Hiking season and summer harvest peak at the same time, so here are some ideas for pairing the two in Western Washington.
Anyone who’s bitten into a juicy, fresh-plucked tomato or an ear of corn so sweet that it didn’t require a lick of butter can appreciate the value of a roadside farm stand. And anyone who’s made it to the top of a Cascade peak knows the value of a summer hike. So why not combine the two?
Many of us head for a greasy spoon or head straight home after a hike. But next time, consider stopping at one — or a few — of the many farms near hiking locales to stock up on super-fresh produce, cheese and even fish. Or go on your way up and make a picnic to take with you.
Nowhere is this easier than in the valleys stretching north from Seattle to the Canadian border. Thanks to innumerable generations of salmon and millennia of floods, the land here is abundantly fertile, producing some of the world’s tastiest crops — right in the shadow of alluring rocky peaks. And there’s no better time than late summer, when harvests are at their pinnacle.
First, the workout
If you go
Check conditions and make sure you have the right parking pass for any hike (Discover Pass for state parks; Northwest Forest Pass for national forest lands).
• The Washington Trails Association website is a good place to research the hikes listed in this story: wta.org.
• For information on both hikes and farm stands in Skagit County: visitskagitvalley.com.
• For Whatcom County and the area around Bellingham: bellingham.org.
• For information about area farms, including the Whatcom Farm Tour on Sept. 12, during Eat Local Month: sustainableconnections.org/foodfarming.
Your choice of hikes depends on whether you want to stick close to the water or head for the big mountains to the east.
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You can hike (or climb, or paddle) within minutes of downtown Bellingham or Anacortes. Larrabee State Park, nestled in the seaside Chuckanut Mountains, is only a few miles from Bellingham. Fragrance Lake, a 5.5-mile roundtrip hike, is a little steep but not too long — and yes, there’s a lake at the top, along with views of Samish Bay and the San Juan Islands.
Higher up and to the east, the 6.5-mile roundtrip Damfino Lakes — Excelsior Ridge hike is a favorite for locals, partly because a long dirt access road tackles most of the climb up the foothills around Mount Baker. This means the hike itself doesn’t gain much elevation until the final jog to Excelsior Peak, which makes that top-of-the-mountain feeling accessible for older, younger or less fit hikers. During the summer, the “lakes” are really just little ponds, but berries and wildflowers abound. The main draw is 360-degree peak-spotting, with Baker and Shuksan watching over the scene.
A bit to the south are hikes along Highway 20, which leads to North Cascades National Park. Check out the 4.2-mile (round trip) switchbacks and meadows of Sauk Mountain, for example, to look down on lakes and rivers and across to North Cascades peaks.
Then, the goodies
A few keys to successful farm-stand shopping: First, research before you go. Figure out what you’re in the market for, and check online to see who sells what. In this part of the world, “farm stand” can mean anything from fruits and veggies to fish or cheese, so think beyond produce. Most are open to the public on Saturdays — but some only on that day.
Second, talk to the farmers. Growers can tell you what will be in season when, what’s especially good that day, and even why they grow what they do. I stopped at a little co-op called Field of Greens, in blink-and-you’ll miss-it Everson, Whatcom County (Everson Road and Kale Street, Everson; fieldofgreens.biz), and we were about to bypass what looked like unremarkable squash when owner Joy Monjure insisted we take some home, explaining that they were heirloom romanesco zucchini and had a wonderful nutty flavor. It was only then that I recognized the zucchini as one the folks at Joe’s Gardens, a farm stand in Bellingham, had introduced me to a few years earlier.
Third, don’t buy everything in one place; what fun is that? Grab what’s unique or extraordinary at each place and move along to the next spot with room left in your reusable shopping bag.
We started our farm tour with a stop at BelleWood Acres, a big apple farm that also grows other produce (6140 Guide Meridian, Lynden; bellewoodfarms.com). Mount Baker loomed over the orchards and gardens behind a sprawling red building that houses a shop and a restaurant.
When we learned that BelleWood created the state’s first “farm to glass” distillery, we stuck around for a tour of the operation, with its old-school copper stills and barrels full of apple juice waiting to become anything from vodka to brandy. Apples are great for distilling, head distiller Jesse Parker said with a smile. “It’s like growing grapes, but they’re a lot larger.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon jaunting around the small towns east of Bellingham, stopping for goodies including u-pick blueberries at Bjornstad Farms in Lynden (6799 Old Guide Road; bjornstadfarms.net). My husband was never fond of blueberries, which he’d always found a bit mealy — until he tasted some fresh off the bush.
Appel Farms, outside Ferndale, is a favorite among the artisan dairies and cheesemakers in this Northwest corner of the state, but we tried something new this time and went to Gothberg Farms (15203 Sunset Road, Bow; gothbergfarms.com). There, Rhonda Gothberg chatted about her 21 goats, so tame they come when they’re called by name.
Our last stop: Bow Hill Blueberries (15628 Bow Hill Road, Bow; bowhillblueberries.com) for out-of-this-world blueberry ice cream, which Lopez Island Creamery makes for the farm. No matter how hot and sweaty you’re feeling after a long day of recreating and food gathering, this bit of decadence will invigorate you for the ride home.