Outdoors

Huckleberry season arrives on mountain slopes

Huckleberry season is in its prime in August and September. Start at lower elevations and then work higher as the season progresses.
Huckleberry season is in its prime in August and September. Start at lower elevations and then work higher as the season progresses. U.S. Forest Service

The prime season for huckleberries is here, and pickers should find berries through September.

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 falling 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 the U.S. Forest. That species is known for its large, sweet, purple berries, occurring singly on the plant.

Look for plants such as beargrass, serviceberry, hemlock and Pacific silver fir. They are “indicator species,” plants likely to be near huckleberries.

Huckleberries are generally found above 3,000 feet. Huckleberry bushes usually grow on slopes with sunshine and plenty of water. Experts recommend looking for open areas such as older clear-cuts and burned areas.

Pickers should look for areas that were burned in the last three-five years by low- to moderate intensity fires. Native Americans kept berry patches open by intentionally burning those areas.

There is evidence that picking and processing of huckleberries took place as far back as 3,000-5,000 years ago, according to a 2007 University of Washington report.

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 with no permit. 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.

The area south of Ashford is popular with pickers. Head up Forest Service Road 52, also known as Skate Creek Road, about 21/2 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 within the forest and the “Handshake Agreement” area in the Sawtooth Berry Fields.

The use of mechanical devices, such as rakes, is not allowed in the forest.

Information: Visit the passes and permits page at fs.usda.gov/main/giffordpinchot/passes-permits.

MOUNT BAKER-SNOQUALMIE NATIONAL FOREST

To the north of the park, Forest Service Road 73 is a popular destination. You might want to check out the trail named Huckleberry Creek that leads into the park. Corral Pass Road is another good option.

Farther north, the hike to Mount Catherine near Snoqualmie Pass offers a chance to pick berries on a trail that doesn’t get a lot of traffic, according to the Washington Trails Association.

MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK

Park regulations allow visitors to pick by hand two quarts per person each day of huckleberries, blackberries, thimbleberries and salmonberries. Seven varieties of huckleberry grow in the park.

There are good picking areas 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 Ricksecker 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. This is a good early-season berry destination, according to Washington Trails Association.

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640

jeff.mayor@thenewstribune.com

SAFETY PRECAUTIONS

▪ Carry a survival kit that includes matches, flashlight, map, compass, whistle and first-aid kit.

▪ Tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return.

▪ Make sure your vehicle is in good running condition and take along sufficient gasoline for the trip.

▪ Be careful with fire. Before you leave, make note of any fire restrictions in the area where you plan to go picking. A fire on Mount Adams, for example, has led to a closure in that area.

▪ Drive carefully. Mountain roads are often narrow, winding and can be congested.

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