shelter a habitat for waterfowl and marine birds. Look for peregrine falcons, blue herons and other types of birds, but beware of duck hunters between October and January.
According to the Washington Trails Association, the old barn close to the south end of the trail is a remnant of one of the so-called “stump farms,” or land purchased cheaply after the area was logged in the early 20th century then converted to farming.
Bring a Washington state Discover Pass if you want to visit nearby Bay View State Park.
Lunch in La Conner
A 15-minute drive south, the waterside community of La Conner draws crowds during the tulip festival and on summer weekends, but when my husband and I visited on a recent Wednesday afternoon, there were few people around.
Once the terminus for river steamers bringing timber and lumber down from the upper Skagit, the town has a history of attracting a mix of fishermen, farmers and artists. Today it’s mostly artists, who sell everything from wood carvings to yard sculptures and one-of-a-kind clothing in the shops along Front Street.
First-time visitors might get so caught up browsing they might not realize there’s an extensive boardwalk running along the Swinomish Channel behind the storefront entrances.
Lunch with a view is always tempting (nearly all the restaurants have outdoor tables on the boardwalk), but we were in the mood for something other than seafood, so we veered off Front Street and came upon Coa, Spanish for the spade used to harvest agave plants in Mexico. No views, but there’s an excellent tequila bar, two patio areas and gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian twists on traditional dishes from the owners’ hometown of Durango.
Take a 20-minute detour away from La Conner across Swinomish Channel to Fidalgo Island and Kukutali Preserve State Park Heritage Site, a unique park co-owned and managed by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.
From the small parking area (Discover Pass required), follow a gravel trail as it crosses a sand spit to Kiket Island (a worthwhile gem that is inaccessible at high tide, so plan accordingly).
Choose one of three short trails to the west end of the island. At the high point, a meadow overlook provides views of the Deception Pass Bridge that connects Fidalgo and Whidbey islands.
Snow Goose Produce
Ice cream is the draw at Snow Goose Produce, a big country market 6 miles from La Conner on Fir Island Road. For sale: smoked seafood, fresh produce, artisan cheeses, gourds and colorful African baskets — but most visitors stop for what the Rust family calls its “Immodest” ice cream cones.
Choose from 48 flavors made by either Anacortes’ Lopez Island Creamery or Cascade Glacier of Eugene, Oregon. Order a “single dip,” which is the size of a small grapefruit balanced atop a homemade waffle cone, and you won’t need dinner on the way home.
Snow Goose Produce closes for the season Oct. 10.