by Gordon Sullivan | Photo © Cathie Sullivan
The Skagit River tumbles from the Cascades to the Salish Sea, creating the fertile alluvial delta that is the Skagit Valley. The stage is set for one of Washington’s most spectacular events, the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.
Each April as spring returns to the valley, a mild maritime climate dominates the scene where millions of tulip bulbs of different shades prepare to blossom in an explosion of vibrant color. The return of the tulips fosters a sense of celebration bolstered by the fact that winter’s chill has finally withdrawn leaving behind a feeling of rebirth to this northern corner of Washington.
As the month begins, the quickly maturing tulips start to rise upward as if each delicate blossom, each healthy plant, were reaching for the sun itself. Steadily, the scene intensifies, until, at last, a bright palette of color spills wildly across the fertile landscape—red, yellow, pink, purple and a rainbow of variations.
Like the tulips themselves, the Tulip Festival ramps up gradually, eventually reaching full swing, marked by compelling art exhibits, craft shows, local music and community gatherings where neighbors and visitors mingle like old chums.
Once the tulips have reached full bloom, the first order of business—for both locals and visitors from all 50 states and from dozens of countries—is a slow drive along the Tulip Route which departs WA 536 west of Mount Vernon. The clearly marked route threads a twenty mile path between the highway and the charming coastal town of La Conner. Crisscrossing the valley, the Tulip Route passes several commercial tulip fields and show gardens, including Roozengarde and Tulip Town. Each site offers ample parking, restrooms and designated viewing paths overlooking thousands of acres of beautifully blossoming tulips. A growing number of tulip day-trippers peddle bikes along the flat route adding a new dimension to an already captivating experience.
More than a Century of Tulips in Skagit Valley
The Skagit Valley has a long agricultural history of seed production, and bulb production is a natural extension of that industry. The first tulip bulbs in the valley originated in Holland in 1906, but this was on a very small scale. Twenty years later, a commercial-scale bulb farm began growing tulip bulbs. Seeing the potential to strike gold, in a sense, other bulb farms sprouted up, most after WWII. By the year 2000, the result was a valley floor awash with rainbows of spring color and a dizzying variety of bulbs. Now, two major growers occupy the Skagit Valley fields.
Tips for a Terrific Tulip Trip
>> The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival takes place April 1-30. The Tulip Festival Street Fair runs April 25-27.
>> The flowers begin to blossom in early April but seldom reach full bloom until sometime later. Mother Nature determines the bloom dates. Consult Skagit Valley Tulip Festival headquarters at tulipfestival.org to learn the prime days to visit the valley, or stop in at festival headquarters and retail store at 311 W Kincaid St, Mount Vernon.
>> Taking photos: To saturate color and create mood, consider shooting in diffused or overcast light, such as foggy mornings (the fog usually burns off quickly leaving behind new scenes with breathtaking backgrounds).
Touring the Tulips
The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival is designed to be a self-guided tour. Most people drive the well-signed route in their own vehicles. However, another way to see this spectacular color display is by bicycling, letting someone else to the driving, or flying.
>> Country Cycling (13391 Avon Allen Road, Mount Vernon) rents bicycles for self-guided or guided tours of the tulip fields, countrycycling.com/Tulip%20Tours.html
>> Seattle Helicopter Tours operates 15-minute flights over the tulip fields from Mount Vernon and La Conner, seattlehelitours.com
>> Several motor coach tours of the tulip fields depart from Seattle with stops at the major attractions. Shutter Tours is guided by professional photographers, so grab your camera and climb aboard, shuttertours.com (you don’t have to be a photo geek to participate).
>> Roozengarde, 15867 Beaver Marsh Road, Mount Vernon; tulips.com. Besides more than 1,000 acres of fields in bloom, you’ll find a 3-acre show garden planted with 300,000 spring bulbs, a store where you can purchase or order your favorite bulbs and much more. Roozengarde is the largest grower of tulips, daffodils and irises in the world.
>> Tulip Town, 15002 Bradshaw Road, Mount Vernon; tuliptown.com. Tulip Town is an attraction in itself. With acres of fields in bloom, trolley rides through the fields, a bulb and plant shop, arts and crafts and much more, this stop can be a fun distraction for the better part of a day. While touring Tulip Town, be sure to visit the Prater Homestead where in the Prater Waterwheel Garden you’ll find new varieties of tulips blooming for the first time in the United States.
When You Go
Where to Eat:
>> Skagit River Brewing Company, 404 South Third St., Mount Vernon; skagitbrew.com
>> Trumpeter Public House, 416 Myrtle Street, Mount Vernon; trumpeterpublichouse.com
>> 13moons at the Swinomish Casino & Lodge, 12885 Casino Drive, Anacortes; swinomishcasinoandlodge.com/dining
>> La Conner Pub & Eatery, 702 1st ST., La Conner; laconnertavern.com
Where to Sleep:
>> Consult a full lodging list at tulipfestival.org/lodging
For More Information:
>> Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, tulipfestival.org
>> La Conner Chamber of Commerce, lovelaconner.com
>> Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce, mountvernonchamber.com/visitors/