Sep 2, 2021

Can't make it to Europe? Take a fall drive through the Skagit Valley instead


The Breadfarm opens early in Edison

Roadside farm stands brim with blueberries, corn, potatoes and fresh flowers. A sign near a seafood shack selling fresh oysters alerts passersby to "Meadow Larks singing."  

With a little imagination, a harvest time drive in Washington State's Skagit Valley can feel like 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. 

An annual spring tulip festival draws thousands, but for those looking for a less crowded Covid-friendly adventure, 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, destinations 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 mid-week, and you'll have the towns and trails to yourself. Weekends tend to be more crowded but also more lively.

 9:30 a.m.

Breakfast from the Breadfarm

Get an early start by heading north from Seattle on Interstate 5, to WA-11 towards Chuckanut Drive, a cliff-hugging mountain bypass ending in Fairhaven near Bellingham. 

Edison Station Coffee

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 the 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 street. Otherwise, put together a breakfast picnic from the 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. 

Breadfarm's Renée Bourgault at the take-out window

"The idea was to have a community bakery like the kind you find in Europe," says owner Renée Bourgault  who founded the Breadfarm in 2003 with her husband Scott Mangold.

Pastry bakers start at 5 p.m. Take your chances on the croissants and cinnamon snails not being sold out, or go online before leaving home, and place an order for pick-up when you arrive.  

10:30 a.m.

Padilla Bay Shore Trail

Walk off the calories with a hike along the flat bike and pedestrian Padilla Bay Shore Trail 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. 

Bikers and walkers use the Padilla Bay Shore Trail

Start at either the north end (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 provide a habitat for waterfowl and marine birds. Look for peregrine falcons, blue herons, and other types of birds, but beware of duck hunters October-January. 

 According to the Washington Trails Association, the old barn close to the south end is a remnant of one of the so called ‘stump farms’, land purchased cheaply after the area was logged in the early 1900s then converted to farming.

Bring a Washington State Discover Pass if you want to visit nearby Bay View State Park

1 p.m.

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 was hardly anyone else 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 fishermen, farmers and artists. Today's it's mostly artists who sell everything from wood carvings to yard sculptures and one-of-a-kind clothing at the shops along First Street.

La Conner's boardwalk

First-time visitors might get so caught up shopping they might not realize there's an extensive board walk 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 the main drag, 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.  

2:30 p.m.

Kukutali Preserve

Take a 20-minute detour away from La Conner across the channel to Fidalgo Island and this unique park co-owned and managed by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

Views from Kiket Island in the Kukutali Preserve

From the small parking area (Discover Pass required) follow a gravel trail as it crosses a sand spit to Kiket Island (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. 

4 p.m.

Snow Goose Produce 

Ice cream is the draw at Snow Goose Produce, a large country market six miles from La Conner on Fir Island Road. For sale is 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."

Eduardo and Angelica Interiano of Mt.Vernon enjoy Snow Goose cones

Choose from 48 flavors made by either Lopez Island Creamery or Cascade Glacier in Eugene, Oregon. Order a "single dip" the size of a small grapefruit balanced atop a homemade waffle cone, and you won't need dinner on the way home.

The article appeared in The Seattle Times on Sept. 4, 2021

If you go: Tourism and trail information

Tip: Check opening hours before heading out. Some shops, restaurants and museums may be closed on certain weekdays or have reduced hours.  

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