It is huckleberry season.
Berries are ripe and ready for recreational picking at lower elevations and starting to ripen at higher elevations.
Huckleberries are generally found above 3,000 feet. You typically find huckleberry bushes on slopes with sunshine and plenty of water. Experts recommend looking for open areas such as older clearcuts and burned areas. Look for plants like beargrass, serviceberry, hemlock and Pacific silver fir. They are “indicator species,” plants likely to be near huckleberries.
The typical huckleberry shrub is low and erect, standing 1-5 feet tall. The leaves are short, elliptical and alternate on the stems. Berries are ripe for picking when they are plump and dark purple. The leaves turn bright red before being shed later in the fall.
Of the 12 species of huckleberries in Washington and Oregon, the most sought-after is the thin-leafed huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum), according to a U.S. Forest website. That species is known for its large, sweet, purple berries, occurring singly on the plant.
The hot weather this summer has had some effect on berries. But the plentiful rain in June and in the last couple of weeks has been beneficial.
“Picking prospects this year appear mixed. Some usually productive areas have mediocre crops this year. The rest seem about normal,” said Jon Nakae, south zone silviculturist for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
“It does seem that the berries in the low to mid elevations are ripening earlier,” he said. “They are in their peak right now. The upper elevation berries are still a few weeks away.”
To be safe while on a picking trip,carry a survival kit and do not park vehicles where they block access. . Parking in some developed U.S. Forest Service sites requires a Northwest Forest Pass. Pickers are urged to be extra cautious with campfires and cigarettes this season.
Here is a look at some popular picking locations:
Gifford Pinchot National Forest
People harvesting huckleberries for personal use are allowed three gallons of huckleberries per year and no permit is required. If larger quantities are wanted, or if a person plans to sell berries or berry products, such as jams, fruit-leather or other items, a commercial special forest products permit is required. They will be available Monday at ranger district offices or Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Headquarters.
One popular area for picking is south of Ashford. Head up Forest Service Road 52, also known as Skate Creek Road, about 2 1/2 miles past Big Creek Campground. From there, go up Forest Road 84 into the higher elevations.
Commercial permits are $40 for 14 days or $75 for a season.
There are some areas closed to personal and commercial picking. These are the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, wilderness areas and the “Handshake Agreement” area in the Sawtooth Berry Fields.
The use of mechanical devices, such as rakes, is not allowed on the forest.
The “Handshake Agreement” in 1932 between Yakama Indian Chief William Yallup and Gifford Pinchot National Forest Supervisor J.R. Bruckart designated an area within the Sawtooth Berry Fields for the “exclusive use of Indians during the huckleberry season” in order to gather their traditional food, according to a forest news release. The public is asked to respect this agreement by heeding the signs that indicate which areas are reserved for use by tribal members.
Mount Rainier National Park
Park regulations allow visitors to pick by hand two quarts per person each day of huckleberries, blackberries, thimbleberries and salmonberries. There are seven varieties of huckleberry that grow in the park.
Some of the popular picking areas are along the Noble Knob Trail at the north edge of the park and Indian Henry’s Hunting Grounds on the southwest side of the mountain, which is known for its sweet berries. Native Americans also used to frequent the Recksecker Point area each fall to harvest berries. The Naches Peak Loop in the northeast corner of the park is a good berry trip, but watch for black bears.
Olympic National Park
The hike along the Bogachiel River starts outside the park, but inside the park the berry bushes grow as large as trees within the rain forest. This is a good early-season berry destination, according to Washington Trails Association.